Social proof is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. It is easy if you see others acting or talking a certain way, to assume that is appropriate. Social influence in general can lead to conformity of large groups of individuals in either correct or mistaken choices. This is common when people enter into unfamiliar situations and don’t have a frame of reference on how to deal with the situation, so they mirror their behavior off of others that they assume are more familiar and therefore better informed.
In a decision making process, social proof comes into play as often one will assume that a popular decision is popular for a reason, and must be correct. A humorous but excellent example of how powerful social proof is can be found in an old candid camera clip. In this clip you will get a sense of just how powerful the desire to follow the crowd can be.
Candid camera clip depicting social proof. Original source: Candid Camera
Dr. Robert Cialdini
In his book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, Dr. Robert Cialdini states, “Social Proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic.”
Social proof is utilized in sales when high sales numbers are released, demonstrating to potential customers that the product is popular. A form of this is also taken advantage of when companies will release shirt with logos or slogans printed on them, where the wearer then gives an implicit endorsement.
Social proof is not just influenced by large groups, but also high profile individuals. For instance, a single celebrity becoming associated with product will make others want to be associated with the celebrities positive traits, and then will utilize the same product. For instance, the actor Samuel L Jackson is often perceived as being “cool” and “hip”. In publicity photos he often appears wearing Kongol hats. An example of this can be found here depicting Samuel L Jackson wearing a Kongol hat. This fact has helped increase sales of the product, and is often advertised.
The website Media-Studies.ca had an article posted on influencing their targets using social proof:
- “Experiments have found that the use of canned laughter causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier. In addition, some evidence indicates that canned laughter is most effective for poor jokes” (115). The question is: why does it work, especially when the laugh track is often so obviously fake? To answer this question, Cialdini posits the principle of social proof: “[O]ne means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct…We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it” (116). As with the other “weapons of influence,” social proof is a shortcut that usually works well for us: if we conform to the behavior we see around us, we are less likely to make a social faux pas. The fact that canned laughter provokes an automatic response in audiences suggests that auditory cues are powerful stimuli because they influence us at a level of consciousness that is difficult to critique.”
The ISACA said on their site:
- ” Yet another feature of social engineering-driven hacking is the use of psychology, or the in-depth study and understanding of the behavior patterns of the human mind, and the application of this knowledge. Examples of using psychology to hack include the use of catchy baits, like sensory appeals and chance of ingratiation; dominating tricks, like authoritative orders and apparent urgency; and plausible appeals, like moral duty. Hackers also may employ complex principles such as diffusion of responsibility, group dynamics and social proof. Jonathan Rusch of the US Department of Justice described how the advanced psychological points, such as alternative routes to persuasion and influence techniques, have been used in social engineering.”
A list of 6 very interesting examples of how social proof or consensus has been used is located here
Social proof can be utilized by a social engineer by feeding the target information on what you want them to believe is socially acceptable. In fact, the social engineer can use this to convince them what path he/she desires the target to take.