Social proof is the psychological phenomenon exhibited when human beings ape the behavior of others in order to conform with a group of people in the same situation. It often evolves when people are uncertain about the correct response, so they look to their peers for cues. Social proof explains mob behavior and how people mirror the acts of others in crowds or groups.
The bystander effect is one example of social proof. When confronted with an emergency situation in which someone needs help, bystanders tend to take clues from others to decide whether or not to offer aid. If no one steps forward to assist, others in the crowd commonly do nothing. Studies show that the larger the group of bystanders, the less likely help will be offered.
This phenomenon often occurs because each individual in the group believes someone else should step forward if a true emergency exists. In a very large crowd, each person feels less responsibility to act. Research of the bystander effect reveals that if a particular individual in the crowd is asked specifically for help, that person commonly responds.
Social proof can also be used to explain peer pressure and the need to belong to a certain group, especially in the teen years. If friends react with disapproval to someone’s behavior, a person will generally change his or her actions to identify with the group and avoid embarrassment. People typically use the reactions of others as a barometer to adjust their personal behaviors. Some experts also believe social proof is a factor in drug use among young people and explains why they usually congregate in groups.
One example of the power of social proof refers to the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide, when 910 people drank poison. Psychologists who studied the event pointed to the isolation of members of the People’s Temple religious group after they moved to a foreign country and were uncertain how to behave. They may have responded to herd behavior under the premise that it must be acceptable to drink poison because everyone else was doing it.
Another illustration of this phenomenon occurred in studies of canned laughter used in some television comedy shows. Studies show segments containing canned laughter caused live audience members to rate those parts of the show funnier than others. The research subjects might have ranked the jokes as more humorous because they believed other people thought they were.
Marketing professionals commonly use social proof to sell products as well. The use of celebrities to vouch for a brand is one example of this strategy. When the celebrity is greatly admired, the public might think his or her opinion is more valuable. Using peers to tout products can also be effective, such as utilizing normal people in commercials to offer testimonials.