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.