The purpose of Psychological Warfare is to manipulate the behavior of the enemy or of the local nationals in an effort to save lives on the battlefield. This can include convincing enemy soldiers that they need to desert and return home reducing their forces. It can also include convincing local nationals to report insurgent activities.

In this type of an environment, people are often resistant toward complying with our war effort. This is where creativity comes in through the use of carefully strategized persuasion techniques.  Of the nearly two dozen listed in the field manual, I’ve included one specific technique. After I introduce it, I’ll explain what social proof and social signals are, how this persuasion technique relates directly to social proof, and how you can start putting this technique to work for your online marketing.

Plain Folks or Common Man: This persuasion technique attempts to convince your audience that your position is actually the same as theirs. This technique is designed to win their confidence by conveying that many of their peers have already adopted your message.

Example: I often see McDonald’s commercials (and others) where a person eating a burger or holding their product is wearing a hard hat on their break at a construction site, sitting in a cubicle at an office, or sitting and eating at home. They’re attempting to make it look like McDonald’s is the go-to restaurant for regular, average folks.
In war, we employ this technique using photos of local nationals or hiring local celebrities like sports stars, prominent religious leaders, or political leaders to present the message.

So what is social proof?

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior. Often people will conform to those around them assuming that the behavior of the group is correct even before or despite any logic or reasoning.

As Robert Cialdini so eloquently stated it, “The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.” In Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasionhe totes the concept of social proof as one of the six core principles for effective persuasion. He aptly labels it as a weapon of influence, and an incredibly powerful weapon it is.

  • He cites studies that prove that comedy television shows receive more laughter and longer laughter with the use of canned laughter embedded into the show.
  • He cites studies where children terrified of dogs overcome their fear in as few as four days by watching other children pet and play with a dog for 20 minutes a day. In this study, when multiple children, rather than only one, were seen petting a dog, the effect was even more profound.

Robert CialdiniSocial proof is a far more powerful principle that we might naturally wish to admit, yet a cursory look into the wilderness of the web will demonstrate the magnitude of its power.

  • Facebook has found this to be true and constantly attempts to bombard you with advertisements bragging about which of your connections have already liked a product or business page.
  • Yelp derives much of its user base from the concept that people simply want to read reviews and know what others think about businesses and their quality of service.
  • Merchants on eBay all but beg for positive feedback because they understand the power of this simple principle.

In reality there are three notable aspects to social proof that can expand the way it triggers reactions in the brain.

  1. We have a natural tendency to accept the ideas and the behavior of the people we observe.
  2. The tendency to adopt ideas and behavior grows stronger when the person we observe is a person we respect or like.
  3. The tendency to adopt ideas and behavior grows even stronger when the quantity of people partaking in it is increased.

So what are social signals?

In a recent article What are Social Signals and Why Do They Matter?, Dustin W. Stout presented an incredibly clear and concise introduction to this psychologically charged topic. He defines social signals as:

A social signal is visible activity or actions taken by other people on a given subject. An easy way that translates to websites or blogs are social share buttons. – Dustin W. Stout

child-with-dogIn our example above from Cialdini’s book, we saw two  groups of children. One group was terrified of dogs. The other group enjoyed dogs and petted and played with them. The children in the group that enjoyed dogs were sending a social signal with their actions to those who were afraid. The silent but powerful signal was clearly communicating that dogs are friendly and wonderful to play with, and the terrified group heard it loud and clear. Message received.

So how do I use social signals?

By now, you’ve hopefully made the connection between social proof and our common man or plain folks persuasion technique. Also, as you’ve already seen, Yelp, Facebook, eBay, and many other websites have already found ways to implement this principle into their business model. You’ve probably also started thinking about ways to make this work for your own ventures, and that’s the key.

There are an untold number of applications of this principle, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply make a case for social media. When people land on your website for the first time, people usually decide within 1 – 4 seconds whether or not you are a credible source worthy of their attention. It’s common practice to place social sharing icons at the top of articles.

Social SignalsThese will either serve to add to your credibility or take from it through the use of this powerful principle called social proof. By actively engaging on social media and connecting and engaging with others, these numbers will rise. Then those finding your site through organic search will be given additional mental incentive to stay. So go ahead and pull the trigger in the minds of your viewers.

Also, as a side note, there is much discussion about the possibility of Google moving toward a search algorithm that places higher priority on social signals versus old-fashioned back links. With all this evidence, it’s time to get out there and get social.

Group Discussion & Take Away

  • How can you apply this psychological principle to your business, your branding, or your marketing?
  • What thoughts and ideas do you have about this topic that I may not have covered?
  • What examples of social proof and social signals have you seen in the wild?
  • Can you think of a time when social proof played a part in the way you thought or behaved? Perhaps peer pressure as a teenager?

Okay. Now it’s your turn. How are you going to take action.

Nicholas Cardot

About Nicholas Cardot

It's my personal quest to enable every person that I can to unlock that dormant potential concerning their online influence. Also, I'm a geek.


  • Hey Nic

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It is especially fascinating to become aware of the parallels between psychological warfare and social media marketing.

    I believe social proof and social signals have been part of our society forever. We just didn’t have a ‘term’ for it. Right from the days when we molded our behavior to befit the ‘cool kids camp’ in high school, what other people think, feel and believe has always mattered.

    In the Indian culture, for example, social signals are widely embraced while ‘arranging’ marriages. Families always look for brides and grooms in reputable families, and they largely rely on their friends and ‘inner circle’ to ‘vet’ out prospects.

    Loved it Nic,

    • I love how you related this principle to your culture. That’s an amazing example of how this whole thing works.

      As to your comments about this being around forever, I completely agree with you. And you identified that perfectly in your reference to the cool kids back in high school. This principle is simply hard-wired into the back of our minds which is what makes it such a useful weapon of influence. Simply pull the trigger and watch it work!

      • jonny says:

        Hard wired. That’s one way of putting it.

        Imprinted with terror and violence is another way. We’re all victims of bullies named “Mom”.

        Money-making in a world of arranged marriages, and implications. Hah. No one rich is happy. They don’t tell you why you’ll be miserable. Bah. I’m boring myself. Some mistakes you have to make on your own.

        Good article, though. Very sharp.

  • […] the Super Bowl for its outrageous ads. Why? Maybe it’s because I’m curious, looking for social proof amidst the psychological warfare which companies and brands engage in, fighting for customer loyalty and […]

  • wikked Saiyan says:

    As to conformity to befit; grey area indeed. As others hold the same power of influence over you, be true to thy own self.
    Happy mediums may be an answer…. life is all about relationships as described in earlier stories and I completely agree. I myself have a history of somewhat errogant and standoffish behavior, so I am making a change in my life to pay more attn. To the needs of others. This should show me returns both financially and passionately when following the basic guidelines from the article.

  • Insightful stuff here – I see how many times I’ve been influenced by social signals and then I can think of times where I’ve wanted to go the polar opposite direction when I see social signals. Will you be discussing that at all, how some people prefer not to follow the crowd? Are they such a small percentage that we don’t need to concern ourselves with triggering their behavior in our marketing? In my business, what I offer is still not exactly mainstream, though in perhaps another 5-10 years it will be, so you might see why I want to know about the thinking of people who don’t necessarily conform to what everyone else is doing. My ideal client tends to practice Attachment Parenting, which promotes a lot of things that are not mainstream parenting practices, so by definition, they’re sort of doing the opposite of what is “popular.” Sorry for taking this question in 180 degrees the other way – but thinking you could shed some light on it.

  • This was a very unique article. This also explains why content goes viral. Once there are enough views for it, more and more people will see that content being worth their time. Also, adding social icons to the top of posts only works if you are getting a lot of shares. Otherwise people will notice that you only have 1 or 2 shares and it will not help build your credibility.

  • I agree, its time for people to start moving to social media for a bigger and better audience.

  • Matthew says:

    Holy cow, this was actually a really insightful and useful article. I’m a bit of a military nut, while I work as a SEO/content creation expert. I’d never thought of combining those two interests before. Good stuff man.

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