Many of us, if not most, like to see ourselves as independent-minded, willing to stand up for what we believe, not automatically going along with the crowd. But the social need to fit in and be part of the group makes conformity highly likely, even in situations where individuals protest that they are non-conformists.

Research in social psychology reveals again and again that people are much more influenced by the presence of others than they expect. And that influence can be surprisingly negative.

Some of the best known, and most amazing, experiments conducted in the history of behavioral science were devised and carried out by the late Stanley Milgram. In the 1970s, he led participants in his studies to believe that they were delivering extremely painful, even debilitating electric shocks to other participants. In a rigged “learning experiment”, when a “learner” participant in another room signaled an incorrect response in a verbal memory task, the “teacher” participant was to press a button which would deliver to the learner a shock, and progressively increase the level of the shock, step by step, to a maximum of 450 volts for incorrect responses. Of course no actual shocks were ever delivered, and the learner was in cahoots with the experimenter. The point was, the teacher was the only true subject in this ruse, and thought that he/she was blasting “the guy in the other room.”                                         

Feeling less responsible

If you are in the presence of others, and see a potentially hazardous condition, or potentially unsafe acts, or a near-miss, will you speak up? What if your boss says “don’t worry about it – it’s OK...”? Those in the EHS community are likely to say they would speak up, and expect that any/all workers in their organization seeing the same conditions or behaviors would do so as well. But either of two group phenomena will likely kick in, actually reducing the likelihood that an individual would in fact speak up.

First, in the presence of others, any individual feels less personal responsibility to act, as a function of the number of others present (the so-called “diffusion of responsibility”). The more of us who are there, the less personal responsibility any of us feels.

The other factor is called “pluralistic ignorance.” We look around. Are others taking risks seriously?  Some strong-willed individuals buck peer pressure and show the courage to be that “stand up” guy. But they are a small percentage. Like it or not (and probably not), research clearly shows most of us go along with the group, don’t speak up, and in the EHS context, make it more likely that an accident can occur.

How far will you fall?

I am struck by the number of accidents that happen in plain view of others, who do not speak up to correct the hazardous condition or to stop the unsafe behavior. The invisible social-psychological forces that make us fall in line are powerful indeed. But they are not worth dying for.

These pressures to conform, to obey when we know it’s not right, to feel less personal responsibility, to judge others’ inaction as evidence that it must be OK, all can be overcome.

One of the most powerful ways of inoculating people against the inertial effects of social pressure, is simply to teach them about such research. Tell a class about the diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance. Then expose them to an ambiguous emergency situation just outside of class (such as someone lying on the ground), and watch them all spring into action!

In the Milgram experiments, the most effective technique for reducing  obedience was to have  members of a “group of teachers” (who were in cahoots with the experimenter) refuse at some point to go on. Having social support for disobeying the demands of the experimenter so weakened the invisible but powerful bonds of social pressure that the vast majority of true subjects (as many as 90 percent) also refused to keep administering shocks (so they thought) to the learner.

If one person stands up and breaks the chains of conformity, bad outcomes can be avoided. The lessons for those of us in the EHS community and those we support in our daily work are very clear.