Chad Everett Harris Outlines What Social Experiments Teach Us About Social Influence

Like & Follow Us On Facebook!

Awesome Jelly

No man is an island. Though we’ve evolved into a sophisticated species, at the core human beings are still pack animals; we crave approval, require social interaction, and are ultimately inclined to follow the herd. Most of us would like to believe that we’re independent thinkers whose beliefs and behaviors are determined by our own logic and reason—but as Chad Everett Harris points out, that isn’t always true.  

What social experiments have consistently shown is that we’re far more influenced by those around us than we’d like to admit. Often, it is not what we believe or think that ultimately determines our actions, but rather the opinions and actions of those around us. 

Why People Conform

We most often view conformity through a negative lens. After all, it is foundationally to blame for mobs, bad fashion trends, bullying, and a mass of other negative phenomena. But there’s a very good reason why humans are hardwired to be influenced easily: in the early stages of human evolution, those who were quick to comply with other group members increased their success at hunting, thereby boosting their chances for survival. 

As Chad Everett Harris points out, this means we are not as good at thinking for ourselves as we’d generally like to believe. Our inclination to go with the crowd rather than against the grain is a direct result of evolutionary reinforcement, meaning it can be difficult to recognize and counteract. Whether we like it or not, we’re hardwired to conform and cooperate with the individuals around us, even when it comes at the cost of abandoning our own core beliefs and overriding our morals. 

Of course, being influenced by those around you isn’t exclusively a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite useful. Collaboration, creativity, empathy and innovation would likely be impossible without the forces of social influence. It’s also a driving force that establishes norms which lend order and peace to our society. That said, our instinct to conform and comply is a somewhat outdated function—and in the worst-case scenario, it can even become dangerous. 

The Good Samaritan Experiment

Conducted in 1973 by researchers John Darley and Daniel Batson, the Good Samaritan Experiment is Chad Everett Harris’s favorite illustration of social influence and how social experiments can help us understand its power. It also served as an eye-opening testament to just how quickly an individual will adapt their behavior to conform when pressured by an authority figure. 

The experiment was devised to test the roots of altruism—a selfless concern for the wellbeing of others, illustrated largely through acts of kindness, giving, and empathy. Often, we associate altruism as a byproduct of moral values or religious beliefs. However, the researchers behind the Good Samaritan Experiment hypothesized that religion and morality may ultimately have no bearing on whether an individual is altruistic.   

During the experiment, participants were given a religious teaching and then instructed to travel from one building to a neighboring building. Research facilitators pressured some participants to hurry; others were told not to rush. Staged between the two buildings was a man lying on the ground pretending to be injured. The goal of the study was to see which (if any) of the study participants would stop to assist him—and whether a correlation would be established between religion and likeliness to help. 

How the Good Samaritan Experiment Proves Social Influence

In the end, the study proved exactly what the researchers had predicted: there was no correlation between the religious beliefs and whether participants reacted altruistically. Instead, it was social influence that overwhelmingly determined the participants’ actions. Those who had been pressured by the experiment facilitators to rush to the next building were far less likely to stop, while those who had not been pressured to hurry were likely to help the injured individual.

According to Chad Everett Harris, the most notable aspect of the Good Samaritan Experiment is what it says about human nature and social influence. If humans truly were as independent, rational, and altruistic as we’ve come to believe, more participants would have followed their own moral beliefs and stopped to help. Instead, when presented with even a small amount of pressure from a perceived authority figure, participants willfully abandoned their own morals, acting in a way which prioritized conformity. 

Social Influence Today

Some of the worst incidents in human history have happened as a direct result of social influence’s extreme power. When undetected, it can lead to blind loyalty, which has undeniably perpetuated wars and provoked mass genocides under the influence of evil leaders. 

These days, the dangers of unquestioned conformity are exasperated even further in online spaces. Through social media, we’re connected with even more individuals than ever before, which exponentially increases the amount of social influence to which we’re exposed. Budding marketing tactics like influencer marketing have even developed specifically to take advantage of these weaknesses. Although their motives are rarely heinous, their sheer effectiveness does prove unsettling. Humans are more susceptible than ever to social influence—and those influences aren’t always positive.

Of course, there’s nothing you can do to fully eliminate social influence from your life. Even if you could, it would require cutting yourself off from all your connections, which would inevitably lead to a life of isolation and loneliness. 

The bottom line is this: social influence and pressure towards conformity is unavoidable. As Chad Everett Harris highlights, our best option is not to avoid it, but instead to learn how to recognize and react to it productively. In other words, social influence is only harmful when it goes unchecked. 

The Importance of Social Experiments Today

Of course, identifying and counteracting these influences isn’t exactly easy. After all, we’re hardwired to respond to social pressure and evolutionarily inclined to conform. The best we can do, according to Chad Everett Harris, is work diligently to stay conscious of our predispositions. 

That’s where the importance of social experiments comes in. Now more than ever, we need help understanding how social influence impacts our behavior. Initiatives like the Good Samaritan Experiment give us an indispensable window into our own psyche, providing insight on how we’re impacted most by the individuals who surround us.