In our series about the six principles of influence today we discuss the principle of social proof, the urge to follow other people when making decisions. We look at how difficult it is to have our own opinion and how a queue in a restaurant influences our behaviour.
Social proof, or consensus, means that people want to follow the lead of people just like them or, if they cannot decide what to do, then they will simply follow the masses.
Have you ever been in the situation where you find yourself in an unfamiliar city, hungry and looking for a restaurant? Do you end up in the steakhouse with almost no patrons or do you join the queue for the busy one? What if you had received a recommendation from a friend, but the recommended restaurant is empty, while the one next door is buzzing with great music and good looking people?
Chances are, you would opt for the busy restaurant instead of the empty one. It’s just the way we think: ‘If nobody is eating there, it can’t be good. While the other place, the busy one, must be nice otherwise all those people would not go there.’
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Funnily enough I actually know a few restaurants with poor service, low quality food and a limited menu that are fully booked every night, while the great restaurant with attentive waiters and outstanding food at great prices is forced to close its doors after six months.
Following the herd
We are so used to looking at what others are doing that this has an immense influence on our decisions, even if we would never admit it. Let’s face it, you have to be a very strong character to act differently to the crowd. We are raised and educated to follow the herd.
Have you noticed the ’please reuse your towel’ signs in hotels? They do have some effect, but it’s limited. In studies researchers studied the effects of different signs, from ‘please save the planet and reuse your towel’ to more tangible ones such as ‘reusing your towel saves 27 litres of clean water every day’.
Although these are all great platitudes, there was still one thing missing from all of them that would have achieved maximum results.
Their research led them to discover which sign had the most impact on hotel guests. The sign read: ‘76% of people in your room, number 321, reused their towels’.
This sign demonstrates the concept of social proof perfectly. It tells us that guests in the same room acted in an environmentally friendly manner. As a result the questions becomes, ‘who am I not to align with them?’
The phenomenon of viral social media posts
Why do some YouTube videos go viral while much better ones have a few hundred views? It is because videos with huge download figures attract even more viewers, because we infer that it must be good or interesting and you might want to be able to discuss this video with friends when they talk about it tomorrow at the bar. Do you want to be the only one who doesn’t know anything about it?
Social proof is a significant driver of our behaviour. Whenever you are uncertain of how you should behave, ask yourself what you would do if you were the only one to make the decision and nobody would ever know about it.
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How social proof can be used
If you want to influence other people, in most cases they would rather follow you if you can give them some social proof. That’s why recommendations and references are so powerful.
You should also be aware, however, that there are some people that will only do what others are not doing. Perhaps in your business or for your initiative it might be useful to be the only one swimming against the stream if you want to attract the few others willing to swim against the stream, looking for someone to join, which in the end gives them social proof as well.