Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Make an example of yourself

May 5th, 2011

Personally, I’m convinced that everyone around me notices everything I do and takes it into account when making their own choices. I’m a Shining Beacon of Enlightenment except when I’m Setting a Bad Example for the Children. You probably feel the same way. (Or it might be just me.)

RippleWe’re wrong, of course. Most of us are far too absorbed in our own Shining Beacon-ness or Bad Example-ness to notice anyone else’s. But we’re not entirely wrong. Sometimes examples make a difference.

Most of the research on example-setting (called “modelling” in psychology research) has been done with children, and most of it has found that it works. This makes sense given how often “Set a good example and your children will follow it” is said as child-raising advice. It also reflects how easily children pick up on negative examples: you may have witnessed Jimmy Junior using language or imitating a behaviour taken directly from James Senior. It’s often hilarious to everyone but James Senior.

But that wouldn’t work on adults, would it? Apparently it would, or at least it can.

There isn’t a lot of research on example setting among adults, but there’s some. An early study found that students asked to sign a petition were more likely to do so if they saw another student agree to sign – and less likely if they saw another student refuse. Another showed that passersby were more likely to help a stranger search for a lost item if they saw another person already helping.

A more recent study by Nicolas Guéguen found that bakery customers who stood in line behind someone who left a tip for the employees were more than three times as likely to leave a tip – and often a larger tip – themselves.

A Canadian study by Reuven Sussman used pairs of diners who sat near the garbage and composting bins in a “clear your own tray” dining area. When they saw a diner approaching the bins, they pretended to have finished eating, got up and put their waste into the two bins, having a brief conversation about whether a certain item was acceptable to compost. Diners who observed this were about twice as likely to compost their own waste.

Good examples work to inspire healthy behaviour choices as well. Oliver Webb, Frank Eves and Lee Smith carried out a clever “real world” experiment to determine whether people follow the example of individuals who choose to climb stairs instead of using an escalator.

Using infrared monitoring beams, they logged the movements of more than 1500 mall shoppers who climbed a specific flight of stairs beside a working “up” escalator and calculated whether they were climbing alone or could see another pedestrian already climbing when they started. Their results showed that shoppers were noticeably more likely to take the stairs if they could see another shopper already using them.

Youth Culture - Teddy Boys 1950sWhat I particularly like about all these results is the potential for ongoing ripple effects. I do something, someone follows my example, someone else follows his example… Hey, there’s no doubt that it works for unfortunate fashion choices. Let’s set a better example than that.

2 comments on 'Make an example of yourself'

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  1. PanGalactic

    6 May 11 at 6:32 pm

    There is a tie in between this and the hotel towel issue, implying that not just seeing the example but being made aware that one exists from some real event has an impact. It would be interesting to see if the time lapse since the example makes a difference, or if the critical factor is becoming aware of the example (however old) at the decision point.


    Carol Reply:

    You’re right, the “good example” effect appears to work through peer pressure (social authority), like the towel effect. The timing issue is interesting: I haven’t yet found any research on whether there’s an expiry date for the effects of other people’s actions, but I’ll have to do a more detailed search. Might be a subject for another post — thanks for the idea!


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