I’ll never forget my first junior high dance. Loud music, flashing lights and 300 kids standing around the perimeter of the multi-purpose room, nervously staring at the empty dance floor. That is, until the DJ played “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash. This was my friend, Denise Evans’ favorite song. Unable to contain herself, she took my hand and said “Come on, Scott. Let’s dance.”
She dragged me onto the dance floor in front of the entire school. Fortunately, I never had a chance to be self-conscious. By the time the song reached its first chorus, the rest of the school had joined us on the floor.
Denise instinctively understood the concept of “Social Proof.” When people are unsure of what’s socially acceptable, they hold back and observe others, waiting to see what kind of behavior is OK. Once someone (a leader) takes that first risk and demonstrates the behavior is safe, others (followers) join and conform.
That’s why no one wants to be the first on the dance floor, the first to raise their hand or the first to befriend that lonely student in the cafeteria. They’re not sure if it’s OK, and are waiting for social cues to direct them.
The good news is that leaders can deliberately use social proof to influence others. By planting “volunteers” in the pep assembly crowd, student council can communicate that volunteering is OK. Teachers can plant questions among a few students so others will feel more comfortable raising their hand. Consider all the socially ambiguous situations where teens hesitate. By arranging for the leaders of their peer group (who may not be in student council) to go first, there’s a greater chance others will follow.
So next time you wonder, should you stay or should you go, look to leaders like Denise Evans to establish the social proof and help you answer the question.