Some years ago, Suellen, Elliot, and I flew from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia — a long, somewhat dreary, overnight flight with several hundred people on a jumbo jet. The flight was smooth and uneventful with one bizarre exception. About six hours into the flight — as we were all trying to sleep — the plane’s oxygen masks suddenly deployed and fell into our laps. Nothing seemed wrong. There was no noise or bumping or vibration or swerving. Just oxygen masks in our laps. We woke up, looked around at the other passengers, concluded that nothing was wrong … and ignored the masks.
It turned out that we were right. The pilot announced that someone had “pushed the wrong button” in the cockpit and released the masks. He advised us to ignore the masks which we were already successfully doing. Later in the flight, I spoke with a flight attendant who told me she was shocked that none of the passengers had followed the “proper procedures” and donned the masks. I said that it seemed obvious that it wasn’t an emergency. She asked, “How did you know that?” I said, “By looking at the other passengers. Nobody was scared.”
I was reminded of this incident as I was re-reading (yet again) a chapter in Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence. Our little adventure on the airplane was a classic example of social proof. When we’re in an ambiguous situation and not sure what’s happening, one of the first things we do is to look at other people. If they’re panicking, then maybe we should too. If they’re calm, we can relax.
Cialdini points out that social proof affects us even when we’re aware of it. The example? Laugh tracks on TV. We all claim to dislike laugh tracks and also claim that they have no effect on us. But experimental research suggests otherwise. When people watch a TV show with a laugh track, they laugh longer and harder than other people watching the same show without the track. We realize that we’re being manipulated but we still succumb. According to Cialdini, the effect is more pronounced with bad jokes than with good ones. If so, Seth McFarlane clearly needed a laugh track at this year’s Academy Awards.
Cialdini refers to one of the problems of social proof as pluralistic ignorance. I looked around at other people on the airplane and they seemed calm and unfazed. At the same time, they were looking at me and I seemed … well, calm and unfazed. As I looked at them, I thought, “No need to get excited”. As they looked at me, they thought the same. None of us knew what was really going on but we were influencing each other to ignore a potentially life-threatening emergency.
Cialdini argues that pluralistic ignorance makes “safety in numbers” meaningless. (See also my post on the risky shift). Cialdini cites research on staged emergencies — a person apparently has an epileptic seizure. The person is helped “…85 percent of the time when there was a single bystander present but only 31 percent of the time with five bystanders present.” A single bystander seems to assume “if in doubt, help out”. Multiple bystanders look at each other and conclude that there’s no emergency.
So, what to do? If you have to have a heart attack, do it when only one other person is around.