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The dark side of social proof

‘Nobody gets fired for buying IBM’, are words I heard when growing up . This was my earliest introduction to social proof – IBM was seen as a safe pair of hands in the technology world at the time. Ironically first applied by me when I went to buy the tried and tested Sony Walkman back in the 80’s (yes, I am that old). Later in the decade Robert Ciadini developed the principle of ‘social proof’ which can lead us to believe that the greater the number of people who find an idea correct, the more the idea will seem to be correct to us.

A scary recent example is demonstrated in a BBC news article which reports two YouTubers (one French, one German) being approached by a marketing agency, Fazze, to spread disinformation about Covid vaccines. Fortunately, the YouTubers blew the whistle and the plot failed.

Social proof, as a method of influencing, works best when there is ambiguity, doubt and risk present – all of which can be attributed to Covid. If you can get a million followers to ‘like’ a particular view, well, it can potentially shift the needle (pardon the pun) – that’s why in this instance the news story is so scary.

Commercially this is also why companies have recently appeared from nowhere offering to write 1000’s of positive product reviews on certain electronic retailer websites – it can mean big money. I am ashamed to say I have fallen foul of this at home – buying a non-premium brand dishwasher with a five star rating and fantastic reviews. Sadly, only to find very soon after that it did not do what it should (wash dishes) so we found ourselves back to washing by hand to supplement its inadequacies.

In a broader sense, ‘conflict’ often includes risk. If it’s high enough, we will naturally look to areas such as precedent, playbooks and perceived quality to help mitigate that risk. Social proof, with lots of examples of positive (or negative) experiences, can also significantly shift our views on the conflict and our desired outcomes.

Whilst this behaviour is completely understandable, it pays to remain objective – what’s right for others may not always be right for you. Go back to your planning, how does the proposition match against your pre-planned goals – review and assess accordingly or you might be back to handwashing your pots and pans like we are.

Sam Macbeth, 26th July 2021

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