Lately I’ve been reading the book Influence by Robert Cialdini. The chapter on Social Proof reminded me of an episode of This American Life I had heard some years ago [1].

The episode begins with a mailman delivering mail, when he sees:

And they were punching each other and fighting and wrestling. As I’m coming closer, I noticed some people standing there watching. One guy I remember clearly had his arms folded. And I’m thinking, OK, they must be filming a movie. Sometimes they film movies in the area. And that was my initial thought. Well I kind of recognized this guy from delivering his mail occasionally. He owned a pizza place there. So as I got closer, he saw the mail truck. And he started waving his hand back and forth for me to stop. So I slowed down. And he had this guy by the pants with one arm and he put his hand to his ear for me to call for help. And he’s saying, “Help! Help!”

The mailman calls 9-1-1, and realizes that the fight involved a knife. The person shouting had been stabbed five times. The interesting thing about the story?

So in the midst of this, what really struck me as odd is a person that worked at the office building is pulling into the parking lot. These two people are fighting. The guy saying, “Let me go! Let me go! Leave me alone!” And she very carefully steers around them, goes into the parking lot, parks her car, gets out, looks back for a second, and goes into the building like, Well, I’ve got work to do or something.

There was a knife attack going on, and apparently no one except the mailman did anything about it. He called 9-1-1.

The episode does not go much further in analyzing the whole situation. But what stood out in my mind:

  1. A deadly fight was going on.
  2. People were either watching and not doing anything, or actively ignoring it.
  3. The mailman initially thought a movie was being produced.
  4. One person finally called 9-1-1.

So why did the mailman call 9-1-1, and no one else did?

The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect is the phenomenon where people are less likely to assist someone in need if more people are present.

For years, the bystander effect was believed to be a sign of how uncaring society has become, where they will let someone be murdered without even bothering to call the police.

The book has an interesting explanation for it. It’s called social proof. Briefly, it states that when there is uncertainty, our brains will look at our peers [2] for guidance. It’s a convenient heuristic that prevents the brain from becoming overloaded. If they are not acting, our brain tells itself that there must be some good reason for it.

Social Proof Applied to The Bystander Effect

Let’s look at the steps in this story:

A deadly fight was going on. Or was it? The mailman wasn’t sure. He noticed people watching and not acting. Perhaps this wasn’t a real fight? Maybe a movie or an impromptu stage play? I mean, those who were already there witnessing know better than he does, right?

This is the uncertain phase. The mailman wasn’t sure it was a real fight. So he looked at his peers (others standing and doing nothing) for guidance.

One technique to cut through the effect of the social proof in the book is to make a specific request to a specific person. Shouting out “Help!” is not enough. Requesting help from a specific person is necessary to break the spell of social proof. In this case, he directed his request to the mailman, who then stopped and called 9-1-1.

If he had just shouted “Help!”, the mailman would again wonder why no one was helping, and come up with a rationale (movie set). But when it was directed right at him, his brain could not come up with a convenient rationalization so quickly.

Emergency Training

When I mention this story to friends who work in the medical sector, they are always quick to point out that their training involved something similar, even though they did not know of social proof. They are trained always to point at someone, and directly request help from them.

I once took fire safety training. One of the steps in the process is that if others are present, you should not shout “Fire! Call 9-1-1!” Instead, you should point to someone and say “You! Call 9-1-1” and point to someone else and say “You! Sound the alarm!”

In emergencies, always direct your request to someone.

Social Proof Cuts Both Ways

The prevailing belief for years was that the bystander effect is due to apathy. What various experiments have shown, though, is that it is unrelated. Indeed, once someone starts to help, many of the bystanders are motivated to find ways to help. Essentially, this is social proof working in the opposite direction: They see one of their peers helping, and that inspires them to help as well.

[1]Note that the book was written years prior to the airing of this episode.
[2]Who qualifies as a peer varies depending on the situation. It is not a simple equation of race, language, nationality, etc.