Understanding Social Proof

Social proof is a behavioural science phenomenon whereby people tend to copy the actions of others. As a species, we’ve evolved to think as groups. Indeed, there is surely some advantage in following the example of others. At the very least, it can’t be all that bad. It also minimises the social penalty of being wrong, offering a certain level of safety.

This raises the question as to our true priorities when we make decisions? If we are afraid of the consequences of a poor decision, following the group may be optimal. Even if the decision doesn’t work out, if everyone else is doing the same you are unlikely to get blamed. This echoes the idea of “Nobody got fired for buying IBM”. Investing in IBM may not have offered the best solution for the company either in terms of functionality or cost, but it was safe for the person making the decision.

And yet, how can we outperform the group if we are following group wisdom? Any decision must by definition be somewhere around the average. Not the worst but surely not the best.

My Personal Experience

Personally, I rely on social proof when a decision is relatively unimportant in the large scheme of things, and I simply want to avoid a poor decision. Restaurants are a good example. A 4.0/5.0 probably won’t kill you but it may not excite either. Same goes when I feel a little overwhelmed. For example, when I need to buy a new power tool on Amazon – I just want it to work and don’t really want to dive into the technical details. It means that in these scenarios I make what feel like OK decisions.

But, what would it be like if I just relied on my own powers of deduction? How would my decisions be different? I actually did a mini experiment on vacation this summer. I left my phone back at base and just rambled around.

When it came time to eat, we judged the restaurant experience in the same way I used to in pre-mobile phone days (the “old days”) – by assessing attention to detail: the choice of chairs and tables, the food on diners’ plates, the thought put into the menu, the smells, the soundscape, the overall feel of the place. I would have gotten very little of this from reviews. In the end, all our choices worked out well, delivering the type of food and experience we were after.

Reducing Decision Fatigue: Practical Steps

The fact is that we are called on to make so many decisions each day that it would be exhausting to have to consider each one in depth. For starters, therefore, we might consider making fewer decisions and saving our powder for the more important ones. Fewer decisions mean less time and less opportunity to add items to to-do lists. It also helps avoid decision fatigue.

Simply start by removing options. Plan your meals for the week. Lay out your clothes the night before or even wear the same “uniform” every day. Set your phone on flight mode for hours at a time. Indeed, anything that can eliminate or reduce decision-making saves you precious mental energy.

Reflecting on Our Decisions

Equally importantly is triaging decisions and asking yourself:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this decision?
  • Will I still feel its impact in a year?
  • What is the one thing I would like to accomplish with this decision?

  • Is there an opportunity to outperform the group?
  • If I do, what is the upside of making a better decision?
  • If I do, what is the downside of making a poorer decision?

Questions in the Image:

  • How much do I rely on social proof?
  • What is my real priority when making decisions?
  • How important is it not to be seen to be wrong?

Want to Read More Around This Topic?

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (link to Amazon.co.uk). This classic delves into the psychology behind why people say “yes”, and the various tactics used to influence decisions. Cialdini discusses the principle of social proof among other key principles like reciprocity, commitment and consistency. It offers both a deep understanding of the mechanics of persuasion and practical insights on how to resist unwanted influence.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. Looking at the apple trees in my garden weighed down by apples, I wonder “What am I ready to harvest in my own life?

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.