Cognitive Bias Alert: Social Validation Can, and Has, Killed

John Hempton illustrates the operation of an underdiscussed cognitive bias, social validation, which social psychologist Robert Cialdini described as one of the six primary influence techniques in his classic Influence: The Art of Persuasion. And it can be deadly, as Hempton warns:

Saturday afternoon and I had volunteer lifesaving duty. My (broken) collarbone is knitted enough to be able to go in for a swim in modest surf – but if there were a difficult rescue I would pass the duty onto someone else. Really I am a pair of eyes…

At the very south end of the beach is a rip (a current that goes out to sea) and some lifesavers were standing around chatting around the rip. This is the same rip where the Muslim men were rescued last November.

There was someone swimming in the rip – with quite good – even stylish strokes. But he was getting nowhere. Rod and I were debating whether he was even likely to get into trouble. The stroke was – as I said – strong – but given the current what he was doing was futile. We watched for about a minute when I decided to walk down the other end of the beach and see what the other lifesavers wanted to do about it. I was not worried.

As I walked the guy stopped swimming – just gave up – and started to drift out to sea at about 1.5 metres (5 feet) per second. I got to the lifesavers about the time I thought it was actually going to be necessary to go in and get the guy – but the professional lifeguard on the beach had run down, got a rescue board and was already on his way to effect the rescue…

The victim was still treading water, the surf was not rough – and I suspect if he knew what he was doing (that is knew to swim across the current) he could have rescued himself. But I was still a little peeved at myself for missing the easiest of board rescues (and the kudos/self congratulations that would go along with it).

Ex post we realised there were a few missing details:

First – the lifesavers at the South end of the beach simply did not notice the guy caught in the rip. Maybe they noticed his fine swimming stroke and assumed he was not a “customer”. Maybe they were looking at pretty women in bikinis. Maybe they were just preoccupied. Whatever – they did not see.

Second – the customer was from Bavaria. He was a tourist. He had once swum competitively (hence the stylish swimming stroke) but he had never swum in the surf. He simply did not understand his predicament and he had no idea how to get out of it.

Third – the customer was wearing cut-off cotton jeans – not a nylon swimming costume. That makes it just so much harder – and an amazing proportion of our rescues are of people who go in fully or partially clothed. [The fully clothed are often Muslims.]

Fourth – the customer had had a couple of beers.

If I had known these four details I would not have walked to the other end of the beach – I would have run as fast as I could. Those details – none of which were readily apparent – changes the interpretation of the guy in a rip from “interesting and slightly comic” to “life-and-death”.

The existence of a problem was obvious to me – and I (incorrectly) presumed that it was similarly obvious to my fellow lifesavers. I just assumed because I had noticed everyone had noticed – and hence I acted almost apathetically to the danger. Moreover I assumed away my four missing details because the customer had a fine swimming stroke which created an illusion that all was under control.

That is I suspect a very human mistake…

Hempton italicized the key issue: because others seemed to think the situation was OK, he relied on their judgment. In this case, they hadn’t actually made one, but the same principle applies generally: people are more likely to take a particular course of action if they perceive that others, particularly others like them, are acting that way.

Now from a post on Can It Happen Here? which provides a good overview of Cialidini’s book:

Cialdini discusses the notorious case of the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese: “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.” Why didn’t anyone intervene or at least call the police? Newspapers agonized over the question for weeks, accusing urban society of becoming newly “cold” or apathetic. Social psychologists propose a different explanation: Genovese got no help because, in a confusing situation, all thirty eight witness thought first, someone else is doing something, and second, since I don’t see or hear others intervening, I must be misconstruing that woman’s screams, she must not need help. The search for social validation in an unfamiliar and threatening situation froze the observers.

This is not an idle issue. An oft repeated social psychology experiment confirms this pattern. An actor collapses on a busy sidewalk. A couple of other actors, who are staged to be right next to him, look at him and saunter on. Almost without exception, other people walk by too. No one stops to help. By contrast, if an actor takes a fake fall in a largely empty block, the few passers-by will rush over and offer to assist.

In his book, Cialdini attributes this knowledge to saving his own life (the write-up in the linked post is watered down compared to the version in his book). Cialdini was in a car accident in a busy intersection. He was very disoriented and bleeding badly. He realized that if he did not get help soon, he would bleed to death. But cars are slowing down and going by, no one is stopping. Cialdini recognized the parallel to the classic experiment and realized he was about to be deemed OK by group consensus and left to keep bleeding profusely. He managed to make eye contact with one driver and called out, “Get an ambulance.” And he knew the key bit was to get one person to take his situation seriously; the others would follow.

End of public service announcement.

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  1. fuguez

    Follow my mis-leader! I like the street experiment. Once we think that the collapsed is a drunk, junkie, or similar we will simply step over them.
    I love these cognitive bias stories and experiments.

  2. IF

    I’ve never heard of Genovese before, but it makes a good story. Cross checking good stories, as often, leads to some scepticism. *sigh*

    I am tempted to leave Hempton a story of a partially botched abalone dive during the summer. But I don’t know what to conclude about myself except that I sometimes repeatedly(!) misjudge situations and don’t stick to plans. Stuff for psych PhD theses, I am sure.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      OMG, you never heard of Kitty Genovese? Happened in a courtyard, surrounding apartment buildings all had a view. I was a kid when it took place, but it was an absolute shocker at the time, heavily discussed for at least the next decade.

      1. IF

        I am just a grasshopper! Interestingly enough the link I gave states:

        “In September 2007, the American Psychologist published an examination of the factual basis of coverage of the Kitty Genovese murder in psychology textbooks. The three authors concluded that the story is more parable than fact, largely because of inaccurate newspaper coverage at the time of the incident. According to the authors, “despite this absence of evidence, the story continues to inhabit our introductory social psychology textbooks (and thus the minds of future social psychologists).” One interpretation of the parable is that the drama and ease of teaching the exaggerated story makes it easier for professors to capture student attention and interest.”

        While the parable sounds plausible and may convey truth, it makes me uncomfortable. I guess social sciences are just a bit squishy. Need to go to bed now.

  3. attempter

    He managed to make eye contact with one driver and called out, “Get an ambulance.” And he knew the key bit was to get one person to take his situation seriously; the others would follow.

    That’s what lifeguards and other rescuers are taught. If you’re about to do something like CPR and there’s a knot of people standing around, don’t issue the generalized order “Somebody call 911!”, because there’s a good chance everybody will still stand around assuming someone else will do it.

    You make eye contact with someone and command “YOU – call 911!”

  4. craazyman

    I’m a bleeding heart idiot when it comes to these things.

    Years ago walking in the East Village at dusk with a girlfriend I ran across a man passed out on the sidewalk. He was disheveled and maybe dead. I walked into a nearby store and said to call an ambulance. They complained he was a drunk and why waste the ambulance. They may have been right for all I know. I felt a weird sense that maybe I was narcissistically virtuous and ultimately grandstanding in some way. This situation, in New York, is admittedly far more ambiguous than the examples in the post. I likely would not do this today, scarred as I am by the world’s psychopaths and vultures.

    The second experience was far more strange and I wonder at the ultimate nature of its reality. I walked out of my apartment building in the East 80s one afternoon and there was a cab idling in the street outfront and a crowd of 10 or 12 people on the opposite sidewalk standing around looking. I crossed the street and saw the cabbie — a middle Eastern or Indian/Pakistani type (this was before 911) — wash hunched over the steering wheel with blood all over his face and his shirt. He was breathing but his head was tilted back and he was holding his nose to control the flow of blood. I looked at him and at the crowd, who was completely silent and strangely detached, and I asked if anyone had called an ambulance. No one said a word. I then asked him if he was OK and whether he needed an ambulance. He shook his head slightly, and never looked at me or said a word. I stood there confused for a few seconds and then walked away to run my errand. A few minutes later I walked back to my building and the crowd and the cab were gone. Not a hint remained of anything.

    I recall a strange feeling at the scene, sort of a thickness in the air and a heaviness in the light, like the mind-cinema of a dream. It may have been only my anxiety. But that feeling too was completely gone when I walked back, not 4 minutes later, replaced by the usual emptiness and hurriedness of the street. I believe a lot of strange things about the universe and the way it works. That’s why I am a professor of contemporary anlaysis at the University of Magonia. The felonious sailers of Abogard of Lyon may be more than metaphors. It’s all a big school and we are the students, perplexed and confused and gamed by all the trickery. I drift from the topic, but the conforming impulse is deep and Mammon feeds on it as a feast.

  5. jbm

    Somewhat relatedly, I recall from a psych class long ago that when no one is nearby and you need emergency assistance, the single best word to shout is not “help” but “fire” – that seems to be the one thing to get people to come running.

  6. Richard Kline

    Myself, I never assume either that anyone knows what they’re doing or is going to respond to a potential emergency until and unless I observe them demonstrating either point. Part of that is having lived enough years to become, via experience, a tad cynical about the engaged competence of my fellow human beings (gotta love ’em anyway, tho’). Part of that is a function of what I do for a living, one portion of which involves initiating emergency response protocals as needed regarding which I have observed individuals sit right next to sounding, flashing alarms and ignore them though they are trained to respond. Part of that is through my experiences in theraputic contexts with numerous schizophrenics, some of whom could be reasonably responsive on a given day but most all of whom, including the aforementioned, could sit next to someone noisily bleeding to death or otherwise dying before their eyes and not move a finger, especially if everyone else was non-responding also.

    Human beings are capable of a wide range of responses when face with emergencies or simple anomalies. Non-reactivity is always very near the top of the list. It’s simply a mistake to assume that you will get rational, engaged responses from other human beings at any given time. You’ll get them much of the time, yes, but you can’t assume you’ll get them at any _given_ time. So keep an eye peeled and hop to it yourself, or the yolk’s on you.

  7. ^WizeUp

    Well, even if you can get a po po’s attention….

    “CLEVELAND – A woman told authorities in December that a man now accused of killing 11 women had beaten her and tried to rape her, and police and prosecutors are giving conflicting explanations for why a case was abandoned that could have led them months earlier to the bodies scattered around the suspect’s stench-filled house.

    The woman’s complaint, nearly 10 months before police started finding bodies in Anthony Sowell’s home, adds to the questions about whether law enforcement, neighbors and victims did enough to catch a suspected serial killer. Five of the victims disappeared after the complaint was filed.

    The woman had scratches around her neck and was bleeding from a deep gash in her thumb when she flagged down police near Sowell’s home on Dec. 8, according to a police report obtained by The Associated Press.

    Police said they found what appeared to be blood on a tissue in the driveway and footprints in the snow indicating a possible struggle.

    The report shows that police went into the house and to a third-floor landing, where they saw a trash can containing broken glass, a sweater, pink sweat pants and panties.

    They knocked on the door of a third-floor apartment, Sowell answered and they arrested him. They saw drops of blood inside the house and scratch marks on Sowell’s face.

    Police suggested that Sowell be charged with robbery, but he was released after two days, Cleveland Lt. Thomas Stacho said Friday. Stacho said a detective presented the information to a prosecutor.

    The prosecutor herself decided the woman wasn’t credible and wrote a note saying so “underneath a box that the prosecutor checked indicating that the complaint was unfounded,” Stacho said.

    City prosecutor Victor Perez told The Plain Dealer that the detective was the person who felt the woman was not credible.”

    Of course upon reading such details I was immediately reminded of another case, in the midwest, with outrageously indifferent officers, from the 1991 news cycle:

    “In the early morning hours of May 30, 1991, 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone (by chance, the younger brother of the boy whom Dahmer had molested) was discovered on the street, wandering naked, heavily under the influence of drugs and bleeding from his rectum. Two young women from the neighborhood found the dazed boy and called 911. Dahmer chased his victim down and tried to take him away, but the women stopped him.[29] Dahmer told police that Sinthasomphone was his 19-year-old boyfriend, and that they had an argument while drinking. Against the protests of the two women who had called 911, police turned him over to Dahmer. They later reported smelling a strange scent while inside Dahmer’s apartment, but did not investigate it. The smell was the body of Tony Hughes, Dahmer’s previous victim, decomposing in the bedroom. The two policemen failed to run a background check that would have revealed that Dahmer was a convicted child molester still under probation.[30] The officers laughed about the incident, one joking that his partner was “going to get deloused.”[31] Later that night, Dahmer killed and dismembered Sinthasomphone, keeping his skull as a souvenir.

    John Balcerzak and Joseph Gabrish, two of the three police officers who returned Sinthasomphone to Dahmer, were fired from the Milwaukee Police Department after their actions were widely publicized, including an audiotape of the officers making homophobic statements to their dispatcher and cracking jokes about having reunited the “lovers”. The two officers appealed their termination and were reinstated with back pay. They were named officers of the year by the police union for fighting a “righteous” battle to regain their jobs. Balcerzak was later elected president of the Milwaukee Police Association in May 2005.”

    Institutionalized negative selection and reward.

  8. Skippy

    RK said…Myself, I never assume either that anyone knows what they’re doing or is going to respond to a potential emergency until and unless I observe them demonstrating either point…

    Skippy here…may I 2nd that sediment, on the farm, mine, military and public have shown me that most like a look/gawk or become immobile whilst their minds disseminate the flood of thoughts and chemicals released, unaccustomed too. Only a few remain cognate and able to function rationally, you would probably be aware of military studies conducted with regards to mental capacity and stress ie weather, adrenalin levels pre/interm/post stimulation, crunch thinking etc.

    The events I commented back a wee bit to a riot at FT. Campbell still amaze me. 60 odd solders from two different battalions trying to kill each other over 1 members harassment by greater numbers from the other. Erupts when one individual cowardly hits another from behind ensuing a full blown fracas of pool sticks and clubs torn of a downed telephone pole near by. Bent on each other destruction until the Field Officer of the day rocks up in his trucks with driver, dismounts and orders every one to *at ease*, only to find the mob (both sides) make a bee line for him, full retreat is in order and burns rubber for safety.

    The dismemberment resumes until twinkling lights come from all points of the compass and a low level fly by courtesy of a OH-58 helo. Every one fled, but three of us remain, to tend the body’s littering half an acre, many in bad shape, including one that died of horrific wounds to head and chest. He was in my company and didn’t even recognize his face and had no part in the fight. Poor guy was just walking around the periphery..gawking and was set upon for looking the wrong way.

    Funny thing happened in the end as I went along with a friend to the base hospital, some of the same people that just less than an hour before were trying to kill me were talking to me like we just finished having a sporting match and all was fine again in the ER.

    Skippy…never forget the guy with no upper or lower front teeth trying to tell me “that shit was fu*ked up and his tongue finding no backstop.

    No wonder it takes me years, too even think I know some one, so many masks being worn out there…tools of advantage you could say…even in say these thing I still offer my toil, time and self to benefit others with out contract or recompense.

    The dumb never learn eh Vinny!

  9. sangellone

    Would that it were true that people don’t react to seeming emergencies especially nowadays with the ubiquitous cell phones.

    Two examples from my business (Nat Gas Utility). Any release of natural gas from our system brings forth numerous calls. We have to dispatch a service tech to investigate but a large leak or discharge can overwhelm our capability as we get more calls than we have service techs.

    By way of contrast, an electric power outage can leave the power company in the dark as much as their customers as everyone assumes the power company knows about it, that someone else has reported it when, in fact, no one has!

    The second example is our service techs lying prone on the ground cleaning out a valve box. Many is the occasion a passing motorist sees the man, seemingly struggling on the ground, and calls for an ambulance. They don’t notice or ignore the company truck and traffic cones and assume our service tech is having a heart attack or something.

  10. Alex

    Is this at all different from the “Tragedy of the Commons”, but maybe on a smaller scale in this example?

  11. Dan Duncan

    A good post. Says a lot about our filtering mechanisms…and the bias towards a tragic inactivity.

    Personally, I am inspired. As a result, I am not going to just sit back and watch this tragedy unfold….Not on my watch, Mister!








  12. Bob Alexander

    The “Wisdom of Crowds” is widely touted on the internet and about the internet as we find ourselves surrounded by recommendation engines, facebook friends and twitter followers. A study by Fleder and Hosanagar at The Wharton School shows statistically that internet socialization narrows choice and limits diversity. All that is inherent in the process. In the instances of life or death emergency the socialization of crowds limited humane response. Have those that tout the “Wisdom of Crowds” forgotten the work on mob behavior by Emile Durkheim?

  13. LeeAnne

    A bit off topic but an opportunity after all these years for an homage to Kitty Genovese:

    Whenever the name Kitty Genovese comes up I am saddened although at the time of the tragedy, it had been many years since I’d seen her. We were high school buddie at Prospect Heights across from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and friends one summer; she was unforgettable for her personality, her vitality and her intelligence.

    Perhaps no one can overcome feeling something like shock at the mention of the name of a friend so socially ingrained as metaphor that the crime against her and not the person is the story; the story therefore being without honor to her or to her family. I hope to make a little difference in that regard and indulge myself with a few words in her memory.

    Kitty spoke lovingly of her parents to me. We were just teenagers, but she was a bit precocious. She spoke about how openly affectionate they were toward each other at a time when my home life was troubling. And as my parents were strict with me, Kitty was very persuasive and pressed my mother to allow me to go to out at night; a dance on a summer night in Prospect Park, a double date, or to the beach. I saw my first drive-in movie with Kitty and her friends and my first time in a convertible. These are all happy memories, and I was flattered that such a popular and vivacious girl would befriend me.

    Whenever I have seen a report of her brother’s appearance at yet another parole hearing to keep Kitty’s killer in prison his devotion to her cause resonates with my memory of her affection for her family. And I am grateful to him for his stand for justice for all such crime victims.

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