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Healing article about Social Proof

Updated: Apr 11

“I don’t care about being popular. That’s so superficial. But at the same time… I don’t want to be alone. It does not make any sense.”

– Do you see yourself in this? Then this article is for you.

This article is inspired by The Choice Factory. A book written by Richard Shotton about cognitive biases in marketing and everyday life. Read another article from this series.

What is Social Proof?


It’s early afternoon. Sun is relaxing above your head. You’re walking down the street. Not that busy street. Calm street. But not that calm it would freak you out. Few people are rushing back to work from late lunch. But not that many. You turn the corner.

Suddenly, there’s a crowd. Around 30 people slammed at one sidewalk like ants. All looking the same direction. You observe them with curiosity. You wait a few seconds more and notice some newcomers. Then you decide to join them.

Why did you join the crowd?

A. It was a line for a new restaurant opening you’ve read about

B. You want to steal people’s watches

C. You did it because others did it. 

Guess now. I’ll reveal the correct answer at the end.

In the meantime, I’ll share with you an experiment that might help. I’m sure most of you know this one already so i’ll keep it simple. 

Once upon a time in the early 80s Robert Cialdini, psychology and marketing professor from Arizona State University had a beef with a certain American hotel chain. It was about sustainability, god bless him. 

Hotel chain chiefs wanted to persuade people to re-use their fine cotton towels. This way hotel saves money and water by reducing the number of washing cycles. 

They were prone to use informative bathroom signs telling people about trees and rainforests. Decent 35% of guests understood the assignment and kept their towels for multiple days. 

Then Cialdini came into play. “People are not that smart,” he said. “They don’t care about the number of liters saved or the planet.” To support his word he emitted a different round of signs. They simply said: “majority of people choose to reuse their towels”. Whole 44% of guests obeyed this time.

Then for fun, Cialdini put a wild card on the table. A third sign that said: “majority of residents of this room chose to reuse their towels.” He persuaded 49% of guests to reuse the towels. There you have it. 

Since the beginning of time we have been used to living in groups. Acting as others is one of our strongest internal needs. It kept us alive during the prehistoric times.

When the rest of the group ran, we ran. We did not wait to see the saber-toothed tiger to realize why they’re running. We did what others do. Without thinking. And that’s why we survived.

And don’t forget that the vicinity plays an important role here as well. We are more prone to emulate behavior of people somehow linked to us (as the third sign proved).

It does not mean we’re not thinking green! Of course we’re interested in being eco-friendly. (Especially if eco-friendliness is cool among people around us.)

In 1984 Robert Cialdini called this psychological bias the Social Proof. He proved that people without much conscious thought copy the actions of others in choosing how to behave in a certain situation.

According to Richard Shotton Social proof is one of the strongest biases we can use in marketing or everyday life. 

How? Let me share some ideas.

How can Social Proof change your life

Social proof is just a fancy term for popularity. And we all know what advantages being popular have. Let’s see how you can milk your popularity potential.

Don’t try to be THE BEST

You know what is the best selling beer around the world?

A. Pilsner 

B. Budweiser

C. Snow

According to research from 2017, the C. is correct. Oh you didn't know Snow? It’s a beer brand you can get only in China. Does it make sense now? I thought so. 

What I am trying to say is that popularity and actual numbers sold do not have to have anything in common. You can still use the fact that you’re the cool, popular brand in your ad, even though you’re not a best-seller.

You don’t need the numbers. Be the symbol of popularity

“9 of 10 doctors recommend Colgate.” This sentence is one way you can use Social Proof to your advantage. But I promise you, nobody will remember. Try to be more creative. 

For example. Do you know how Ford promoted their cabriolet in the 70’s? They could simply say that “9 out 10 men with middle age crisis recommends the vehicle.“ but no. They went about it differently.

They released an ad with a baby stroller saying: “This is the only cabriolet selling better than Ford.”


Pay attention. People remember jokes and stories better than numbers and statistics. 

Another example is Rory’s Sutherland story about Red Bull. When marketers put Red Bull on the market, they did not say: “yeah, just the best energy drink is coming to town.“

No. They took thousands of empty cans of Red Bull and filled the dumpsters close to every cool night club

This way people realized for themselves: “Ah, thanks to Red Bull cool people party all night.”

Pay attention again. People remember their own conclusions better than direct advertisement.

You don’t need to be the most popular. Be the most recognisable

It was the year 2001 and Apple came to market with the iPod. What supported the rise of its popularity was surprisingly… the white pods.

Every competitor on the market was selling black pods at that time. So when somebody was cool enough to buy an iPod, you knew immediately. 

You know the rule: "Once you see it. You see it everywhere." You see people on the streets with white pods – you think of Apple. You see people in the subway with white pods – you think of Apple. You spil white paint on your pods – you think of many swear words …and Apple.

Pay attention to things people may pay attention to. Make yourself recognisable and people will automatically assume you’re more popular.

Magners Cider has similar story to share. Irish cider struggled during his voyage to America. Waves of customer interest came and went leaving Magners Cider feeling a bit under the weather. But at the end the drink turned itself into a success. Thanks to its hard work, vitamin C on board and the perks of being recognisable:

Magners Cider was the first brand in the United States serving cider on ice. So everybody knew what brand is on the table once the drink was served.

What can I say. Everybody wants to be unique. Unique people are recognisable. What you recognise, you will remember. And what you remember, that’s important to you.

So yes. We want to be unique so others would keep us in their group. Popularity means that nobody will leave you alone to be eaten by the saber-toothed tiger. That’s anything but superficial.

Correct answer:

C. You did it because others did it. 


Richard Shotton | The Choice Factory

Rory Sutherland | Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense

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