Social Influence and Conformity: The Science of Social Proof

Social Influence and Conformity: The Science of Social Proof

In this paradoxical age where being different is embraced but also condemned, I thought it would be interesting to talk about conformity. Conformity refers to “the act of changing one’s behavior to match the  responses of others” (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004, p. 606).

Conformity is often discussed in terms of social standards, where it is equated to “fitting in.” In this article, I’d like to discuss conformity in terms of marketing. Studies have shown that consumers trust product reviews more than product descriptions. Because of this, about 70% of consumers look at product reviews before they decide to purchase. Product reviews are just one example of social proof, which is linked to conformity (Hallen, 2014).

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people conform to the actions of others because they assume that those actions are the correct behavior (Hallen, 2014).

Here are some examples:

  • Laugh tracks and recorded applause on TV shows – they are played because they want you to laugh with them
  • Seeing a long queue outside a restaurant will make you think that the restaurant is pretty good, so you join the queue
  • Yelp – customers use Yelp’s customer reviews to help them decide where to eat
  • Subscribers – people will decide whether they should subscribe to a certain site based on how many subscribers the site has
  • Testimonials – reading positive comments about a company or product provides social proof that the company or product is trustworthy

Essentially, social proof is when we form evaluations about something based on the actions of other people.



1. Expert social proof

= Approval from credible experts in the relevant field

We often seek an expert’s opinion when buying products. Experts provide credibility, which makes us more likely to trust their reviews and recommendations when buying a product.

This is known as “influencer marketing,” which is based on the halo effect. The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which we form an opinion of someone based on our overall impression of him or her. Experts, then, are influencers because they are usually well-known with established reputations. Thus, we are more likely to trust them (Hallen, 2014).

2. Celebrity social proof

= Approval or endorsements from celebrities

Nowadays, celebrities are often involved with certain brands or products. One of the most popular deals was in 2001, when Britney Spears appeared in several commercials for Pepsi. Many other celebrities went on to endorse Pepsi, such as Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, and Nicki Minaj.

Celebrities offer social proof because we view possessions (i.e. brands and products) as a reflection of ourselves. This concept is known as the extended self, which suggests that we are made up of the self (me) and our possessions (mine). Because the things we buy are a part of our identity, our decision on which perfume to buy, for example, will be based on which celebrity endorses the perfume. Are we more “Enchanted Wonderstruck” by Taylor Swift or “Regal Crown” by Katy Perry?

3. User social proof

= Approval from current/past users

User social proof includes customer testimonials, case studies, and online reviews. Websites like Yelp, Amazon, and Trip Advisor are just a few examples of consumer review sites.

User social proof like customer reviews are effective because they involve storytelling. Stories are more persuasive and trustworthy than statistics because we tend to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes when we read their story. As Hallen (2014) cleverly put it, “individual examples stick with us because we can relate to them.”

4. “Wisdom of crowds” social proof

= Approval from large groups of people

The number of subscribers, likes, or views of a website are examples of “wisdom of crowds” social proof. Another example is the “people who bought this also bought that” section, which is featured on many websites. This is helpful because we tend to trust people who have similar tastes to us.

“Wisdom of crowds” social proof also presents us with the “Fear of Missing Out,” or FOMO in popular culture. It is a kind of social anxiety where one worries that they might miss out on an opportunity. This anxiety is relevant in social media, where you can constantly see and compare everyone’s daily lives to your own.

5. Peer social proof

= Approval from friends and people you know

Peer social proof is also especially relevant in social media. Social proof is often displayed in terms of how many “likes” a brand has on Facebook or how many followers someone has on Twitter.

The concept that can be applied here is implicit egotism, which states that most people subconsciously like things that resemble them somehow. We become friends with people that we have a lot in common with, and studies have shown that we value the opinions of people who we perceive are most similar to us. This is why Facebook “likes” and statements like “your friends have tried/visited this” on Trip Advisor are so successful; they provide a stamp of approval which is the social proof that helps you make a decision.

A conformist culture

Social proof is one of the quickest and most powerful ways to illustrate credibility. This makes it an especially useful tactic in marketing, but it also brings us back to the idea of conformity.

When we buy a certain product, are we buying it because we really want it? Or because we see that others have bought it as well? Are we conforming to other people’s opinions? Do we genuinely like this brand or have we been persuaded by the number of likes and followers?

I have yet to form an opinion on this. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that I’m not in control, that I’m not making my own decisions. Maybe I just don’t want to consider myself a conformist. But, really, would it be so bad?



Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015

Hallen, E. (2014, May 1). The Science of Social Proof: 5 Types and the Psychology Behind Why They Work. Retrieved August 6, 2015, from

Hum, S. (2014, October 31). I’ll Have What She’s Having: 15 Examples of Social Proof Used in Marketing. Retrieved August 6, 2015, from

Heywyre Partner , Psych2Go
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