Social proof can be defined as "Youe may determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct.” It can also be defined as: ”Making assumptions from the actions of others by trying to reflect correct behavior in a given situation.”
It is everywhere
Social proof can be found anywhere. Humans have inner needs to stay connected with others. Without these needs human race would probably be extinct. We have mirror neurons. They are constantly following behavior of other people. They are essential for our ability to imitate others. They help us to learn from others too. You only need two persons to have social proof. You need a source of impulse and the receiver. Everybody observing an event is likely to be looking for social evidence. There is safety in numbers. The more people are behaving like others, the more social proof there is for the receiver of impulses. It is probable that bigger groups of people are reacting to social proof itself. They have created a self-reinforcing feedback loop which strengthens the effects. Social proof is not consisted of only impulses people receive, it also involves ignoring them.
Our networks and social proof
Social proof can be divided into two different pieces. The influence of the people who are some way connected pretty close to us and the influence of the people without connection to us. The latter people just happen to be in the situation where they have influence into our behavior. The simplest social network is two people connected to each other. You have many networks. You can also think these networks as a one big network.
People in this network has strong and weak connections. Normally, stronger connections belong to people who are close to each other. For example, close relatives, or people working together, etc. In the modern world, everyone has weak ties for most of the people. Some networking experts talk about six degrees of connections are enough to connect anyone in the world to any other person. Besides connections, social networks have another fundamental aspect, contagion. It tells you what, if anything, flows through these connections. Each of these flows have individual characteristics. You have to understand at least some of the rules of connection and contagion.
You can choose the structure of your network in three ways. First, you decide how many people you are connected to intimately. Second, you decide how tightly these people are interconnected. And, third, you control how central is your position in the network. You have your most intimate network. Contagion is the strongest in it. Things flowing through your connections are also important. Contagion happens, because people have tendency to copy each other as a definition of social proof states. You do not copy only your friends. You also copy your friends´ friends and their friends´friends. The influence of your network to you diminishes gradually until third degree of connection. Then it vanishes.
Conditions for groups being right
Most often, it is enough to follow the herd. You will not get into trouble by finding out what others are doing and just copying others. If you want to get maximum value out of social proof, you need to understand, when groups of people are very intelligent. It comes to four conditions. First, each person in the group should have some private information. Second, their opinions are not determined by others around them. Third, each person is able to specialize and have local and unattached knowledge. And, finally, there is a way to turn individual judgments into a collective decision.
First condition is about diversity. There should be different kinds of people in the group, like old and young, black and white, or smart and stupid. You need different perspectives. They take away or at least weaken some of the worst characteristics of group decisions. Some biased individuals can otherwise move decisions from the collective power into the direction of the significant few with lots of influence. The probability of a homogenous group reaching into a good decision is low. Diversity do not only add different perspectives, it also helps people to say what they really think.
When all the people in the group rely on private information and are able to include their intuition, interpretation and analysis to the decision making, a good outcome is likely. There are two reasons why they are important. First, mistakes that people make during the process do not become correlated. Second, new information are more likely found. The more influence the people have on each other, the more likely they make the same mistakes.
Local and unattached knowledge means also decentralized power structures. Many important decisions are made by individuals based on their local and unattached specific knowledge. Central planners are not effective as a sole decision makers. Decentralization encourages individuals to work the same problem by their own means and ways of doing things. This way individuals can specialize and find local knowledge. They can transform their private efforts into the help of a collective whole.
Decentralized system works only, when it can produce results by having means of aggregating everybody´s knowledge into the system. A group needs to find the right balance between necessities: making individuals collectively useful while allowing them to stay specialized and local. A good group decision requires people to take into account what others are doing. When all these four conditions apply, you should definitely follow the herd. To be honest, it is really hard to know, when all these conditions are actualized.
How to avoid social proof
Sometimes you need to protect yourself from social proof. These situations are less likely than others. When you are stressed of puzzled, you will more likely be influenced by the social proof. Avoiding disreputable sells organizations or people who are willing to increase your stress levels by giving you a fast deadline to make a decision helps you to diminish the effect of social proof. Avoid also other people who you know are willing to push your limits by asking you to behave in ways you do not want to. In other words, avoid all the people you associate with bad behavior. You should also avoid unnecesessary marketing impulses that you can relate to social proof like ads with groups of people having a good time or ads that have words like ”fastest-growing” or ”most popular”.
Have a nice end of the week!