The psychology of persuasion – social proof

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

This article is the fifth in an eight-part series about Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

The principle of social proof suggests that we tend to look to others to decide what to do, especially when we are uncertain about the correct behavior. Seeing others doing something has a powerful influence on us, especially if we perceive those others to be a lot like us.

As usual, Cialdini cites several fascinating studies and unsettling examples to demonstrate his assertion. For the purpose of influencing ourselves, I found this one instructive:

Some striking evidence is available in the research of psychologist Robert O’Connor on socially withdrawn preschool children. We have all seen children of this sort, terribly shy, standing alone at the fringes of the games and groupings of their peers. O’Connor worried that a long-term pattern of isolaton was forming, even at an early age, that would create persistent difficulties in social comfort and adjustment through adulthood. In an attempt to reverse the pattern, O’Connor made a film containing eleven different scenes in a nursery-school setting. Each scene began by showing a different solitary child watching some ongoing social activity and then actively joining the activity, to everyone’s enjoyment. O’Connor selected a group of the most severely withdrawn children from four preschools and showed them his film. The impact was impressive. The isolates immediately began to interact with their peers at a level equal to that of the normal children in the schools. Even more astonishing was what O’Connor found when he returned to observe six weeks later. While the withdrawn children who had not seen O’Connor’s film remained as isolated as ever, those who had viewed it were now leading their schools in amount of social activity. It seems that this twenty-three minute movie, viewed just once, was enough to reverse a potential pattern of lifelong maladaptive behavior. Such is the potency of the principle of social proof.

Social proof in advertising

We experience the social proof strategy at work when we see advertising that uses models with our own characteristics using a product or giving testimonials about how well a product works for them. Social proof is why Apple shows teens using iPods and Pfizer uses old guys to pitch Viagra.

Since psychological research shows we tend to be influenced by those who are similar to us, we should be able to use that to our advantage in our own advertising campaigns by showing ourselves examples of other people like us doing things we want to do.

I used this method in my ad campaign to become a blogger. I’ve already written about how I used the photo of a mentor to stimulate my desire to appear consistent. I included photos of a couple of other bloggers, as well, to trigger social proof. I downloaded a photo of Gina Trapani from Lifehacker and Merlin Mann from 43 folders, and put them in my Google Sidebar photo collection. Although these are very successful, well-known bloggers, I thought they looked like regular people in their photos – not that different from a geek like me. Each time I saw one of those photos I thought, “If they can do it, maybe I can too.” This is a technique that worked really well.

I have another ad campaign running right now that uses social proof. I really want to get out and go hiking in the mountains, but have some physical restrictions which make that challenging. So I’ve put someone else’s vacation photos in my ad collection – someone I know with similar issues who took some great pictures while hiking up in the mountains with her friends. Each time I see one of those photos it informs me that it’s possible for someone similar to me to go hiking, and reminds me that I want to do it too.

A demographic of one

A huge advantage in personal advertising is that we can tailor the ads very specifically to ourselves. If advertisers find it effective to show us messages containing people that look a lot like us, how well would it work to use images that look exactly like us?

An interesting article in the latest issue of the Observer – a journal of the Association for Psychological Science – notes some fascinating research that’s going on at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Jeremy Bailenson is working there on how framing a message using an “avatar” or digital representation of ourselves, can have a profound influence on our decisions and behavior. This work is premised on the long-held view that we tend to be influenced by those who are similar to us in looks, values, education, even tone of voice.

Jesse Fox, currently one of Bailenson’s graduate students is studying the persuasive effect of digital clones. For instance, Fox creates a digital clone of a person, and then has the person watch a video clip of the clone doing things s/he’s never done before, like bungee jumping or public speaking. The thinking is that watching ourselves do things we’ve never done might just influence us to start doing them in real life.

The earlier example about the shy preschool children suggests that Fox’s approach might be very effective.

Personal technology gives us a lot of tools for putting ourselves in the picture. With a little imagination it’s usually possible to take a photo of ourselves actually doing the thing we want to achieve. If not, we can always use Photoshop to make it so. I’m planning to write a series of articles in the near future on the many powerful techniques you can use to put yourself in your ads.

Other articles in the psychology of persuasion series

  1. The psychology of persuasion – because
  2. The psychology of persuasion – perceptual contrast
  3. The psychology of persuasion – reciprocation
  4. The psychology of persuasion – consistency
  5. The psychology of persuasion – social proof (you are here)
  6. The psychology of persuasion – liking
  7. The psychology of persusion – authority
  8. The psychology of persuasion – scarcity

Related articles

This entry was posted in Marketing strategies. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Kristopher
    Posted January 10, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    this is so freaking amazing. i could kiss the person who wrote this article. truly inspirational. Using photo shop images to influence yourself. Sounds good in theory. Wonder if it works? I’ll need to do some more research and perhaps try it for myself.

  2. Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    I am amazed by this author, considering this term “Social Proof” was raised in 2007. At this year of 2011, people are working on social media marketing on facebook, twitter etc, to increase social proof. I am really impressed someone has already talked about this 4 years ago.

5 Trackbacks

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>