If everyone else is doing it then I probably should to.
In Singapore, we call it being “kiasu” which loosely translates to being afraid to lose out. Others might put a positive spin on it and call it collective wisdom but we have all been there – if everyone else is doing it, then I probably should too.
Lapinski and Rimal (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005) discuss several factors that influence our decision making process, the appropriate way to react to a situation and how susceptible we are to being influenced by what society deems to be normal.
They make a distinction between injunctive norms (what ought to be done) and descriptive norms (what is actually done). How society reacts to us doing or not doing something is often the tipping point to whether or not we will perform a task. In the privacy of our own homes away from the judgement of our social network, we may indeed leave the tap running while brushing our teeth or throw out the odd glass jar or two instead of recycling.
Lapinski and Rimal (2005) suggest that individuals are more inclined to behave a certain way when three moderators are at play:
- Outcome expectations – the perceived reward or (cost of inaction) of performing a particular task. For example, I exercise because I believe it will make me healthier.
- Group identity – how closely we relate to a group and their beliefs. If you go against what your social network believe in, they may not consider you “one of them”.
- Ego involvement – factors that contribute to your self-identity. These could be religious beliefs, political affiliation or even family background.
When a situation is ambiguous, such as when in a new environment or a new culture where the correct way to behave is unknown, individuals look to their peers or other bystanders for what to do.
An interesting example is the hit-and-run incident in China last year where a toddler was left injured whilst pedestrians and cyclists passed by ignoring her. The event was captured by surveillance cameras and the footage circulated on You Tube and through Chinese media resulting in global outcry.
Shocking as it was, what is not immediately apparent is the number of precedents in China where good Samaritans who stopped to help were blamed for the accident and even court-ordered to pay compensation. Thousands of locals who commented on the incident admitted that had they been there, they too would not have stopped to help.
Whilst the dilemma in no way makes this behaviour acceptable, I ask you this: Had you found yourself anonymous in the backstreets of a dubious neighbourhood in China that day and observed the locals ignoring this injured toddler, would you have stopped and called for help?
Lapinski, M. K., & Rimal, R. N. (2005). An Explication of Social Norms. Communication Theory, 15 (2), 127-147.