Social experiments of the non sinister kind


  • Social brain

A great thing about having an interest in the science of human behaviour is that you can conduct little social experiments as you go about day to day life.

Here are two I have been doing recently, both at tube stations. When coming up from the train in a station with a non-moving staircase between the up and down escalator, I usually find that no one is walking up. But I find that if I walk up by the time I reach the top I can turn and see four or five people have followed in my wake. I undertake the second experiment at the RSA’s local station, Embankment.

There are two cash point machines side by side. Although both cash points accept all major cards, usually two separate queues have formed. This can be inequitable in that if you happen to be in a queue behind someone who is very slow or undertaking a complex transaction, you reach the machine after someone who arrived later then you in the parallel queue. So, whenever I queue I stand between the two existing queues, forming a new single line in which the front person goes to the next available cash point. Interestingly, although my intervention changes the previous queuing pattern, on every occasion so far new queue joiners have joined my new more equitable single line rather than by-passing me to reassert the single queue pattern.

The experiments show how small interventions can encourage behaviour which is on the one hand, good for public health and, on the other, more equitable and rational.

The conclusion some readers might reach from this is that I am simply a very sad person. But for those who find any of this interesting, my invitation is to develop and report on your own mini social experiments (preferably ones which seek socially benign outcomes; we don’t want hundreds of little Stanford Prisons out there!).

Imagine if tens or hundreds of thousands of us were everyday pursuing our own experiments into how to encourage pro-social behaviour; so much learning, so much positive social reinforcement - a revolution of tiny and clever kindnesses.

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