Are You Influenced By Social Proof?

The other day I was waiting on the corner for a light to change. At some intersections in my city, they two way traffic for cars, and four way traffic for pedestrians. So if you are a pedestrian, you have to wait until the traffic going both in your direction and perpendicular to your direction have a chance to go, before you can walk. But when you do cross, you can either cross directly across, or diagonally. It’s a pretty good system, which many cities use, at least in some of the larger intersections.

I was reminded of back when I was in first grade, and our class was out walking around on the streets outside of school. We were crossing a major intersection, and the teachers (we had a couple of classes joined together) were telling us the importance of staying inside the lines on the crosswalk. This was a long, long time ago, and I’ve killed many brain cells between then and now, but I’m pretty sure one of the teachers put the fear of death into us to keep us inside the lines. We were told that if we stepped outside the lines while crossing the street, we were likely to be run over, as cars only had to stop if we were inside the lines.

And as I walked across the street, my mind drifted onto another conundrum. When does social proof overcome childhood conditioning? I’ve noticed that many times people here will stay firmly inside the lines of the crosswalk. No doubt that people around the world were taught a similar lesson about staying between the lines.

But sometimes, during say a nice Sunday afternoon when there are many people out window-shopping and such, the streets can get pretty crowded. And a large crowd can cross at once. And I’ve noticed while there is a big crowd, even though there is enough space to stay inside the lines, people seem to drift out and walk completely out in the open. Keep in mind that traffic is stopped from all directions; it’s even illegal to make a right or left turns at this point.

In a book on social influence, experimenters went out and stood in crowds waiting to cross a street. They would cross while the light was still red, and more often than not, people would join in. A few times, nobody crossed along with the experimenter disguised as a crosswalk rebel, but usually at least a few people did.

The funny thing is, that when asked about it afterwards, when it was explained that it was a social research experiment for a local university, even the people that didn’t cross when the rebel did explained that they felt an unconscious urge to do so.

Which again, begs the question I posed above. When does social proof, the unconscious desire programmed into our brains by evolution to go along with the crowd, override the messages taught to us as children? Obviously, everybody knows that you have to stay inside the lines, and wait until the light turns green.

Buy why do people feel such a strong pull to overcome these truths taught to us by our parents? At what point do we disregard what we’ve brought up to believe is right and correct, and simply follow the crowd without question?

In the past, our distant, pre-agriculture past, following the crowd meant safety. But what about today? Is it always a good idea to follow the crowd? I doubt a German Jew from the last century would agree that it is.

Usually, you won’t get into too much trouble by simply allowing yourself to be persuaded by the behaviors of large groups. You might buy some junk product that isn’t all that, or be caught on video doing the Macarena at a baseball game, but you usually won’t get into too much trouble.

But one powerful question to ask yourself, if you ever find yourself blindly following the crowd is:

“Would I be doing this if nobody else was?”

And really be honest with yourself, you may be surprised what happens.

I was once in High School, sitting and talking to a friend of mine in algebra class. The teacher usually had us work by ourselves in the last ten or fifteen minutes of class. My buddy and I were talking about the mindless sheep attitude of most people (we were both in our high school rebellion stage). We decided to give the system the finger, break from the crowd and stand up to leave before the bell rang.

Much to our surprise, as soon as we stood, so did everybody else. And while everybody filed out of class before the bell rang, the teacher didn’t even blink.

When you choose not to follow, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to lead.

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