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We’re a Bunch of Lemmings

It’s true. Scientifically proven. I’m reading a book called “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini, and a particular section discussing the concept of social proof.

Social proof states that in periods of uncertainty we look to others for a signal of appropriate behaviour, and specifically, others that we feel are most similar to us.

I’m sure this is old news to the Psych 101 stars out there, but the applications are fascinating.

Like the phenomenon that large groups of people witnessing an emergency are less likely to help a person in need than if there was just a single witness. Or the fact that suicide rates increase drastically in the two months following the reporting of a suicide in the news – geographically, and even ethnically specific!

The same, I assume, could apply to suicide bombers. I’ll be watching closely to see if there is an immediate follow-up to the recent tragedy in Moscow.

The real question then becomes why do we report such things, if by doing so, we’re essentially catalyzing the murder of innocent people?

It’s easy to blame the media; after all, if they stopped showing us these horrors, in theory, we’d stop committing them.  And we’d be naive to think that media moguls don’t understand the influence they have, which makes me wonder how they can, in good conscience, continue to show such atrocities. Or for that matter, sleep at night. But really, they’re just brainless kittens. Kittens chasing a light beam. As long as the beam is shining, they’ll keep running, trying to keep up.

The beam is our demand, an insatiable lust for sensationalist stories. What causes it, I’m not sure. But unfortunately for us, I don’t think it’s a thirst for knowledge. It’s something much more basic; the same phenomenon that makes us stare at a car wreck as we drive slowly by. It may be an evolutionary survival instinct – the more scenarios we’re aware of that cause us harm or death, the more prepared we are to avoid them. We instinctively know not to jump off a cliff, but at some point along the evolutionary chain we would have had to learn that the hard way. We reassure our own safety by our awareness of these scenarios. But I’m open to other viewpoints…

So how do we solve this problem? How do we break ourselves of the urge to look?

I think it starts with leadership. We crave leadership – someone to show us how to act when we’re uncertain. With the concept of social proof, a leader’s reach can be much greater than their individual influence. If a leader convinces one to person spring to action, that action can become self-fulfilling, as others emulate the behaviour of the person they relate with. It’s unfortunately the principle that has allowed leaders like Hitler and Bin Laden to thrive.

But it can work for good.  In a study, when a witnesses of an emergency was called out individually, told what to do by a confident leader, they sprang to action. Not only that, but others, seeing this person in action, broke out of their trance and did something useful as well. In this case, strong leadership and social proof meant that someone survives.

So, in my quest for a strong leader to show me the path, I turned to the all-knowing one, the great eye. The Simpsons.

In a particularly hilarious Halloween episode, all the advertising mascots in Springfield come to life and take out their fury on the town. Why advertising mascots have an instinct for carnage is anyone’s guess, but the lesson was clear.

To stop advertising, use advertising.

A catchy jingle, led by Paul Anka, convinced the townspeople to “Just Don’t Look”. The advertising monsters died.

So, perhaps we can use media to stop media.

Consider this blog a humble media outlet, but a start none the less.


It’s got Paul Anka’s guarantee.

  1. September 4, 2010 at 4:15 am

    It’s very clear that social proof is extremely powerful. Blogs, infomercials, and coffee shops/restaurants use it all the time. It’s an interesting phenomenon that presents itself across different factions of our society, including business. Your examples were powerful, and I believe social proof can be used to benefit our society and the lives of those within it!

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