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Flipping the Social Proof

Should I or shouldn’t I?

There have been dozens of times these last couple weeks I’ve watched students peeking to the side, twisting their heads, and sometimes actually even doing a 360 survey of the crowd, all trying to answer one question…

Should I or shouldn’t I?

There’s this beautiful thing that happens every school year.  Students all get a restart.  New grade, new teachers, new classrooms, new classmates…maybe even for some a new school in a new city.  And the first thing every student does is look around and wonder – what’s the expected behavior for this situation in this new environment?

Should I or shouldn’t I?

And it’s not just a question our students ask.  It’s the question we all ask.  None of us are immune.  When any person enters a new environment, they look around, look for what everyone else is doing, and then determine what is the correct, expected course of action.

A few decades back, Robert Cialdini wrote a book Influence, in which he charted six different judgmental heuristics we all have that influence (well sometimes control) how we behave – often with us not even knowing what’s happening.  These little social short cuts have been with us humans for tens of thousands of years (long before the Egyptians learned to toast marshmallows), and if you didn’t obey their laws, you’d be kicked out of the tribe (which rarely ended well).  

Cialdini wrote of Reciprocation where we feel pressured to pay someone back if they give us something (even a compliment); Commitment and Consistency where we’ll keep going down a path already chosen just so we don’t look fickle; Liking where we blindly follow people we like; Authority where we automatically agree with authority figures regardless the evidence to the contrary; Scarcity where we’re more attracted to things that are running out (picking up that phone call that might hang up instead of talking to the person in front of you)…and Social Proof where we look to others in unfamiliar environments to figure out how to act.

Cialdini’s Social Proof examples include all those situations where we don’t look inside ourselves for answers, we look outside.  Should we take our McDonald’s tray to the garbage, or leave it on the table (better not bus it in Singapore or the local staff will glare at you for stealing their job)?.  Should I eat a chicken leg with my hands or with a fork?  Should I cover my nose when I sneeze, or just let nature take its course?

Psychologists have tried dozens of experiments to see how far they could test this automatic shortcut.  In one experiment, they had a crowd of people in an elevator all face the back of the elevator.  And then they watched what happened when a new person entered the elevator.  About 90% of the time, the person turned around and also faced the back of the elevator.

And our students face this little elevator experiment situation every day.  

Should I or shouldn’t I?  What is everyone else doing?

But the cool thing about being in school is seeing the power of the 10%, because not everyone follows the crowd.  Some do look inside and there’s this beautiful moment where they choose a new path, and very quickly they flip the Social Proof.

Last Friday at our opening amphitheater all-school assembly, Dr. Fries announced that the time had come for us all to sing the school song.  

I took a deep breath.  After 25 years of watching international schools either try to bring back a school song or start one up, I had rarely witnessed this next few minutes without a tad bit of cringiness irking past my trying-to-be-positive filter.

But then Chiara walked down from the crowd, grabbed a few of her friends and stood confidently front and center, with a huge smile draped across her face and just launched right into the lyrics and the body motions.

And with her senior Authority (see above) and her attitude that “this is just what we do,” everyone who moments ago had wondered “Should I or shouldn’t I?” just started following her lead.  She had flipped the Social Proof.  

Flash forward a few days to our Wednesday Grade 6-10 assembly during Flex.  On the Rila Theater screen, a catchy tune popped on from floppy-haired boy band royalty who truly believed “That’s What Makes You Beautiful,” and within moments a group of giddy 10th graders broke into song from the back of the room.  The 6th through 9th graders initially just sat there and stared at the screen, thinking they were in for a passive movie viewing experience, but the 10th graders would have none of it.  

And within a few songs, they had flipped the Social Proof.  Dancing and singing in public had turned into the thing to do.  Sitting and watching the screen just wasn’t going to work.  Within a few minutes, the penultimate song (a lovely little diddy where we tested our YMCA hand-spelling skills) saw almost every student in the audience dancing along with the chippy dude on the screen.

All because a confident 10% showed everyone what to do.

And that becomes the challenge.  Where else in our school days might a confident 10 (or a confident 1) stand up and take a path where others then realize, “Yeah…that’s what I want to do.”  All raising their hands in unison when a teacher asks for a personal connection?  All reaching down to pick up that piece of trash that had come to rest in the walkway?  Or maybe even all joining upcoming performances and sporting events to support their classmates while chatting with some friends along the way?

As slowly more and more start leading the Social Proof they want to see in others, the answer to the question, should I or shouldn’t I will start becoming an almost automatic…oh yeah…

I should.

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