Why leadership makes followers: the power of social proof

I grew up in a logging town in northern Wisconsin where there wasn’t much interest in pristine etiquette. Indeed, too much formality was scoffed at.

So in college when I attended my first formal dinner, I spent the whole meal watching what everyone else was doing. I figured they knew how to behave in a setting like this, and I knew I certainly didn’t.

As social beings, we humans decide a lot of how we should behave or what we think by looking around at people like us to see what they do. That’s why laugh tracks on sitcoms work so well. Robert Cialdini calls this “social proof” in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

Usually, this process of watching what everyone else is doing works well enough, but sometimes it fails.

For example, in 1964 there was a notorious murder in New York. The murder took a half hour to complete because the killer was scared off twice but finished the murder the third time. All this took place in front of 38 witnesses, none of whom did anything until after the murder. They didn’t call out “stop that.” They didn’t even call the police until after the woman was dead.

Cialdini does a great job exploring the research that uncovered why there was not response, and I highly recommend reading the whole book. The conclusion they found is that is was precisely because there were 38 witnesses that nobody responded. Just like looking around at the formal dinner table to see which fork to use, they were all looking at each other to see what they should do.

This breakdown of social proof is called “pluralistic ignorance,” and it is most pronounced when bystanders face uncertainty, especially when:

  •  they are uncertain of the nature of the event;
  • they are uncertain about how to respond; and
  • they are uncertain who should respond, or if anyone has.

I think this has important implications for anti-racist and nonviolence work. I know I’ve found myself in a situation where someone has made inapproriate comments and I’ve been paralyzed by the uncertainty above. I’ve wondered:

  • Is this racist?
  • How should I respond?
  • Is it my place to respond?

There’s an opportunity here, then to help people intervene in cases of racism by overcoming these uncertainties. When we teach them how to identify racist comments, how to effectively respond, and why it is their duty to respond, we help them overcome the uncertainties that would prevent them from acting.

And whats more, we begin to turn social proof to our favor. Then, while everyone else is looking around to figure out “what do I do when someone uses the N-word,” they see social proof for actively responding rather than just letting it pass.

It’s an example of grassroots, micro-level leadership. And it can help produce followers (or better yet, future leaders) for justice.

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  1. Pingback: Use “Social Proof” to make for more effective events — The Warp Report

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