Jul 18, 2008

How strong is social pressure?

Guy Kawasaki's recent post, How to Change Someone's Mind, triggered a long-forgotten experience I had in college. Kawasaki mentions Robert Cialdini's book "Influence". One of the six components of influence is what Cialdini calls "Social Proof". Social proof is when you act in certain way because others around you are doing the same thing.

This reminded me of an experiment in social pressure that I conducted in college. It was a simple experiment to see how others' reactions affected our own reactions, especially when we knew they were wrong. The experiment wasn't original, but I don't remember who did the original research on the subject.

The setup: We had fifteen cardboard sheets which had three geometrical shapes on them. We corralled a team of seven participants and one test subject.

The experiment: We gathered the team and the subject in a room and sat them in a semi-circle. The subject was at one of the extremities of the semi-circle. We showed all of them one of the cardboards and asked them: "Which of the shapes is smallest?" We started with the team members and the subject was always the last to answer.

The twist: For ten of the fifteen cardboards, the team was instructed to give the wrong answer. Sometimes the difference between the smallest object and the answer given was subtle. But other times the difference was so large as to be absurd. For example, we had a small triangle, a medium one and a large one. You could easily fit four small triangles in the largest one. Yet, the team was instructed to say that the largest one was the smallest one.

The result: to our surprise, of all the subjects we tested, only one went against the crowd every time. We saw such looks of bewilderment on the subjects' faces that we had to work very hard not to laugh. I remember one subject staring wide-eyed as the other people said that the largest triangle was in fact the smallest one. He even interrupted the process to verify his understanding: "You want to know which is the smallest one, right?"

We stopped finding the experiment as funny when one of our subjects agreed with the team on all fifteen answers. After the subject left the room, we felt the energy being sucked out of the room; none of us could believe it and we felt bad.

How have you seen social pressure affect performance and behaviour in your workplace?


  1. While I have only been at my ne wjob for less than a month I have already been told how to respond to certain situations.

    Ex.: If you say it's Tuesday but the boss says it's Wednesday - it is Wed.
    If you handed the report in on time and three other people saw it on her desk last week but she says it's late - suck it up!

    Everybody is too scared to disagree because she will fire you on the spot. They suck it up for the greater good but I'm afraid our compliance is doing the organization more harm than good.

    Is it too late to get my old job back?

  2. You can always get your old job back. Or find a newer one. Depends on how badly you dislike your current job.

    At some point, you need to make a decision: is this the kind of company I want to work for?

    I believe in working with companies that respect and value their employees. I don't like working with executives who treat their employees as cattle. Those are my values and I stick to them.

    In any endeavour, you need to have a certain number of uncompromisable values. If a company or a client goes against those values, you need to be able to walk away and find something that better suits you.

    I wish you success in your search for a better position.