Social proof leads us to look at others to determine what is the correct behavior for the situation that we are in. More often than not, when a lot of people are doing something, it's usually the right thing to do. So, it makes sense why this phenomena is so powerful and guides people's behavior. We are risk averse and most of us won't publicly go "against the crowd" and take social risks, which can end in public embarrassment. Most of us are also imitators, and not initiators. Imitation is safe. Imitation doesn't involve taking risks and paving new paths. If the crowd is acting in a particular way, we assume they know something we don't. Of course, sometimes the problem is that everyone is thinking the same thing and no one actually knows something you don't.
We are especially prone to following the actions of others when the situation is full of uncertainty and we are unsure of ourselves. This is taken a step further if we consider the individuals we are observing as similar to ourselves. For instance, if you are a college student, you are much more likely to take social hints from fellow college students than from seniors.
Advertisers realize the power of Social Proofing and they use it whenever possible. Think about all the times you have seen an "average customer" or "ordinary person" give a testimony for a particular product. One recent example that comes to mind is a commercial by ITT Tech. They often show actual students from their program talking about their successes:
The advertiser is using Social Proof to get its point across. The audience is much more likely to relate to a student than a professor. They are also much more likely to follow a student's words, who they are more likely similar to.
It's a shame that public agencies don't utilize similar strategies. For instance, I mentioned a Metro advertisement in a previous blog entry that urged drivers to take the subway to the Dodgers Stadium. This ad can be made much more effective through the inclusion of a picture depicting a baseball fan taking the metro. A slogan could be used as well: "Thousands of drivers like yourself have switched. Why haven't you?" This ad would apply the principles of Social Proof and be more effective at promoting behavioral change.
The next time you find yourself squirming and looking around for social clues, realize that you are already under the powerful influence of Social Proof.