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Social proof principle


Principles > Social proof principle

Principle | How it works | So what?


If I am uncertain I will take a cue from others.

If other people are doing something, it must be ok for me to do it too.

If other people are refraining from doing something, then it is probably not a good idea for me to do it.

How it works

We are social and tribal beings, and what others think about us remarkably important. In our need for a sense of identity we seek to belong and so easily conform with what others are doing.


This effect is particularly significant when we are uncertain what to do, for example when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. This also leads to the Bystander Effect where nobody will help a person in distress, mostly because nobody else is acting.

Social permission

The reverse effect happens too. When others are doing something that we know is wrong, we are more likely to assume that it is ok to do it too. This explains something of how peaceful crowds can turn into unlawful mobs. It also explains how young people turn to drugs and crime when they see their peers acting this way.

Social taboos

The action of taboos work this way too. If I do something in an unfamiliar situation such as in a different culture, then notice that others are looking in a disapproving way, I will quickly refrain and maybe apologize.

So what?

In unfamiliar social situations you can learn a lot of the unwritten rules by watching what others do and do not do. If you want to persuade them, you need to understand the basic social permission system.

When people are frozen in a tricky situation, you can gain hero status by acting first.

If you fall over in the street, do not just yell 'help' -- point at a person and give them specific instructions.

See also

Evidence principle, Theories about conforming, Theories about decision-making


Cialdini, R.B. (1994). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, NY: Quill

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