The Theory of Social Proof


A post from Dan Schwabel’s Personal Branding blog inspired this post. Read the original guest post by Wendy Brache here.

The Theory of Social Proof states that people assume the actions of others reflect correct behavior for a given situation.   When in doubt, look around you and do what the people at the next table are doing.  Most of us do it, and it works most of the time.  You probably won’t make a monkey of yourself in any given situation.  But you’re not locked into it.  What would happen if you became the social leader?

Here’s a common scenario: You walk into a room where a business presentation will be delivered in a few minutes.  People file in quietly, find a seat with plenty of empty space around it (we Americans love our personal space.)  They begin to read the materials at their seat quietly and carefully.  When someone new takes a seat at their table, they glance up politely and then go back to perusing their materials.  The hush in the room is palpable; suddenly, we’re all shy ten–year-olds again on the first day of fifth grade.

What if you didn’t do that?  You can create your own version of social proof by smiling, even laughing, and starting a lively conversation as you take a seat.  Declare (or demonstrate) that your table is going to be the fun one filled with the smart people.  Success breeds success; people will be drawn to you.  It’s the same principle that draws you into a busy, noisy and cheerful restaurant and makes you pass up one that’s empty and quiet.

Scientific experiments have determined that when someone’s perception or experience with something is ambiguous, the participants will rely on each other to define reality.  If I say that an object is moving at a certain speed, and you’re not sure how fast it’s moving, chances are you’ll come to accept my judgment and make it your own.   

Think about that for a minute.  If you’re not sure what’s happening, chances are you’ll rely on others to help you decide.  Is this worthwhile?  Is that guy smart? Are we having fun yet? 

You can follow, or you can lead.

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