Friday, July 3, 2015

Social Proof

One more interesting psychological principle that worked wonderfully for TFI is called social proof. It's a handy mental tool that we use to assess what is the correct behavior for situations. We casually look around to see what other people are doing and adjust our behavior accordingly.

This is great when we want to know which fork to use first at the formal dinner. But in the context of cult life, it was just another manipulative tool. 

This tool works most effectively when we look to the behavior of people that are similar to ourselves. The "them and us" mentality of the cult was the perfect place for it. To make the effect even more powerful, isolation was key, as when isolated, the only people you can observe to see what is the correct behavior are people who are, indeed, very similar to yourself.

When do we use this tool? When we feel uncertain about what to do, of course. We figure that the calm, composed-looking people around us must know more than we do about what's going on, and so we conform to what they're doing.

We don't realize, though, that it is just as likely that the people we are looking to are also in doubt. Perhaps they, too, are trying to appear calm and secretly checking out what others are doing. This situation of everyone looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to what has been called "pluralistic ignorance."

This phenomenon helps to explain why people in crowded places don't stop to help others in need. They naturally conclude, "No one else is showing concern or stopping, so there must be nothing wrong. I don't need to do anything."

In his classic book on persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini illustrates the power that social proof can have on a group by describing how certain Indian tribes used to hunt buffalo. He wrote, "There are two features of buffalo that make them especially susceptible to erroneous social evidence. First, their eyes are set in their heads so that it is easier for them to see to the side than to the front. Second, when they run, as in a stampede, it is with their heads down low so they cannot see above the herd. As a result, the Indians realized, it was possible to kill tremendous numbers of buffalo by starting a herd running toward a cliff. The animals, responding to the thundering social proof around them—and never looking up to see what lay ahead—did the rest."

To me, that says a lot about the herd mentality of cults which I mentioned in one of my first blog posts, The Bandwagon.

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