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28 January 2007

Social Proof

My rather boring psychology course caught my attention last week with the concept of social proof: The tendency to behave in the same way that others around you are behaving.

Our professor, David Martin, brought up as an example of social proof the true story of Catherine Genovese. This young woman was murdered outside an apartment building while thirty-eight people watched. No one called the police. Each witness justified their non-action "because nobody else seemed to be calling the police".


Social psychologists have theories, as do all scientists. One idea is that in order to have mental efficiency, humans have certain triggering mechanisms that automatically activate fixed behavior patterns. The ability to employ triggered responses increases mental efficiency because we don't have to waste precious brain time deciding what to do. However, it also means that we can end up unthinkingly persuaded to behave in ways that we might not wish to behave.

Rather innocuous examples of social proof are laugh tracks on TV sitcoms. We tend to laugh and think the sitcom is funny simply because others are laughing. (I say, be strong: Decide on your own when to laugh or not to laugh! )

David Martin states that social psychologists have "done considerable research showing that if you need help in a public place, for example, if you are having a heart attack, you are better off with fewer people around than with more people, because the more bystanders who seem to be doing nothing give social proof that it is okay to do nothing."

I think it's good to be aware of the triggers that make us behave in certain ways. Sometimes they will be good triggers, but sometimes we need to stop, look, and pay attention, use your brain, exercise it, think for yourself, then act for yourself. Help someone who needs help, even if no one else is. Be a good Samaritan, not a bad Samaritan.