Friday, January 22, 2010

Influence and the power of social proof

I recently read Robert Cialdini's 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion'. Not only is it a terrific book and a 'business classic', but I couldn't help also suspecting that it was dynamite material for improv workshops.

The workshops I ran at UCSC for the graduate students there had a very strong empowerment angle, so when the students decided to have a reunion, I got the opportunity to try to adapt some of the learning points in Influence to an improv context.

All the exercises were successful, but the most fascinating was the one I put together to teach the principle of 'social proof'. This principle outlines how human beings automatically take their cues about how to behave and what's acceptable from the behaviors of those around them.

In the classic improv game 'Yes Lets', everyone engages an a shared physical activity as they move through a room. Then, when someone has a suggestion for a new activity, for instance: flying like a bird, they call out 'let's all fly like a bird!' Everyone then calls out 'yes lets!' and then starts miming that activity.

I adapted this game by randomly handing out slips of paper to all participants beforehand. Every single piece had the word 'chicken' on it, except one, which said 'elephant'. Participants were instructed to look at their paper but not tell anyone what it said. Then I asked them to imitate the animal on their slip when I called out the magic words 'do your thing'.

I ran the game normally for a few rounds before calling out the change, and then watched what happened. Everone in the room started behaving like a chicken, but in slightly different ways. The set of acceptable chicken behaviors, however, rapidly stabilized. This made the person being the elephant in the room rapidly stand out. People started looking at her oddly. The game ended when the woman being the elephant buried her face in her hands and was caught between groaning and laughing so much that she couldn't continue.

Afterwards, people commented that they thought she'd just chosen to be creative in her way of being a chicken. They thought the arm being a trunk was supposed to be some sort of beak. They thought her trumpeting noises were supposed to be the crowing of a rooster. They assumed this even though there was no indication before the game started that I'd be giving most people the same animal to mime. Indeed, the sheer fact that I handed out folded, random slips might have tipped them off that I had something specific in mind. They had all automatically assumed that everyone was a chicken, just because most of them were.

It's worth pointing out that the participants here were graduate students--rational, highly educated, socially aware people who'd attended dozens of improv communication workshops already. Nevertheless, the power of social conformity proved almost overwhelming. I have to wonder what it says about the rest of us, and the way we parse the reality we inhabit each day. How many of the chickens we think we're seeing are actually elephants?

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