The Volunteer: Proof Against Social Proof

There’s an old joke about the army — nobody in his or her right mind volunteers. Maybe the commander needs a volunteer to “escort the Swedish Bikini Team around base,” but more than likely volunteering involves something nasty or dangerous.

Social Proof

Wariness of volunteering and going first isn’t just a military thing. It’s true in any life situation — work, school, church, etc. The person in charge asks for a volunteer, and everyone looks around. Time goes by. Finally, someone cautiously raises a hand. Immediately, several others raise their hands. It’s universal among social animals, and it’s called “social proof.”

Social proof, people copying or following the actions of others in an attempt to undertake appropriate behavior in a given situation, is prominent in ambiguous social cases. It’s “driven by the assumption that the surrounding people possess more knowledge about the current situation,” according to Wikipedia.

Social proof means being part of a group and looking for a group norm before acting. This refusal to volunteer or waiting for someone else to go first can also apply to everyday carry … and it can kill.

A large crowd in an open, red-brick plaza on an overcast day

Don’t be a sheep. Actively Avoid – Deny – Defend. Breaking through the barrier of crowd inertia, social proof, is especially important when carrying. Photo from Wikimedia.org

What Would You Do?

You’re at a restaurant with your family. It’s crowded, but you’ve spotted the exits, checked the crowd and lose yourself in conversation. You look up as a man points a gun at the cashier, demanding money. Others see it, but no one moves.

The gunman shoots the cashier and spins around. What are you going to do now? Do you wait for someone else to rush his or her family toward an exit? Wait for someone to intervene or dial 911? You don’t want to draw your gun, but time’s up. Did you wait too long?

Doomed to Follow the Herd

On Thursday, February 20, 2003, in West Warwick, Rhode Island, a fire at Station Nightclub killed 100 people and injured 230. Fireworks set off by the band ignited plastic foam used as sound insulation in the walls and ceiling surrounding the stage. Within one minute, the blaze reached “flashover,” and all nearby combustible materials ignited simultaneously. Intense black smoke engulfed the club in 5½ minutes.

Heavy, billowing smoke was the active killer of most patrons, but the real problem was social proof. Like sheep, everyone rushed toward the front door through which they had entered, ignoring two other exits and several large windows. Consequently, there was a terrible mash-up, and the front became a death trap as people panicked and fled, unthinking, toward the one place they knew. No one reacted until everyone reacted.

Stay Aware

As responsibly armed Americans, we must break through the barrier of denial and, if not actively plan for, at least be aware of the possibility that something terrible could happen at any time. It — a night club fire or shooting — probably will not happen, but it always could. That’s where the volunteer chooses to break out of the mold and away from the pack, choosing leadership and life.

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