I was riding my bike through a park near my house this morning. I saw this old guy next to a small stream. The stream is actually a drainage trough that leads to the ocean. They have built so there are several steps going down as the stream flows out. That way the water can pool in each area between the steps. In a few steps, where the man was looking, there were several fish. He explained to me that these were poi fish. When I asked him why they were so big, he explained that there was an elementary school nearby, and the kids would feed them on the way home. Because they can eat anything, the poi eagerly gobbled up anything the kids threw at them, providing it was edible.
One of the friends I used to work with was a very picky eater. She would take forever to choose what she wanted from the menu. Whenever somebody suggested something, she’d come up with a reason why it wouldn’t be good. Not fresh. Too expensive. Vegetables out of season. And the funny thing was whenever she finally decided to order something, she would invariably see something that somebody else had ordered and decide to change her order. Many times it was something that somebody had suggested earlier, and she’d dismissed for some reason or another. I always felt sorry for the waiter or waitress that had to go back and explain to the chef that he or she would have to start over again.
It’s funny how social proof works. You see somebody standing on a street corner looking up at the sky, and you look at the person. But if you see ten people looking up at the sky, you will almost automatically look up at the sky. This phenomenon has been described by many scientists as a shortcut of thinking. Instead of walking up and asking each person what they are looking at, and then makingÂ a determination whether or not to take a gander, the brain automatically floods the body with a strong desire to follow the crowd. It’s as if the ability to think for yourself gets temporarily shut off. This can be helpful, and invariably was helpful during our period of evolution. If you saw a bunch of your cavemen neighbors running very fast one direction, you either had the instinct to immediately join them or get eaten by whatever was chasing them. It can have huge negative effects when you are following the crowd in a bad direction, like in Nazi Germany, for example. Certain traits of human nature can be used both for good and evil. It’s important to monitor your thoughts and actions, and make sure they are your thoughts and actions, and not because somebody or some group of people have hijacked your brain.
But my friend finally realized that it was ok to take the advice of friends. And she learned to take her time to make a decision, so that when she finally made it, she was able to stick with it. And the rest of us were happy because we were all secretly a little bit embarrassed for the waiter. All in all it was a good decision.
And since I’ve been feeding the fish, my favorite part is watching how all the fish that are nowhere near the place where I throw the bread into the water come rushing over as soon as they see one of their fish buddies eating. I guess they follow the rules of social proof as well.