How Negative Social Proof Can Undermine Classroom Management

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Social proof is the tendency of individuals to look to others’ behavior to help determine their own behavior. When we see others doing something or taking a course of action, it has tremendous influence in our own decision-making process.

We see examples of social proof around us every day. Most of us want to see the latest movie everyone is talking about and drive with the flow of traffic regardless of the posted speed limit.

As educators, we sometimes resort to the use of negative social proof in an attempt to guide and influence student behavior. We lecture classes about missing homework, coming to class late, uncooperative behavior, or apathetic attitudes. We do this in an attempt to clarify right from wrong and acceptable from unacceptable. However, the practice of highlighting the negative behavior of a few students can actually backfire.

Negative social proof works in a similar way as positive social proof. Because most of us look to others to help us decide our own behavior, the practice of stressing the poor behavior of a few students may actually encourage and increase that behavior. When educators lecture groups about an inappropriate behavior, they may actually make it seem like the behavior is more common than it actually is. Robert Cialdini and his coauthors in the book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive point out that, “by using negative social proof as part of a rallying cry, they might actually be inadvertently focusing the audience on the prevalence, rather than the undesirability, of that behavior.”

As educators, we are better served to point out and discuss the positive behaviors of the majority of our students. In any given classroom, most students are respectful, cooperative, and eager to learn. Use class meetings and open forums to stress the fact that the majority of students are following the rules and conducting themselves appropriately. Save the speeches, reprimands, and lectures for private conversations with those few students who are not exhibiting the expected behavior.

Post submitted by Bryan Harris, director of professional development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of Battling Boredom, published by Eye On Education. More information can be found at http://www.bryan-harris.com.

Laura Varlas is an ASCD project manager in publishing, and a graduate student in the secondary education: English/language arts program at George Washington University.