The Theory of Social Validation

In Uncategorized on May 5, 2010 at 7:27 pm

I recently listened to an episode of Psych Files, a pod-cast created by psychologist Michael Britt. His guest, Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., was discussing her book Neuro Web Design and more specifically how our brains operate when we look at web pages.

At one point they began to discuss and Britt mentioned how quickly we evaluate the worth of a book based upon the reviews of other customers. Weinschenk had a very interesting response. She referenced Robert Chialdini’s ideas on social proof (theory of social validation) and stated:

“When we are uncertain about what to do we will look to other people to guide us. And we do this automatically and unconsciously.”

Of course this is not a new concept and I’m sure most users of the Internet use others’ judgments to help them in making certain choices. I learned a long time ago that I could waste a lot of time and in some cases money if I ignored recommendations by fellow consumers on sites such as Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.

But let’s go beyond the Internet, how often do we apply this principle to our own lives? How often do we try to influence the opinions that people make about us or the things we do that depend on others’ recognition of us for success? No matter the field, if we look to progress, we have to depend on people to say we are not only capable, but the exact person to fulfill a need. To go a step further, we need gatekeepers to say this.

Hence, no matter how long we have studied, practiced or otherwise prepared, if we haven’t received the proper social validation we may be just spinning our wheels. A great example of this can be found in the recounting of events by Michael Jordan. In his 2009 acceptance speech, for induction into the (Naismith Memorial) Hall of Fame, Jordan relayed that as a freshman at UNC, his coach Dean Smith was featured in Sports Illustrated. In the interview, Smith listed only four starters on the team and neglected to mention him. Jordan was livid and said that this fueled his desire to demonstrate to Smith and others how great a player he was. Jordan also stated that this need for acknowledgement (read validation) fueled him throughout his college and NBA years. Michael Jordan knew he was a great player, but he also knew the benefits of being recognized as a great player. He wanted and needed both.

In the final analysis, sometimes we have done enough; we are more than ready and need no further skills to make it to the next level. We just need to make sure the right people know this and that they signal to others that it’s safe to jump on the bandwagon. That signal may be all that’s needed to make things happen!

Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. is the author of Pop Psychology: The Psychology of Everyday Life! You can also check out his page on Twitter.

Public Speaking: When Running is Not an Option

In Psychology, Psychology of Success, Psychology Today, Public Speaking, Self talk, Success, Visualization on September 30, 2009 at 3:23 pm

public speaking - scared

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Roger’s palms are dripping, his breath is hurried and his heart feels as if it is thumping in his chest. He feels a sense of danger but doesn’t know what to do. He has a case of the ‘butterflies’ and it has his stomach tied in knots. Roger has heard of the term ‘knees knocking’ but now it has special significance. Running is not an option, neither is fighting, so what will Roger do and how can he lessen these feelings in the future?

These are some of the symptoms that people have to deal with when they have to speak to audiences. I know this because one of the courses I teach is public speaking and students privately and publicly share that they have these experiences all of the time.

Recently, after a class, I had a number of students approach my desk. It was about the usual; tardiness, missed assignments or to confide, inches away, that they had a communicable illness but felt they couldn’t miss any more classes. One student, however, actually wanted to discuss a topic dealing with public speaking. He glanced around sheepishly and then asked, “How do you deal with anxiety about speaking in public?”

It is a question that college students often ask, but the concern is common to all of us. So I would like to share some quick fixes as well mid to long-range solutions to lessening anxiety and improving your ability to speak in front of an audience.

Most Fear Isn’t Visible

Many people are nervous about public speaking because they believe that their body will betray them. They feel that cool and casual demeanor that we all tend to display when we are out and about will not stand up to public scrutiny. Well, a quick tip is that many of the indicators of fear cannot be detected by the naked eye. Shortness of breath, ‘knees knocking,’ increased hear rate, ‘butterflies,’ enlarged pupils and sweaty palms cannot be detected by an audience.

To a large degree the cracking of voices or shaking of hands can’t be seen either. When a student tells me their voice cracked during a speech I immediately ask the class if they heard it. I have never had a class say they have. As far as hands shaking is concerned, I advise people to keep papers out of their hands and rest them on the podium if they begin to shake so others will not be able to see it.


Nothing provides a quicker boost of confidence than being prepared to give a speech. Scouting out your audience in advance, writing your speech well before the delivery date and practicing it numerous times reduces an enormous amount of pre-speech jitters. Why? Because you know you’ve done everything in your power to be ready for the experience.

Positive Self-Talk and Visualization

Although the fear that most people have of public speaking isn’t serious enough for them to visit a psychologist that doesn’t mean that psychological theory can’t be used to reduce anxiety. Psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck were pioneers of cognitive therapy and both believed that you could talk yourself into a negative or depressive state with irrational logic. And with public speaking many people make themselves nervous through terrible reasoning.

What we say to ourselves matters. So when you know that you have to deliver a speech it is best to go ahead and begin to mentally prepare for your success. Think about times when you have successfully spoken before a group of people or a sizeable audience. Imagine how hard it would be to fail when you have prepared thoroughly. Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen and what could you do to counter it. If you feel that you are going to swallow constantly or develop dry mouth you could bring a bottle of water. If you think you will forget your speech you can reason that it would be hard to do if you have well prepared notes and prompts.

Additionally, visualize a successful and pleasant experience. Think about what would make your experience ideal and prepare and practice so that reality will match your internal visualization.

Systematic Desensitization

This last piece of advice requires a lot more effort but it is worth it for individuals who will have to speak to a lot of audiences in the future. If this is the case, it is best not to just wing it until you get the hang of it. Instead, you should be proactive. Join a class, group or organization that teaches public speaking.

Being involved in a class or group gives you the opportunity to gain repeated exposure to an audience in a positive and constructive environment. It allows you to gradually reduce anxiety and increase your skill set at the same time. In the classes that I teach students get at least 30 opportunities to come before a group and work on almost every aspect of public speaking. Within a few weeks the biological response commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ syndrome becomes manageable and within a few months anxiety and nervousness is not an issue at all.

Public speaking anxiety is real but so are the methods to reduce it.

Can TV Shows Increase Social Skills? – Revisiting “Everything Bad is Good for You”

In Intelligence, Psychology, Psychology of Success, Success on August 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm


By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

In an episode of Hawthorne, a show about a Chief Nursing Officer at the fictitious Trinity Richmond Hospital, the main character Christina (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is faced with a dilemma. In an effort to ‘save’ a close friend, that is suffering from stage four cancer, she convinces him to participate in a clinical trial for cancer patients who are at stage two. She is able to coerce the researcher conducting the trial to admit her friend but it results in disastrous consequences for others. As a result of her friend being accepted into the program another man who has a ‘greater’ chance for survival is forced out. The man happens to be a patient of the Head Surgeon of her hospital and the Head Surgeon is also Christina’s good friend. When she is confronted about her activities she is forced to decide who gets the spot.

What would you do?

These type of predicaments are now standard fare for many television shows. The characters are placed in scenarios that are nuanced, layered and can’t easily be resolved. Steven Johnson, in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, argues that in many ways these new types of shows improve your social and emotional intelligences. He asserts that multiple plot lines, no clear delineation of hero and villain and unending story lines keeps the audiences engaged and in our efforts to understand or critique we improve our social skills.

Great examples of these shows are Friday Night Lights, Weeds, Californication, LostSurvivorPrison Break, 24 and Nurse Jackie. These programs force audiences to use their cognitive skills in ways past television shows could not. The levels of logic, intuition and pure common sense audiences must exercise while viewing these shows raises the term ‘armchair quarterback’ to a new level. Additionally, the often outlandish behavior of characters on both scripted and ‘partially scripted’ (reality) TV shows are hard to ignore and not make judgments about.

But, do shows like these really help us in meaningful ways? Can nursing students learn valuable lessons from watching Hawthorne or Nurse Jackie?

The power of such shows, Johnson states, is that viewers often empathize with the characters or at the least think about what they would do if they were faced with similar situations. Constant viewing of these shows provides the audiences with opportunities to broaden and enrich their social toolbox and to think about some of their own emotional issues.

Ultimately, these shows are just entertainment, but many explore issues pertaining to gender, race, ageism, violence, politics and a host of ordinary, everyday problems. At the least, Johnson offers that people gather to watch these shows and discuss them at school, work and on the Internet; which he claims further increases their analytic skills or at least provides a reason for social interaction.

Do I agree fully? No. — But at least when I’m watching a Numb3rs marathon on Netflix or Weeds on Showtime I can argue that I’m improving my social skills.

Hey Guys, I have recently been added as a blogger at Psychology Today (Magazine). Come check out my blog, Communication Central