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How Does Social Proof Affect Your Workplace Safety Culture?

October 5, 2016

This is part 4 of our series on how cognitive biases affect workplace safety. Click here to read Part 1, click here for Part 2, and here is part 3.

Rules don’t drive employee behavior. Watch the below video.

This classic Candid Camera segment illustrates the powerful impact of social proof on human behavior. Social proof is the psychological phenomenon where people match the actions of others in an attempt to display correct behavior for a given situation.

Robert Cialdini’s classic book Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion devotes an entire chapter on the social proof phenomenon. He has a number of fascinating case studies, historical examples, and experiments that illustrate the overpowering effect social proof has on our behaviors. One example Cialdini cites is TV executives that add laugh tracks to sitcoms. No matter how artificial the canned laughter sounds, we viewers can’t help but be influenced by it. We hear the laughter of others and our intuitive system can’t help but play along.

social-proof.jpgA much more serious example is the infamous murder of Catherine Genovese. Over 30 witnesses viewed the victim being stabbed for over 30 minutes in public. The police were not called and none of the witnesses intervened. “I would have done something!” you may say to yourself. Maybe, but this is an extreme example of the power of social proof. We probably wouldn’t think we would turn the wrong way in an elevator because of what those around us are doing, but the above video shows otherwise. This isn’t about being right or wrong. It is about being human.

Once you are aware of this phenomenon you will start noticing it in your day-to-day life. Early this past summer, my daughter attended a day camp. One of the classes she participated in was about etiquette. She brought home a life-size diagram of a formal dining place setting in which she had to label the different forks, plates, etc. that are associated with fine dining. She explained when to use each specific fork and knife, where the plates are placed etc.

It is rare for me to be in that social situation – I’m more of a tacos and burger kind of guy. Anyway, less than two months later I found myself attending a fancy dinner. Five courses, white tablecloth, the whole nine yards. Now I knew the rules from my daughter. I knew the placement of the bread plate, what knife to use, etc. but I couldn’t help myself. When the server with dinner rolls started walking around, my intuitive system activated and I started looking at the other diners to see what plates and knives they touched.

Two other things about social proof that are worth noting:

  • It is more powerful when people are in ambiguous or uncertain circumstances.

  • A person’s perceived peers exert stronger social proof.

The impact of social proof on workplace safety is enormous. What impacts a person’s safety behavior more – a list of rules or the behaviors of their fellow employees? Compared to social proof, a list of rules isn’t worth the paper they are posted on. Technical safety training is necessary, but don’t expect it to turn around your workplace’s safety culture. My daughter trained me on proper dining etiquette, but I still looked around to see what my tablemates did before acting. Safety leadership is tremendously important to safety culture, but remember we look more to our peers than our supervisors for social proof.

Imagine you are a new hire in your organization. You are naturally uncertain in your new work environment. You are going to look at your peers to see how to behave. If your new peers are behaving in a safe manner and following the company rules you will do the same. You won’t be able to help yourself because of the powerful social proof around you. A toxic safety culture is when there is a disconnect between the stated rules and the actual behaviors of the employees. I call this the dreaded Potemkin Safety Village.

What to do? Are you strategic in the way you onboard and place new hires? Do you consider safety behaviors when devising the composition of your work teams? Do your employees have input in the design and development of your safety guidelines and procedures (hint: Google “IKEA Effect”). Fighting social proof and human nature with safety clichés is not an effective strategy.

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Brian Dishman Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at PSI. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.