The concept of “social proof” (or informational social influence, if you’re a sadist for typing) tells us that, often subconsciously, individuals will look to the other people around them in ambiguous social situations to determine the appropriate way to behave. It’s a result of the subconscious mind assuming that those around us are better informed on what is acceptable and appropriate.
Unfortunately social proof became a bit of a buzzword for marketers a few years ago. Pesky buzzword or not, I think it’s a concept worth looking at from a personal development point of view. The bottom line is that the concept of social proof as described is something that is built in to the human mind and something we should be trying to build out through intellectual exercise as quickly as we can.
When your decisions are informed by the assumption that those around you are better informed than you on what the appropriate action to take is, you are destined towards several places, and none of them are good. When you make your decisions according to what other people think or do you end up quite unspectacular and rarely achieving anything of note, nor any of your dreams and goals in life.
The right attitude to assume is that you know what you want and you need to do whatever you can to get there. Obviously, acting too far outside of social norms will just have you ostracized and prevented from reaching your goals by others, so those who would argue that trying to evolve out of our in-built “social proof” mechanism causes anti-social and even criminal behavior will be pleased to know that working towards one’s goals (usually) has checks and balances like these in place. You can’t get far alone — as much as you don’t want to follow others, you do need them.
When my wife and I made the decision to move across the country to a better location, one of our considerations was the people we were living behind. Our families — our children’s grandparents, aunts and uncles — and friends live here and we felt bad about the prospect of leaving them (well, most of them!). But in the end your life is your life, and you need to take control of it and bring about the results you want to see.
That isn’t precisely social proof by the book because we weren’t taking cues from anybody but ourselves, but in the context of decision-making processes it’s the same principle at work.
If you know the results you want to create in your life and you do nothing to go about obtaining them, you are weak. There is no way of pussyfooting around that truth. To have strength of character you must always be moving towards your optimal way of life.
Maybe you’re in a situation where you can’t bring about those desired results just now, but you can at least start to plan for a time when that situation changes, or preferably, has been changed by you.
Staying because others want you to? Not going to help you achieve results. Not giving your dreams a shot because nobody else is giving theirs a shot? Definitely not going to get you anywhere. Social proof is bad. This process is probably a remnant of a time when social proof helped you decide which food was good to eat and which was poisonous; I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. All I know is that it doesn’t serve much of a purpose now. It gets in the way.
And while I know that, in a neutral state I’m as prone to it as anyone. The difference is that I do my best to catch myself and take measures — drastic if they have to be — to get out of that rut and leave the cattle behind.
To improve yourself you need to define your goals and optimal situation and work towards that regardless of whether others are doing the same. That doesn’t mean disregard and disrespect others — it means don’t make your decisions based on what others are doing, thinking, or desiring. You should still formulate decisions that mitigate the negative effects on others, and preferably have positive effects for them — but if the negative effect is an acceptable one and the rewards for your goals are worthwhile, you know what you need to do.