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Social Proof


Techniques General persuasion > Cialdini's Six Principles > Social Proof

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Principle: We copy what others do, especially when we are unsure.

Show people how others already do what you want them to do.

Emphasize the credibility and numbers of people who are acting in the way you want the target person to follow. Show how they are similar to the target person or who know what they are doing.


An advertiser shows a happy family in selling goods to people who are likely to have families.

A sales person tells a customer about the other people who have bought the product.

A TV comedy uses canned laughter to encourage its audience to find it funny.


We follow tend to the lead of other people. This is particularly true when we are unsure what to do. When the situation is critical, however, and there is little alternative, we will follow anyone who seems to know what they are doing. In the way that a 'drowning person will clutch at a straw', a confused person will desperately follow any convenient person.

Social proof works through our need to belong, to be respected by others and to avoid social punishment such as ridicule or ostracization. Rather than risk these horrors, we will follow others even when we know they are wrong. In a famous experiment, Solomon Asch showed a group of people three lines and asked which was the shortest. What the experimental subject did not know was that everybody else was in a stooge. When they all chose the wrong answer, most subjects also chose the wrong answer rather than face being different.

Social proof can also lead directly to inaction. If others are doing nothing, you may do nothing too, fearing that they know good reason why action is a bad idea. A situation where people stood by as a young woman was killed has been described as the bystander effect. This shows the power, albeit terrible in this case, of social proof.

To break the bystander effect, be specific. If you fall over in the street, point to a person and say something like 'Hey, you in the red coat, please call for an ambulance.'

Social proof increases with the numbers and credibility of the comparison people. When more people are doing something, we feel a greater compulsion to follow suit. If only a few of our friends are doing it, then this may be enough to persuade us.

When there is conflicting social proof, with different people or groups suggesting different courses of action, then the person has to make a decision who to follow (or choose another path). In this case they will take two key things into account: numbers, trust and social importance. If a large number of people are doing something, then these may well take precedence. However, if other people who they trust rather more are taking another course, they may decide to follow these people. The social importance of the other people will also be considered, such as whether they are friends, work colleagues or complete strangers.

After considering following social proof, the person may yet still be doubtful, in which case they may decide on a completely different course of action, including doing nothing until a clearer alternative arises.

In rather alarming research, it has found that highly visible news about suicides results in an increase in suicide rates. This can be particular to social groups, and child suicides can lead to more children committing suicide. More positively, it has been found that when children who fear dogs see other children playing with dogs, they become less fearful. This offers a route to help cure phobias.

Social proof relates to liking as we are more likely to follow people we like and trust. It is useful for leaders who may model the way they want people to behave (and perhaps get other managers to do likewise).

See also

Social Proof principle, Bystander Effect, Theories about groups


Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, New York: Quill


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