Social Proof: Bystanders Uncertainty

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shutterstock_244031668 ONTEVEDRA, SPAIN - AUGUST 9, 2014: A police serve a man lying on a sidewalk, in a drunken state, while being observed by several bystanders.


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How often have you walked past by something and asked yourself, ‘I should have done something about that’?

There is a saying I’ve been using in schools for as long as I can remember and I use it time and time again when passing advice onto colleagues I mentor in schools.

If you ignore it, you condone it.

How often have you walked past something [unsatisfactory] in school, in the corridor or in the playground, and reflected / asked yourself ‘what should I have done there?’ If you were alone and were the only colleague to have witnessed something, did you deal with it? And would you on every, single occasion?

This is a question [hopefully] most of us will have all thought about, or have at least asked ourselves in schools when moving around school buildings, shuffling on our way to lessons located in another classroom, or on our way to meetings with colleagues. Too often, we are too busy to stop and deal with incidents we know are not to ‘school or social’ expectation. We also know that if we stop, we may possibly be entering into a confrontation, loss of time and potentially some paperwork.

The Psychology of Persuasion:

This is a blog about psychology and student behaviour; more explicitly, human behaviour and the term ‘social proof.’

Without question, when people are uncertain, they are more likely to use others’ actions to decide how they themselves should act.

How true do you think the above quote applies to teachers and students working in schools?

The above quote in taken from ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, a book I’ve been trying to finish this summer, written by Dr. Robert Cialdini. This book explains the psychology of why people say “yes”—and how to apply these understandings; it is written using evidence-based research along with a three-year program of study on what moves people to change behaviour. I make reference to chapter 4 (Social Proof) in Cialdini’s book. It is a fascinating read about human tendencies.


If colleagues are gathered in groups, do we all ignore [a behaviour], or does one [from the group] take responsibility?

Over the years I come to realise, that no matter how busy you are or not, ‘having the conversation‘ in often just enough for students to know that you have witnessed something that they should not be doing in school. This can be anything from failing to meet school’s the behaviour policy, or to something simple as incorrect uniform, chewing gum, swearing or bringing in (and playing with) items from home that are valuable, or distract students from their learning.

I’m no hero here; there have been times when I have ‘seen/heard something’ and have failed to say something or act upon a minor event. And I am talking about very minor things here. I am not condoning walking past fights, swearing or bullying and so forth. What I do know is this, that ‘having a pep talk conversation‘ is often enough; if you have a simple conversation time and time again, students will start meeting expectations. So much so, that you may be able to move towards a position where you can physically see students adapt their behaviours on first sight of you walking past them on the school corridor or playground.

How could we possibly achieve this state of ‘social proof’ across a large secondary school of 1,000+ students? With over 150 colleagues walking to and fro throughout the school building? Could ‘having the conversation‘ lead to greater consistency and gradually, less undesirable behaviours?

Social Proof:

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”; especially to the way we check what constitutes correct behaviour. That the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.

Where all think alike, no one thinks very much ~ Walter Lippman

With human behaviour, we tend to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it normally, works quite well. Is this the case for teachers in education? Do we model our behaviours if other colleagues are doing something too? Well, I think so …

The principle of social proof is that it provides a convenient short-cut for determining how to behave.

When it comes to illustrations of social proof, here is a good example taken from the book. It is not adapted for educational settings.

Bystanders Uncertainty:

There is an example of a newspaper report by the editor of The New York Times (1964), A. M. Rosenthal who happened to be meeting with the city police commissioner for lunch a week after the publication. The report said;

“For more than half an hour, thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead. That was two weeks ago today. But Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of homicide investigations, is still shocked. He can give a matter-of-fact recitation of many murders. But the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him – not because it is a murder, but because ‘good people’ failed to call the police.”

The extract goes on to explain that the reading public were stunned. Even the murder witnesses were bewildered. Their reasoning essentially rested on the fact that they had assumed – due to the large number of other witnesses – that ‘somebody else’ would take the responsibility of informing the police. A simple anonymous call could have saved the victim without threatening the witness’s future safety or free time. Over time, the press and public all used the word ‘apathy’, but most implicated the ‘depersonalisation’ of urban life with its ‘megalopolitan societies’ and its ‘alienation of the individual from the group.’

I know this is an extreme example to use in the context of schools, but the story serves a purpose. If you were to witness a minor incident in school with a group of colleagues, would you be the first to act? I’m assuming if there was a serious incident, that we would all act in the best interests of student safety; this is our core purpose of being teachers in schools.

In support of this interpretation;

“… psychologists speculated that, for at least two reasons, a bystander to an emergency would be unlikely to help when there were a number of other bystanders present. The first reason is straightforward. With several potential helpers around, the personal responsibility of each individual is reduced … The second reason is the more psychologically intriguing one; it is founded on the principle of social proof and involves the pluralistic ignorance effect. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? … Is the commotion next door an assault? … the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency.”

Influence Book Cialdini PsychologyIn the following sections of the book, examples are given of research experiments which are ‘staged emergency events’ that conclude, that a single bystander is more likely to help in an emergency compared to a similar event when there are several other bystanders present. This analogy made me think about situations in school where I have dealt with minor and serious events; but more explicitly the low-level beahviours in and around school corridors and playgrounds that are unchecked by myself and/or colleagues. From a made-up sample of 10 colleagues that walk past a student, an example may look like this;

  • 1 or 2 colleagues will not notice the behaviour and walk past …
  • 4 or 5 colleagues will see the behaviour, but will all walk past as they are a) too busy b) wish to avoid conflict c) wish to avoid conflict and paperwork and/or d) think that another colleague witnessing the event ‘will deal with it.’
  • 1 or 2 colleagues will stop – regardless of student / behaviour/ or time-frame required – and will have the conversation.

Assign the Role:

Cialdini provides a fitting example about a car crash he was involved in. He was injured and disoriented; he remembered the Rosenthal report and using his experience as a social psychologist and his research from ‘Bystander Uncertainty’, he ‘assigned’ roles. Rather than facing further injury and lack of help for himself and other crash victims, he assigned roles directly to witnesses (bystanders) present. “I pointed to the driver of one car, ‘Call the police!’ To a second and third driver, pointing directly each time: ‘Pull over, we need help’. The responses of these people were ‘instantaneous.” (See page 139).

We cannot do everything, but we can at least start with a recognition of ‘a behaviour’ with a simple pep talk, a wink or a nod of the head. By doing this, we can aim to recognise that we have noticed the incident. If we do not have time to deal with it there and then, we can follow it up at another time if it should continue, or assign the role if bystander uncertainty applies. If we (and other colleagues) are noticing behaviours and ignoring them, students will soon learn that ‘it is okay to continue’ behaving in this way if no one actually stops by and does something about it. I know there is a context to each situation and to those who would be present, so the examples are endless.

How often does bystander uncertainty occur in your school? As teachers, we have a responsibility to ‘have that conversation …’

(In pages 135 – 140, Cialdini offers some interesting scenarios and solutions for ‘bystanders uncertainty’ in public situations. They should prove useful to all who read, and although these situations are not examples of what we may find in schools, the examples and psychology of how they are deployed in real life, certainly offers some food for thought. I have photographed the pages below. You can click to open each page and scroll through …)

Do leave your thoughts in the comments below.


After I wrote this blog, I discovered that Kitty Genovese Killing Is Retold in the Film ‘37’ had been written one week before, in The New York Times.


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One thought on “Social Proof: Bystanders Uncertainty

  1. I have certainly been guilty of this. I find as a substitute or relief teacher I feel like I have less authority than the regular staff. It is a slippery slope though and your article is a great reminder to not find an excuse to overlook behaviour. Thanks. 🙂

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