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Apologies for the bad question title, I lack sufficient vocabulary. From the vocabulary I know I could not find a duplicate question.

I am having trouble understanding how the word "assume" can be used in this sentence (from Google define: "Social Proof"):

"Social proof: Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation."

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    It means "change in order to imitate", as in "assume the position". It's not always a mental action verb; indeed, like virtually all mental words, it's metaphoric in nature: Assume x = y means 'Change your presuppositions in order to accomodate a hypothetical presupposition that x = y". – John Lawler Dec 6 '14 at 18:13
  • you should make that an answer :) – hello_there_andy Dec 6 '14 at 21:16
  • The query sentence would have been much easier to make sense of if the Wikipedia author who wrote that definition which Google has spewed forth had written 'imitate' instead of the ambiguous 'assume'. (For that matter, 'reflect' is also ambiguous enough to make it hard to interpret.) It is an example of the worst kind of academic prose: it is verbose, vague and rather pompous. – Erik Kowal Dec 7 '14 at 5:50
  • @ErikKowal I don't consider using a word like 'assume', in a perfectly usual context, to be 'verbose', 'vague' or 'pompous'. And I am usually the first to complain about excessively elaborate English. I appreciate that the OP may not be a native speaker and with due respect to them, if we are going to 'dumb-down' the language to exclude words like 'assume' in its primary meaning (recognising only its secondary one) then we shall end up with a language fit only for 'dumbos'. – WS2 Dec 8 '14 at 9:29
  • @WS2 - You have apparently misread both my comment and my intention. I was not complaining about the use of 'assume' when I used the words verbose, vague and pompous, but the opaqueness of the complete definition of 'social proof' quoted by the OP. Of course I would not wish to exclude words like 'assume' from common use — that would be just silly. My underlying point is that when you are defining a term, you have to take care to do it in a way that leaves the least possible scope for misinterpretation. – Erik Kowal Dec 8 '14 at 9:55
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The original meaning of assume is "take on": it is still used in this meaning with objects like "role", "position", "authority", but it is rather literary.

So "assume the actions of others" (in a scholarly text) means "take on the actions of those others", or in simpler language, "copy them".

In normal use, the later meaning draw a conclusion or more particularly act on a conclusion drawn is much more common.

  • Yes, it need have nothing whatever to do with imitation. One could say simply 'Assume an upright posture', or 'assume a detached air'. It's other meaning almost parallel's presume, and I am just wondering about their etymological relationship. – WS2 Dec 6 '14 at 22:01
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    The root is sumo = "I take". as-sumo "I take to". prae-sumo = "I take before". – Colin Fine Dec 6 '14 at 23:01
  • Just noticed the two typos in my previous comment, both unnecessary apostrophes. I'm using a new computer perhaps it is 'correcting' me. – WS2 Dec 8 '14 at 9:20
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For me, to assume the actions of others means to: make the actions of others one's own by copying or imitating those actions (behavior). I would have written the sentence differently: behave as others do in an attempt to act in a manner perceived as correct in a given situation.

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