Social Proofs

Social Proofs

One of the rules of parenting I have is that, if someone has a nightmare, they are always welcome to come to our room and get some snuggles.

I feel quite strongly about this rule in our household, because as a kid I went through a season of horrible nightmares and my parents always let me come to them. As a parent I’ve seen my kids go through similar seasons of bad dreams, so I’m thinking it’s part of the natural maturation process of a human.

Today I remembered something from my childhood. As a child – maybe 6 or 7? – I overheard my parents talking about a news story where someone was attacked, right in the middle of the city street, and people walked around her instead of stopping to help. At the time my parents were marveling at the thought that people would see a clear wrong occurring and not step in to help.

After hearing their conversation, I had a dream of being outside of the public library of my childhood, a beautiful stone building with a shadowed overhang above the front doors, and seeing two men attack a woman. They were hitting her and I was watching, small and very aware of my child-ness, trying to think through whether I would intervene or not. I remember in my dream I tried to yell for help but nothing came out of my mouth. I also knew that if I tried to stop those men from hitting that woman, that they would hit me and I was scared because I knew what I should do… but I also knew I might not survive it.

I don’t know if I ever moved past that terror and indecision in my dream. I do remember that dream recurring for a time, though.

This came to mind today because I’ve been learning about Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and his six “weapons of influence.” Cialdini defines these six principles as reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

According to Wikipedia (I know, I know, the most solid of all references available!), “The key premise of the book is that in a complex world where people are overloaded with more information than they can deal with, people fall back on a decision making approach based on generalizations. These generalizations develop because they allow people to usually act in a correct manner with a limited amount of thought and time. However, they can be exploited and effectively turned into weapons by those who know them to influence others to act certain ways.”

So the weapon of influence I learned about that brought this childhood nightmare to mind today was the Social Proof principle. In a nutshell, the social proof means that if we don’t know what to do in a given situation, the safest thing to do is what others around us are doing.

This is Herd Mentality.

This is also a great persuader, because if you can look around and see a lot of other people doing a specific thing (like maybe… sending their kids to public school… buying a new car every few years… cutting their hair in the same way (here’s looking at you Rachel)… you know… all of those actions we want our kids to stand up to but we ourselves are susceptible to swallowing….) then you think that that is “just what should be done.” You don’t have to think about it, or struggle through the concepts. You can trust the process.

This is called the “click-whirr” response. So well-ingrained that we don’t have to question it at all.

“Cialdini notes that in large cities it is not unusual for passers by to ignore two people fighting or a car crash. Initially, it may not register that there is an emergency situation. But when people ask themselves if they should do anything, and they look around and see nobody else taking an interest, they continue on their way without doing anything.” (Weapons of Influence |Decision Making Confidence)

This is why that real news story my parents discussed in front of me ever happened. It’s why sometimes when we hear a car alarm going off we don’t even look that direction, and honestly, probably why some folks look away self-consciously when they see a parent reprimanding their child harshly.

Now, I’m using the internet for my research right now, and I have a lot of tabs open. But on this particular site, this statement was particularly startling to me based on recent events in my own life: “In destructive sects, the principle of social proof is used extensively. For example, current members are encouraged to repeat courses for a reduced fee or even free. Then if the group begins to do anything strange, or different, or a bit weird, and the new people are having second doubts, when they look around and see the members acting as if all is normal, they are reassured and will even join in. This often means that they will carry out behaviors that previously they would not have done.” (Weapons of Influence |Decision Making Confidence)

Isn’t that fascinating?!

Consider my mind.. fully… BLOWN. I happen to know of a lot of free events happening all around the country this summer that are a “free” and yet “required” event for their leaders. Leaders who will sit in a room and repeatedly say, “Trust the system, it won’t let you down.” In reality they’re saying, “Look, it’s working for us, stop asking questions. Those question askers are the problem. They’re the tools of Satan trying to lure you away from the right path of instruction.”


I have noticed that when people are trying to reason through their choices, they will often say, “Well, so-and-so is doing this, and I like them a lot, so why are you being difficult and telling me it’s a bad idea?” This can be an effective stalling point in critical thinking. And it’s one I’ve fallen for myself on more than one occasion.

BUT… if we’re really committed to being savvy consumers, to training our children to not be hand fed… then I think it’s wise for us to consider the whole picture rather than follow the herd. We have to do the hard work of considering our own situation and what meets the needs we’re called to meet by a Higher Authority.

I go back to the Truth Project, which hauntingly asks the question:

“Do you really believe what you really believe is really true?”

The Truth Project asks this question to confront Christians on whether they actually walk the walk of Christianity or just talk the talk and truly live in bondage.

I ask this question because of our own situation. You see, we homeschool, in part, to live life with our kids so they can see us walking through challenges and just… life. I want critical thinkers!

I know this means we’ll have more argumentative behavior – our kids are not pushovers – and we’re ok with that! Because, at the end of the day, we believe that our role as stewards of the gift of these children means we have to expose them to and allow them to wrestle with hard concepts and difficult truths… and critical thinking requires a proving ground for development. I’d rather that proving ground be our kitchen table than anywhere else.

As I read the words I’ve quoted for you in this post and they triggered the memory of repeated dreams of pained inaction and indecision of my childhood, I have decided it’s likely I was born with this desire to not stand by and let life flow by. But I don’t know that I’m special… I think that children in general have a really good sense of understanding justice and that it’s through social proofs that tell them to become numb to injustice that we become adults who can stop looking at problems, or raise our hands in the air and say, “Not my problem.”

I’m looking at you, human trafficking. Equitable pay in the workplace. Employment opportunities.

I don’t want to be the person who refuses to act because no one else is looking concerned. Does that make me reactionary? Perhaps. But it creates much Good as well. I’m up for the fight.

Are you?

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: