We already discussed Robert Cialdini’s seminal book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, in which the author introduces and gives examples of his Six Principles of Influence (watch this video for an overview by Cialdini).  Today, we will discuss one of the most powerful of what are known as decision heuristics.  A heuristic is basically a mental short cut that every human uses at some point or another to ease cognitive decision making.  Heuristics can be used a weapons for good or evil.  However, as teachers we obviously use them for the benefit of the students.  The weapon highlighted here is SOCIAL PROOF.

What is Social Proof?

Social Proof: “[O]ne means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct…We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it” (Cialdini,116).

It is basically peer pressure, but observed peer pressure.  Want proof it works?  Try this quick experiment: get three friends and stand in a crowded place.  You and you three friends then look up in unison.  Do this for about three minutes or so.  Then look around and see how many other people are doing the same thing.  At this point, you may have up to three times as many people as your group looking up.  Try it! It works every time.

How can we take advantage of this in the classroom?

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Classroom teachers, especially inexperienced teachers, tend to want to play “whack a mole” in the classroom.  They try to stomp out every problem behavior.  One huge mistake is what teachers usually do when students are off task.  They single out the student who is not following the directions or procedures and try to correct them.  This can resort in a power struggle.

Most classroom issues are a result of a power struggle between teachers and students.  Eliminate power struggles and you eliminate most behavior issues.  Usually, power struggles occur when students feel their self image has been demeaned by the teacher or other students.

Demeaning students in front of their peers puts students in an animal backed into a corner scenario.  They either have to fight (usually in the form of defiance) or they have to succumb (which would make them look weak in front of their peers).

Once a student has been singled out by the teacher, their first instinct is to save face in front of their peers.  Instead of pointing out what a student is doing wrong, teachers should instead take advantage of the social proof heuristic.  Teaches can take advantage of social proof by what may be considered counter-intuitive thinking.  Instead of correcting the student who is not engaged, simply praise or acknowledge the other students who are on task.  This is by no means a holy-grail.  However, according to research you can reduce up to 80% of unwanted behaviors by using social proof to highlight the desired behavior.

Some common scripts:

“Frank is doing the right thing.”

“Thank you John.  You are following directions.  Thanks Frank.  Good work Bill.”

“Barry is listening.”

“The first row is on task.”

Basically, you want to point out that others are doing it and they should be doing it to.  However, you do not want to convey it to non engaged student in this manner.  That may only result in more power struggles.

Key Takeaways:

  • Social Proof is when people view others’ behavior as a template to their behavior.
  • Don’t play whack a mole in the classroom.  It is exhausting and ineffective
  • Use social proof to highlight students who are on task, following directions, etc.

Let me know if you have used this technique before and how you employed the strategy.

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