Let’s start with a short video:

Who has influenced you in the past months?

This might give you an idea of what social proof is: “People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic.” This is the description you find on Wikipedia. This interpretation of social proof focusses on action, but in the same way people might influence each others thinking.


indexOn the evening of June 10th we, about 10 people, had an interactive webinar with John David Smith, who we know from CPsquare and the book ‘Digital Habitats‘. As a preparatory exercise, we received the question to think of one person that (1) significantly influenced us, our understanding or behavior in this year, and (2) with whom we had direct contact (either online or offline). Reflective questions were:

  • When did the relationship begin?
  • How close or far apart were you and how did that change over time?
  • What social settings were involved?
  • What means of communication played a role?
  • What was a pivotal moment or some regular interactions?
  • Were others present and what role did they play?

We very much liked this short exercise, because it made us think of who has had a certain influence on us and how did that happen. When you feel inspired as well, please feel free to reflect before continuing reading! It might make this blogpost even more worthwhile?

Inspiration versus Influence

John started the webinar by asking us what the reflection exercise has brought us. Answers ranged from ‘good to have had a moment of reflection’, to ‘it made me realize how valuable it is to look over the shoulder of someone else, now and then ‘ to ‘I notice that I can be influenced by others in a positive as well as in a negative way’. Soon, we came across the difference between inspiration and influence. To us, influence has to do with behavior and change. Inspiration feels more free and ‘in the air’. It might be more difficult to grasp? A nice example of inspiration:

I had a conference in Bukarest where I met a few people I already new from Twitter. I had not met them before, but when we met in person it was like we knew each other already for some time! I already was inspired by the tweets I received from her, but after having met she influenced me in a way that my activities on Twitter became more focused and purposeful.

What is social proof?

John used Robert Cialdini’s definition of social proof:  A means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what others think is correct. People often view a behavior as more correct in a given situation – to the degree that we see others performing it. This principle of Social Proof  can be used to stimulate a person’s compliance with a request by informing him or her that many other individuals, perhaps some that are role models, are or have been observed with this behavior. This tool of influence provides a shortcut for determining how to behave. But at the same time it can make those involved with using this social shortcut, vulnerable to the manipulations of others who seek to exploit such influence through things as trainings, group introductions, online discussions etc. Group members may then provide the models for the behavior that each group plans to produce in its potential new members.

Social proof is most influential under two conditions: (1) Uncertainty–when people are unsure and the situation is ambiguous they are more likely to observe the behavior of others and to accept that behavior as correct, and (2) Similarity–people are more inclined to follow the lead of others who are similar.

This explanation by John reminded me of an example of social proof because of uncertainty… I was halfway through an online course with 10.000 other people (subject: irrational behavior), and I got a message from the professor with the invitation to watch a video about economic behavior, because he had the impression that most of us did not quite understand the concept. I started the video, which was a kind of web lecture: the professor in front of a group of 200 students. He started explaining the concept of economic behavior by reading a text out loud. After a couple of minutes I decided to start over again, because I really did not understand the explanation. I looked at the students in the video. What were they doing? They all looked puzzled, some a bit distracted, but they were all brave listening. After 10 or 12 minutes, the professor stopped his argument and said: ‘I cannot imagine that any of you understands what I’m saying. This is way too difficult. Why does no one say anything?’

Social proof influences us in every-day learning. We are influenced by celebrity role-models, people ‘like us’, group members in communities and networks. And ha, here is the link with social learning and social media! According to John, social proof is increasing because of the net. Our connectivity increases, we meet more role models and people ‘like us’. And new modes of engagements arise, which enlarge the possibility for inspiration and influence.

Social proof as a learning strategy

An interesting focus on social proof is to look at it as a learning strategy: who might be interesting to follow, shadow, copy? I now see that I ask myself that question regularly using social media: who should I add to my Twitter network? which blog(ger) do I add to my RSS reader? John mentions Jerry Michalski (www.sociate.com) who decided to follow ‘curmudgeons’: An ill-tempered (and frequently old) person full of stubborn ideas or opinions, according to Wikipedia. And Jerry proves that following contrarians definitely helps in finding new views, experience and networks. Who are your contrarians?

Social proof in communities and networks

“Social proof” is one of the reasons that communities of practice are so powerful for spreading practice (whether good or bad, whether about technology or not).  Among other things seeing that others in your community are paying attention to something is “proof” that it’s important. On the other hand… social proof might create a blind spot as well, when everyone is thinking in the same direction! Missing real possibilities for innovation. Using the same activities, tools and interventions, not noticing that they have reached the end of their impact. Existing knowledge in a community might be exchanged but make sure that people have exchanged as well. Here lies a challenge to make core interactions visible for the group: people in the core of the interactions truly think that their experience is the truth, so they forget the question or questioning. But what are other voices? Just outside the periphery of the core activity?

Schermafbeelding 2013-06-11 om 23.03.23


Finally, what can we do with social proof in our learning?

  • Look over someone else’s shoulder;
  • Share;
  • Participate;
  • Question yourself: what makes you do things in a certain way?
  • Stay sensitive for other opinions
  • Keep on asking ‘stupid’ questions and stimulate others to do so as well
  • Be aware of your own behavior and how you influence others.

John Smith also wrote a blogpost in reaction to the webinar, He used the chat notes we’ve made during the webinar is a starting point and to summarize. Here you can find his.