Why is the Behavior of Others so Compelling?

We all like to think we’re independent thinkers, that we’re not easily influenced by those around us.

The truth, however, is that we are not as independent as we think.

We are, in fact, influenced by others, especially in situations of uncertainty.

When we’re not sure what we should do our default is to look to others.

In How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the art and science of persuasion and motivation, author Susan Weinschenk brings to our attention a fascinating experiment from the 1970s. Research participants would go into room, supposedly to fill out a survey on creativity.

In the room would be one or more other people, pretending they were also participants, but who were really part of the experiment. Sometimes there would be one other person in the room, sometimes more. While people were filling out their creativity survey, smoke would start to come into the room from an air vent. Would the participant leave the room? Go tell someone about the smoke? Just ignore it?

Bibb Latané and John Darley (Latané 1970) conducted this experiment and many others like it. They set up ambiguous situations to see if people were affected by what those around them were or were not doing. What action, if any, the participant took depended on the behavior of the other people in the room, as well as how many other people there were.

The more people in the room, and the more the others ignored the smoke, the more the participant was likely to do nothing. If the participant was alone, he or she would leave the room and notify someone within a matter of seconds. But if there were others in the room who didn’t react, then the participant would do nothing.

We like to think that we’re independent thinkers, that we’re unique individuals. The truth is, however, that the need to fit in and belong is wired into our brains and our biology.

This isn’t a conscious process, it’s what we do. We’re even more likely to do it when we’re uncertain as to what to do.

You can use social proof, (aka social validation), to get people do to things. (Learn more of the secrets from the science of persuasion.)

“For example,” writes Weinschenk:

if you want people to quit smoking, tell them how many other people (in this program, in this country, in the world, in a particular time frame, with this method) have quit smoking. If you want people to buy a product, tell them how many people have already purchased it. If you want them to donate money, tell them how many people have already donated.

Still Curious? Read using social norms to motivate next.