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Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

Years ago I saw a fascinating television show where psychologists were doing an experiment on human group behaviors as they related to warnings.  What I saw about human behavior intrigued and stunned me.  This was the experiment.

In the first group, 20 people who thought they were applying for a job in a large corporate building took an application into a waiting room to fill out.  After 5 or so minutes, a standard fire alarm went off.  People looked up, looked at each other, but no one got out of their chair, no one left the room.  People shifted uncomfortably for a few minutes but then went calmly back to their applications.  The fire alarm continued to scream its warning for 5 full minutes and was then turned off.  The experiment was over.  A psychologist came in and debriefed the participants and told them they were testing to see under what conditions people responded appropriately to alarms.  When asked why no one left the building, people stated that they figured it was a false alarm.  People also stated that since no one else seemed concerned, they weren’t concerned either.  They cited fear of embarrassment as one of the reasons they didn’t want to respond to what was probably a false alarm.

In the next group, 20 new people filed into a room with applications and sat down to fill them out.  The fire alarm went off.  People looked around at each other but no one got up to investigate and no one left the room.  But this time, the researchers had a bunch of people walk past the experiment room to make it seem as if they were evacuating the building.  Only one person in the experimental group got up and left the room to follow the other “building employees.”  When asked why the rest did not follow, people said they didn’t know what to do, or that they didn’t want to be embarrassed if there really was no fire, and also that they figured it was a false alarm because they could detect no evidence of a real fire.  The man who actually did leave the room said, “I figured the employees knew what was going on so I followed them.”

Now the third group was tested.  20 people filed in with their applications.  One of them was planted in there by the researchers.  When the alarm went off, the planted researcher immediately stood up in alarm and said, “Hey, everyone, there might be a fire!  Let’s get out of here.”  People stood slowly, not sure if they should follow this person.  But a few of them did.  Not all left, however.  If I remember correctly, only about 5-7 got up and left.  The researchers asked why they didn’t leave and some replied that they figured it was a false alarm, and also that the guy who jumped up to leave was just being paranoid. They figured he knew no more than any of them, so why should they do what he did?  The people who did get up and leave said they did so because the first guy seemed so confident and they wouldn’t be embarrassed to leave if other people left too.

Okay, now the fourth group gets sent in.  20 people with clipboards.  This time when the fire alarm sounded, a computerized woman’s voice came on and said, “There is a fire on the second floor in room 245.  Please evacuate the building immediately.”  Every single person jumped up, grabbed their stuff, and high-tailed it out of the room.  No one looked at other people to see what they were going to do.  They just got themselves right out of there.  When the researchers asked why they responded so quickly the people replied that they figured the computer wouldn’t have been so specific unless there was a real fire.

The researchers were testing to see under what conditions people would respond to alarms.  After all, what’s the point in having a fire alarm if people don’t respond to it when there is a real fire?  It was also interesting to the researchers that people were so afraid of being embarrassed in front of total strangers that they would risk their lives not to appear foolish.  They also learned that people look to others for clues about how they should react to potentially dangerous situations.  And they learned that if you act confidently you can persuade people to do as you do.

After I watched this program I was amazed at human behavior.  People risking their lives to avoid embarrassment.  Interesting.  People who looked to others to determine what they should do.  Wow.  I found out that this branch of psychology was called “Human Factors” and was one of the catalysts that drew me into that branch of psychology.  What makes people act the way they do?  So fascinating to me.

What do you do when you hear a fire alarm?  Do you sit there and do nothing?  Do you look around to see what other people are doing?  Or do you get up and get out of the building right away?  In what other areas of your life do you exhibit this behavior?  Such as relationships, health, career, politics?

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