Collective Ignorance

¡Hola! Everybody,
I’m gone for the day – at the women’s prison. Have a great one people…

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Social Evidence & Death

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
— Walter Lippman

For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.
— Former Times reporter A.M. Rosenthal

There is a powerful weapon of influence called social proof. The principle of social proof is that one way we determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. This principle applies especially to the way we decide what makes up correct behavior. We view a behavior more correct to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the issue is what to do with a piece of garbage, to how fast to drive on a highway, or how to use a utensil at a formal dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in determining your behavior.

Of course, in the internet world, we’re all free thinkers and the principle of social proof doesn’t apply to you. Hold on, I need to sneeze…


Thank you.

Where was I? Yes, social proof.

Perhaps you’ve waited on a long line to see a movie? Or maybe you came upon a crowd looking up toward the sky. You looked up too, right? Part of it was curiosity, but you did that mostly because of the principle of social proof. The tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it is quite normal and it often serves a good purpose. As a rule, we make fewer mistakes when acting in agreement with social evidence than contrary to it. Usually, when many people are doing something, it is the right thing to do. However, this is both a strength and a weakness. While social proof offers a shortcut for determining correct behavior, at the same time it makes us vulnerable to those who would exploit it for profit.

Our tendency to see an action more appropriate if others are doing it is exploited in a number of settings. Bartenders often “prime” their tip jars with a few dollars bills to give the impression of tips left by previous customers. Church ushers do the same with their collection baskets. Evangelical preachers are known to seed their audience with co-conspirators who are rehearsed to come at a specific time to give witness and donations. In one interesting experiment, several researchers infiltrated crusader Billy graham’s organization and reported on such preparation. “By the time Graham arrives in town and makes his altar call, an army of six thousand wait with instructions on when to come forward to create the impression of a spontaneous mass outpouring.”

Advertisers love to tell us their product is the “fasted-growing” or “largest-selling because they don’t have to convince us directly about the worth of their product.

However, principles of influence and persuasion work best under certain conditions. Social proof works best at a time of uncertainty, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear. It is during these times that we rely more on others and see their reactions as correct. But in relying on examining the reactions of others, we overlook one simple fact: that those people are probably looking for social evidence also. This phenomenon helps to explain what has been called a national disgrace: the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in excruciating need of help.

Nowhere is this better illustrated as in the case of the murder Catherine Genovese in March 1964. The details of Ms. Genovese’s death are gruesome and beg an explanation. Catherine Genovese had not experienced a quick, muted death. It had been a long, loud, tortured, public event. Her assailant had chased and attacked her in the street three times over a thirty-five minute period before his knife finally silenced her cries for help. Unbelievably, thirty-eight of her neighbors watched the events of her death unfold from the safety of their apartment windows without so much as lifting a finger to call the police.

The series of stories that arose from this incident shocked a nation. Eventually, the horrific slaying of Catherine Genovese would come to symbolize both an uncaring an apathetic New York City and our society in general. How could thirty-eight “good people” fail to act under those circumstances? No one could understand it. Even the witnesses themselves were confused. “I don’t know,” they answered. “I just don’t know.” A few offered weak excuses, explaining that they were “afraid” or “did not want to get involved.” But these reasons don’t stand scrutiny. An anonymous call could have saved Catherine Genovese without putting the witness in danger. It wasn’t fear or apathy that was at work, there was something else going on that even they could not understand.

But confusion doesn’t sell newspapers or TV commercial time, so the media emphasized the only explanation available at the time: the witnesses, no different from many of us, hadn’t cared enough to get involved. We have become a nation of selfish insensitive people. Modern life, especially life in New York City, had hardened us. We were becoming “The Cold Society,” unfeeling, and indifferent to the suffering of others.

The Genovese story grew. In addition to a book by Rosenthal, it also became the focus of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, several TV documentaries, and even an Off-Broadway play. It also attracted the interest of two new York-based social psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley and they came up with the most unlikely explanation of all – it was that thirty-eight witnesses were present. In contrast to earlier reports emphasizing that no action was taken, even though thirty-eight witnesses had looked on, Latane and Darley suggested that no one had helped precisely because there were so many observers.

They offered two interesting reasons for why a bystander would not respond to an emergency when there are other bystanders present. The first reason is fairly intuitive. With several potential helpers around, personal responsibility of each individual is lessened: “Perhaps[s someone else will give a call for help, perhaps someone already has.” So with everyone thinking someone else will help, no one does.

The second reason is more interesting, it is founded on the principle of social proof. Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man laying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping it off? Are the sharp sounds from the street gunshots or a truck backfiring? Is the argument next door an assault needing a call to the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and uncalled for? What is going on?

In times of uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for cues to appropriate behavior. We try to surmise, from the reactions of others whether the event is an emergency. What is easy to forget is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social proof too. Therefore, everybody is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. By the principle of social proof, the event will be interpreted as a nonemergency. This state of collective nonaction, called pluralistic ignorance by social psychologists, is a state “in which each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the danger may be mounting to the point where a single individual, influenced by the seeming calm of others, would react.”

The upshot of Latane’s and Darly’s research is that someone in need of aid stands a better chance of survival if a single bystander, rather than a crowd, is present. To test this unusual supposition, Darley, Latane, and some of their students performed a series of research that produced clear findings. The basic set up was to stage emergency events that were observed either by a single individual or by a group of people. They then recorded the number of times the emergency victim received help.

In the first experiment, a New York college student who appeared to be having an epileptic seizure received help 85 per cent of the time when there was a single bystander present but only 31 per cent of the time with five bystanders present.

After more than decades of subsequent research it becomes difficult to argue that ours is “The cold society” where no one cares for suffering others.

First, once witnesses are convinced that emergency exists, aid is very likely. Under these conditions, the numbers of bystanders who either get involved or call for help is clearly very high. The situation becomes different when, as in many cases, bystanders cannot be sure that the event they are witnessing is an emergency. The fact is that the same circumstances that reduce the chances of aid exist in city life. However, it doesn’t follow that we have become a nation of callous, unfeeling people.




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