Educators and Social Proof

I recently came across some ideas that were not only interesting, but I felt have enormous impact th
at educators should be aware of. These ideas come from the world of marketing and are from the renowned book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini.

In it, Cialdini explains Social Proof as follows;

“The principle of social proof states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.”

Cialdini cites a psychological study in which children with an extreme fear of dogs were cured of their phobia by watching a video of other children playing happily with dogs. After watching the video for just four days, for just 20 minutes each day, 67 percent of the children were able to interact comfortably with dogs. And the results didn’t dissipate over time. As examples of social proof in action, Cialdini also mentions canned laughter on TV sitcoms and the incessant naming of donors during public radio pledge drives.

The most obvious relevance for schools and educators is in relation to admissions and demand for seats – the most popular schools attract bigger and bigger demands for seats. Of course, when you have fixed and finite supply (at least in the short to medium term, until you build new infrastructure and recruit new teachers of equivalent standard to the ones you already have) this inevitably leads to frustration. In a natural economic market, this matter would lead to rise in cost/ price – but education is far from a natural market. (I wish some ‘powerful people’ were aware of this when they decide it’s time to pressure us over seat issues!!!)

The other, more interesting, perspective that went through my mind was the insights that ‘Social Proof’ can offer us about our students and how to influence them most effectively. For one thing, it explains how very powerfully the actions, views, tastes and interests of older students shape those of the younger children. Thus, negative trends, for example towards effort in school, cannot be allowed to run out of control otherwise they will become universal throughout the school with extreme measures required to reverse such trends. Instead, educators can look to inculcate and then ‘showcase’ positive and healthy behaviours so as to create and encourage good social proof.

The worrying news from this is that we probably can’t expect too much quick change in the society when it comes to societal ills. Whether it’s bad driving, spitting in the street or any other such things, all the time people have social proof (they see others doing it) they are very unlikely to change their behaviour. There would probably have to be a much greater sense of ‘pain’ perception, before people become willing to change the choices they’re making. The ray of hope – if we can find ways to highlight and make more visible those who do right, maybe there’s hope.


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