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Social Proof

Under conditions of uncertainty we look around us and use other people’s actions to guide us.  That’s social proof! And, sometimes, it goes terribly wrong.

When uncertain, we look around

Scarcity and authority are contextual cues to facilitate influence. And, so is social proof. Under conditions of uncertainty we look around us and use other people’s actions to guide us.

A study by prof. Milgram, leaving behind his famous fake shock machine, took his confederates into the street. When five of his confederate stop at a busy street and looked up at a building, approximately 80% of the people passing by also looked up.

Milgram did the study on 42nd St. in New York City and there is no reason to expect it wouldn’t happen in any crowded area near where you live people are people and they pay attention and make sense of the world around them by watching for cues from other people.

There is clearly no safety in numbers

Social proof can result in some terrible things happening. A famous case in New York City revealed that sometimes people will stand idly by if something terrible happens. In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964 Catherine Genovese was walking home in Queens, New York when she was attacked by an assailant with a knife.

Subsequent news report wrote that 38 people heard her screams that night yet no one called the police. Why did no one call?  Is it because people living in the city are apathetic or cruel? The incidents in the media covers that followed sparked lots of dialogue and a host of research studies in one of these studies.

Social psychologist B. Latane and J. Darley sought to find the reasons why people did not help Genovese. They asked a research confederate to slump over and appear passed out on a busy street, many people just walked by.

In another one of their studies they had a confederate appear to have an epileptic seizure. When occurred in front of a single person that person would help 85% of the time what happened in front of five people help would only come 31% of the time.

There is clearly no safety in numbers, if everyone is looking to see if others will help everyone fails to act – that’s social proof, no one else is helping so I probably should not help. In these studies an interesting thing happens: once one person starts to help it only takes one person to step in and then social proof kicks in and others quickly follow

A sense of personal responsibility

Like Milgram, Latane a and Darley were also working in the streets of New York City perhaps Canadians are nicer than New Yorkers. A study conducted in Toronto by prof. Abraham Ross found that single bystanders who saw smoke in a room billowing from a door nearby reported it 90% of the time.

But, again, he was working in Canada. When to passerby were present now research confederates were asked to ignore the smoke and not say anything, only 16% of the time did someone speak up. Only 16% of the time. 90% versus 16% even in Canada – this is the power of social proof.

In his book on influence, Bob Cialdini reviews this evidence and offers fantastic advice about how to get aid if you are in trouble in a crowd. To be sure that you get the help you need shielding advises that you reduce all uncertainty and pick a person in the crowd pointing and saying something like: You in the blue jacket! I need help! Call an ambulance!

Once that person who’s been picked out and held accountable steps in to help social proof will kick in and others will follow, but to get the one person you need to move you, do need to create for that person a sense of personal responsibility.