Sunday, February 8, 2009

When Social Proof Misleads Us

While driving up to the mountains to do some snowboarding, I noticed something interesting. While the roads were perfectly clear, there were still tons of cars using chains on their tires. I quickly realized that this was a "monkey see monkey do" type phenomenon when I saw these large turnout areas with tons of cars pulled over putting chains on their tires.

It is very natural, as well as useful, for humans to take shortcuts in making decisions using social proof. When people saw that so many cars were chaining up their tires, their mind used this as a shortcut to tell them to put chains on their tires as well. In many cases, using social proof is useful, but in this case, it clearly was not. Having chains on the tires while not needed on the mountain is not that big of a deal, but it made me think of some of the more far reaching consequences of social proof.

Much of the world's consumerism is based on the concept of social proof. If everybody wants it, then I need to get it. If Paris Hilton wore it, it must be good. These types of thinking, unchecked, will inevitably lead to a rat racer type of lifestyle, where you are constantly listening to what other people tell you you need to buy or what you need to do. It is important to rationally evaluate each important decision you make and find out what your real motivation is. Social proof may be an indication, but certainly not a validation of a quality decision. Use social proof with caution.