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Posted: September 4th, 2023

Social Proof – Mental Models

Introduction: Understanding Social Proof

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon that describes how people often mirror the actions and opinions of others. In other words, people’s decisions are often influenced by the preferences and modeling of individuals or groups around them. Muzafer Sherif (1906-1988), a psychologist, was the first to describe social proof in scientific research. Sherif was interested in the impact of groups on individual decision-making and completed a famous experiment on group conformity in 1936. In this study, Sherif asked participants to observe a blinking light and found that people changed their initial answers to closer reflect what other group members had guessed. The concept of social proof came out of studies such as this one, as researchers consistently observe a tendency for individuals to move towards group conformity.

Using Social Proof to Influence People

Social proof is commonly used in marketing and social media to influence people to buy products. Different types of social proof are used in the context of marketing, including:

Social proof using the influence of social media friends: A business might indicate how many of a person’s Facebook friends “liked” a particular product they sell. People are more influenced to buy something when they know that their friends like the product.

Social proof using the influence of celebrities: People are more likely to buy a product when it is endorsed by a familiar and well-liked celebrity.

Social proof using the influence of professional certifications and testimonials: Experts in an area may be called upon to endorse a product or provide a testimonial of how they have enjoyed a product.

Social proof using the influence of crowds: Sometimes businesses indicate the number of people who have bought a product. When people know that a product or service is popular, they are more likely to want to buy it.

Social Proof and Personal Decisions

While social proof is a great marketing strategy and an effective means of influencing people to make certain choices, individuals should consider if social proof is always the best way to make decisions. Sharif’s original study indicated that people were not aware of the extent to which they were impacted by the group. When participants were asked if they thought they were influenced by the group, most of them believed they had not been influenced. However, it was clear from the results of the study that people were wrong to believe this.

Negative forms of social proof can lead to bad decision-making and giving into peer pressure. A prime example of this is college students who abuse alcohol and drugs. Research has drawn connections between social proof and this common dangerous behavior in college students. On a college campus, so many people engage in substance abuse that this behavior is observed to be the norm. Incoming students are apt to conform with the group and begin abusing substances just like the older students around them.


In conclusion, social proof is a psychological phenomenon in which people mirror the actions and opinions of others. Social proof is commonly used in marketing and social media to influence people to buy products. However, individuals should develop self-awareness surrounding this topic, so they can know when their decisions are being influenced by the people around them. While social proof can be a useful tool, negative forms of social proof can lead to bad decision-making and giving into peer pressure.


Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. Oxford, England: Harper.

Talib, Y. Y. A. & Saat, R. M. (2017). Social proof in social media shopping: An experimental design research. SHS Web of Conferences, 34.

Cullum, J., O’Grady, M., Armeli, S., & Tennen, H. (2012). Change and stability in active and passive social influence dynamics during natural drinking events: A

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