You are on your way to the park. At the entrance, you encounter a group of people staring at the sky. Without even thinking about it, you see upwards too.
You are at Broadway, watching a play and someone begins to clap and suddenly the whole room joins in.
Social Proof dictates that individuals feel they are behaving correctly when they act in the same way as other people.
In other words, if a more number of people follow a certain idea or behaviour, the better or truer we think the idea or behaviour is. This is an absurd flaw in thinking.
It exists in fashion, management techniques, hobbies, religion and diets.
Only a few cases come to mind where social proof is of value. For example, if you find yourself hungry in a foreign city and don’t know a good restaurant, it makes sense to pick the one that’s full of locals. In other words, you copy the locals’ behaviour.
Comedy and talk shows make use of social proof by inserting canned laughter at strategic spots, inciting the audience to laugh along.
In the past
In the past, following others was a good survival strategy. Suppose that 50,000 years ago, you were travelling around the Serengeti with your hunter-gatherer friends, and suddenly they all bolted. What would you have done? Would you have stayed put, scratching your head, and weighing up whether what you were looking at was a lion or something that just looked like a lion but was in fact a harmless animal that could serve as a great protein source? No, you would have sprinted after your friends. Later on, when you were safe, you could have reflected on what the ‘lion’ had actually been.
Those who acted differently from the group were the ones that exited the gene pool. We are the direct descendants of those who copied the others’ behaviour. This pattern is so deeply rooted in us that we still use it today, even when it offers no survival advantage, which is most of the time.
A little more serious – Joseph Goebbels
One of the most impressive, though troubling, cases of this phenomenon is the famous speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, delivered to a large audience in 1943. As the war went from bad to worse for Germany, he demanded to know: ‘Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?’ The crowd roared. If the attendees had been asked individually and anonymously, it is likely that nobody would have consented to this crazy proposal. Later, it was found that some people in the crowd were bribed to shout approval. This is what helped in getting the whole crowd to go along with the idea.
If 50 million people say something foolish, it is still foolish.