I am reading a fascinating book called, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. One of the chapters is about Social Proof. This is when groups of people decide to do something – or decide not to do something – because the group is doing it or not doing it. One of the examples he cites was a case in a New York City neighborhood in which a woman was murdered in the streets and nobody did a thing about it. Apparently it was very loud and it went on for hours, the perpetrator coming back to the scene several times to stab the woman more. Not a single person called the police. Why is this? because, according to the power of Social Proof, the neighbors assumed someone else was taking care of it. In fact, nobody took care of it at all and the woman bled to death in the street.
Social Proof can cause seemingly normal people to behave in bizarre ways. I witnessed this bizarre behavior one day while driving to work in San Jose and was caught in a small traffic jam. I watched as a car merged on to a freeway entrance, noticed that there was a traffic jam, and turned his car around – going the wrong way on the freeway and the freeway entrance. This caused other drivers to do the same thing and I watched in disbelief as this freeway entrance became a snarled mess. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and I really couldn’t believe that people were being so stupid. I moved along through the traffic jam and in five minutes things cleared up. If this driver had just been a little patient he would have been out of the traffic fairly quickly. But he ended up in a worse situation than the one he perceived.
The thing that caught my interest was when the author talked about Social Proof as the reason why people join cults. I am super fascinated with cults. I wonder why normal people decide they are going to follow an insane person and do whatever this person tells them. I was a kid when there was the Rajneesh cult in Central Oregon, which wasn’t very far from where I lived. The Rajneesh cult freaked me out when I was younger and is probably the reason why I am interested in this subject. It was great to see the topic addressed in this book because it helped to answer some of the questions I’ve had. It caused me to revisit this interest, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s post.