The Amazing Power of Social Proof

While traveling around the world I’ve had many occasions to observe human behavior. One of the interesting places to observe strange behaviors is during the buffet-style hotel breakfasts.

Over the last year I’ve sat down at hotel breakfasts in dozens and dozens of hotels around the world.

Here’s the concept of social proof in action:

Usually at these hotel buffets, people go for eggs, toast, pastries, coffee, orange juice, and as much bacon, sausage and meat as they can pile on their plate.

Because  I usually only eat fruit for breakfast, I typically head to the fruit table and grab as much fruit I can. Usually, it’s not as much fruit as I’d even eat for one meal, but for most people it probably looks like a big amount.

Then here’s the strange thing: as soon as people see us walking around with these “big” plates of fruit, then suddenly everyone wants one too. That’s the power of social proof: people generally tend to do what they see other people do.

Another competing principle is that of “scarcity.” Now because everybody is taking the fruit for breakfast, there’s a shortage of it, so it makes hotel guests want it even more, even if they normally don’t eat that much fruit for breakfast!

That’s when people start giving us dirty looks when they see us going for a second plate of fruit. They look at us with evil eyes that say “How dare you take so much fruit when there’s not enough to go around!”

They probably don’t realize that we’re the ones causing this frenzy in the first place.

Now this kind of behavior is only visible at a small hotel with a limited number of guests. At a very giant breakfast room at a big hotel, people don’t see what everybody else is eating so there’s less reason for social proof to occur.

Another weird thing I’ve noticed:

Whenever I drive somewhere and see a road stand selling fruit or something else, it’s usually deserted. I might drive on the same road many times and don’t see anyone shopping there.

If I decide to stop and shop around, especially if I’m with a group of people, then suddenly everyone on the road is stopping too and the place becomes packed!

People don’t stop at deserted road stands because there’s no social proof: no indication that this place is worth stopping for. But if they see a lot of cars and people shopping, then they think that it must be worth stopping for.

That’s why nobody wants to go inside an empty restaurant: because it’s bad social proof. If there’s nobody there, then the food must be terrible.

But if the restaurant is full and there’s even a line to get in, then people are willing to wait for an hour or more to get a seat!

The principles of social proof and scarcity are literally hard-wired in the human brain. We literally CANNOT avoid reacting to these incentives.

That means that if you have a business of any kind, you need to learn to use these principles. That doesn’t mean cheap tactics, but genuine incentives to generate interest around your business.

In a future email, I’ll tell you some ways to use these principles.

Until then, make sure you show up early to grab all the fruit at the hotel breakfasts!