Social Proof: Herd it Through the Grapevine
No, that’s not a typo in the post title, as we’ll soon see. But first, some disturbing news.
It’s become fairly well-known that unfortunate events reported heavily in the media lead to other similar unfortunate events due to copycat behavior. Suicides, murders and school shootings tend to occur in alarming clusters once the news about the initial event gets out.
What you may not know is that after a suicide is publicized, deaths by single-car accidents spike. When a murder/suicide is heavily reported, head-on car collisions and airplane crashes go up immediately afterward.
What’s going on here?
Sociologist David Phillips calls it the “Werther” effect, named after a character in a Goethe novel who committed suicide, which itself prompted a rash of suicides in Europe over 200 years ago. Phillips established the link between newspaper reports of suicides and the resulting copycats using data accumulated between 1947 and 1968, and also discovered the concurrent fatal automobile and airplane accident data. He theorized that these drivers and pilots were also committing suicide, but couldn’t bear the stigma that an overt suicide would bring to their families.
This phenomenon is one of the more dramatic illustrations of social proof, a powerful psychological mechanism by which we look to others to guide our own actions. In the suicide examples, the influenced people already wanted to kill themselves, and seeing someone else take their own life provided them with definitive motivation.
Here are two more research-based examples of social proof in action:
- A person in distress is better served by having only one person available to help them. If several people observe an ambiguous situation where someone may be in trouble, they will look to each other to see how to act. If no one takes immediate action, the likelihood that no one will do anything at all grows, which is called pluralistic ignorance. If only one person is in the vicinity to help, the level of personal responsibility is higher, and aid is more likely offered without hesitation.
- A child is more likely to learn a new skill (such as swimming) if he observes a child of similar age that engages in the activity. Before this happens, one-on-one parental instruction will likely fail to influence a reluctant child. As children become teenagers, the importance of peer behavior and approval needs no elaboration. Likewise, adults are more likely to ethically act in concert with those they feel to be of a similar education level, income bracket and social status, rather than looking to a purely independent moral compass.
So, does the misspelling of “heard” in the post title now make sense? Social proof is at the root of what’s been dubbed herd mentality in humans, with every “cattle” and “sheep” reference that goes along with it. Our need to look to other people for how to behave is an important key to the growth and maintenance of societies, so it’s not necessarily always reason for disdain.
Despite all the dramatic examples, social proof can be a very useful adaptive trait. It helps us solve problems and formulate shared values, and it really only hurts us when we fail to apply critical thinking to important choices and actions.
I would personally apply the above herd mentality to include such related human behaviors as ~ our choice of, and following of, religions.
That is, the more members that any particular religion might already boast, the more members it tends to attract ~ regardless of how much they've gotta stretch their logic, discard scientific proof and disregard just plain common sense in order to "believe" in their "scriptures" ~ which, by the way, were written in ancient times ~ when people were "baby-minded" as my mother describes it ~ and then edited and re-edited numerous times over the years to keep the people in control. And in spite of all that, the worshippers still persist in believing in the unbelievable ~ because everybody else does.
Religion takes full advantage of the Werther effect, and heightens that effect by manipulating our natural fear of death ~ emerging unsurpassed in its success overpowering otherwise reasonable people to embrace a "faith"...
A Quote I Just Found:
"It’s as unbelievable as it is heart wrenching that in this day and age, where we are able to perform open heart surgery and fly across vast oceans, that our species continues to be as vulnerable to superstition as it was before the invention of the hammer. To apply ancient texts that should be considered nothing more than a window to a past time and distort the already absurd to fit into today's arena is nothing more than jaw dropping idiocy. ... The gullibility of the average human being when it comes to all things supernatural is (i hope) only a hiccup in the intellectual growth of our species."
~ from a comment by "orlando" on a blog called RumorsDaily.com