The Concept of Social Proof


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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 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?

Our emotions – both short and long term – are really just stories we tell ourselves about what we’re feeling. When a toddler learning to walk falls down, she’ll first look to the adults in the room for confirmation.  If you jump up with concern and rush to ask her if she’s hurt, she probably will be. If you laugh and say “That was funny – do it again!” she’ll laugh and pull herself up. She will believe either story.

I’m about to give a big presentation, and my heart is pounding. My hands are sweaty and I feel like I’m attached to a live wire. I’m either terrified (story #1) or I’m more excited about this opportunity than I’ve been in 5 years of public speaking (story #2.) Same feelings, different interpretation.

At work, there are times when each of us looks to another person for social proof of what’s happening here. Is this an opportunity or a threat? How sure are we about the outcome? What does it mean?

You can be the one to say what’s happening. Isn’t this exciting? I can’t wait to see what happens.

You have a choice in every moment. You can follow, or you can lead.

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