How Negative Social Proof Can Undermine Classroom Management


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


  1. This year I am having an exceptionally hard time with classroom management. As you stated, usually the majority of the students in a class are respectful and eager to learn. However, this year I have numerous students who are constantly disobeying the rules and do not stay focused. I believe a main reason for this is exactly what you stated; children have the desire to perform the actions they see others around them doing.
    I agree with you that teachers should discuss positive behaviors to the whole class and punish individual students privately. My school has the motto to “Praise Publicly and Punish Privately.” I always look for students who are following the rules when others are disobeying, so I can draw the negative behaviors to the positive ones. When I do punish, I always remind the students that they should not repeat bad behaviors, only good ones. I am hoping with continuous reinforcement and role modeling, my students will stop using negative social proof in the classroom.

  2. As professional educators, we all know this is what the research says; but it is often difficult to implement every day. A professional colleague whom I look up to has a habit of becoming extremely soft and loving when she is the most fed up with a student. I have stood agog on the sidelines a thousand times over how well it works!!!! If we cannot stay composed when we are the most angry, how on earth do we expect our students to do it? They are bumping into each other’s space way more than are with them every day!
    I have been very proactive this year about turning anger into something positive. My personal style is not nearly as soft as my friend’s, so I decided to take a humorous approach instead. For example, when a few aren’t paying attention, I beging having an in depth conversation with the green fern atop my bookshelf. “Mr. Fern, I so appreciate your quality attention right now. I’m supposed to be explaining this to my favorite group of second graders, but as you can see, several of them aren’t even hold their heads up.” Then all of my kids begin to giggle. I laugh, too. And viola! You should SEE how awesome they sit up and listen. 🙂
    This also goes a long way in building a rapport with my kids. They really want to please me. I capitalize on that desire and, in the end, they learn much more than they would have if I had yelled and screamed at them to pay attention. If there are any other creative ways to reframe anger and disappointment in a positive way, I’d love to hear them!
    I found this research on “Social Proof” to be most enlightening. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I absolutely agree that Negative Social Proof in running ramped through our schools. Some students have such a poor view of education at a young age. My school has turned into a Positive Behavior Support (PBS) school. The focus is now on the students that are meeting expectations. Our saying is the we have P.R.I.D.E. Students are expected to show pride, respect, intelligence, determination, and excellence. Students receive stickers from teachers when caught doing something positive. We have our first P.R.I.D.E assembly next Friday and I am excited to see how behavior changes after students see their peers receive awards. I have noticed a change in my class, and especially when I get the stickers out.
    My hope for this is to make our school a positive place for students to learn and grow.
    This research is interesting and will share with my staff. Thank you.

  4. I have found that when you focus on the appropriate behaviors within the classroom, an you use these students as your model for the class, the other childern will begin to model what they see. They begin to look around and see what’s going on and start to shape up. It’s like a domion effect. When they see 1 child receiving praise, they all begin to straighten up. using these students as the model, other students will focus on the praise.

  5. I agree with about focusing on appropriate behaviors and praises the students who are doing those behaviors. I have also found that when I praise on student for doing the right thing the other student want that praise as well. I have also started to use tickets for appropriate behavior and when the class as a group gets a certian number there is some type of reward or prize and this seems to work for my students because it gives them an opportunity to work together and it also gives them a tangible reward.

  6. Hello Kate,
    Our school recently began the positive behavior support program as well. We use a system called chief’s change to reward expected behaviors and try to focus on the positive. My main concern with this is that the students are so extrinsically motivated already. They have a waht will you give me attitude. “If I do my homework will you give me chief’s change?” I like the idea of praising and paying attention to the positive behaviors but I am worried that we are carrying it too far with rewards constantly.

  7. I am a substitute teacher and a recent Early Childhood graduate. I have had the privilege of substituting in a school that, in my opinion, does a phenomenal job of focusing on positive behaviors rather than the negative. They have a school wide system where young students are constantly ” spied being good.” There are four adjectives of good behavior that are described on a yellow slip of paper and the teacher’s job is to put a check mark next to the targeted behavior. Whenever there is a free moment, the student travels to the front office to collect a prize (usually a book mark, bracelet, or small toy) The next morning during announcements, the fifth grade students announce all of the students who were “spied being good.” I think this is a great way to remind students to always be on their best behavior.

  8. I have a problem with lecturing the class about the issues that were discussed in this post. I find myself spending way to much time focusing on the bad behavior and I forget about the kids following the rules and turning their work in on time. I gained some insight from this post and now I see I can wait till after class to address individual concerns. This will draw the attention away from the unwanted behavior, and the disruption experienced from the students following the rules, doing their work, and not being disruptive in the classroom.

  9. I am currently experiencing this problem in my classroom. I have an austistic student in my class who can not bear to hear noises that distracts his academic performance. These noises are tapping the pencil on the desk, making noises with the mouth and humming. One student in the class purposely exhibit these behaviors, knowing this autistic student will get distracted and upset.Then other students join in with this student, causing a major class disruption. Too much energy is spent addressing the situation, instead of teaching.Yes, I have engaged in the practice of highlighting negative behavior of a few students , which does backfire. The entire class session becomes a total disaster, as I try to calm things down.Thanks for the good advice of saving the sppeches, reprimands, and lectures for private conservations with those few students who are exhibiting the expected behavior.

  10. Wow, I never knew there was a name for it. I have always tried to avoid negative social proof. I try to kill the disruptive students with kindness and it usually works. I also reward the students that are on respectful of each other and on task with PBIS coupons. What has happened is the other teachers that do call out the disruptive students in class now send them to my room because they know that they don’t act that way in my class.

  11. I recently moved from 6th to 7th grade. There’s more rebellion from the 7th graders and they look to one another for approval when they are disruptive. Sometimes other students reinforce the negative behavior. The difficulty is that adolescent students seem to value reinforcement from their peers over their teachers.

  12. I believe negative social proof to be a very common and natural response by many teachers. Often in the daily turmoil of maintaining classroom environments, teachers act as humans. I was thinking another thought to add to the dilemma is the thought of mocking or parroting of a teacher. Many responses that were suggested about encouraging students for positive behavior sometimes become opportunities for students to make light of a teacher when he/she attempts to accentuate positive actions. Example: I am glad that Johnny and Susan have their books out ready to work could also result in a few students who repeat I am glad that Johnny and Susan have their books out ready to work.
    Sometimes in the thick of things, we forget that these students are actually begging for attention (positive or negative). This article is great for reminding us to search ways to be positive rather than reactive.

  13. I am overwhelmed that as educators most of us really have similar challenges. Negative Social proof, a new term I am learning, is a problem for me. I am smiling because it was throughout the course of this week i had to call a colleague and talk to her about teaching the children who seemed to be following others. Whenever, they are in the presence of their parents or at their homes they behaved differently than when they are at schools. Subsequently, this is driving me crazy. Then, came the lecture highlighting the negatives. Now, I am learning to highlight the positives, hence, I am going to do that. Thanks to Mr. Harris and the others of you that reported that drawing pupils’ attention to the positives work.
    I have tried employing the positive social proof occasionally, however, I thought the students responded to the negatives than the positives. On the contrary, let me hastened to say that the responses might last for few hours and then the cycle of inattentiveness, shouting across the class and chattering with the students continue; follow by, lecturing and shouting by the teacher.

  14. I fully support a school policy that focuses on the positive…however, I don’t feel that extrinsic rewards (trinkets, in this case) are the most productive approach. (At least they are not handing out candy!)
    There are ways to motivate students that rely upon their universal human need for recognition rather than “stuff”…more thoughts on that here:
    Betsy Weigle

  15. The definitions set forth in the first paragraph don’t fit the examples used throughout the rest of the article. Although I understand the theory of the article, calling attention to negative behavior is not an example of negative social proof. Social proof is when a person justifies their own behavior based on first hand observation or what they understand to be normal behavior. Students who try to fit in by avoiding extremes will break the rules that they see “everyone else” breaking. They might also break the rules that they think everyone else is breaking.

    The teacher can act as a catalyst for social proofing if they call attention to a behavior that other students had not yet observed, or are unable to observe. For example, if a teacher constantly talks about rules that are broken in “all” their other periods, it could give the impression to students that breaking those rules is normal.

    On the other hand, students know what other students in their own classroom are doing. They know before the teacher when most rules are broken. Students generally honor the separation between staff and peers, taking much more care to hide negative behavior from staff than they do from peers. As students get older, they become more aware of the cultural differences between authority figures (such as teachers) and their own friends.

    If a negative behavior happens in a group of students, and the behavior disrupts an entire classroom, the behavior NEEDS to be addressed by the adult in charge. All but the least observant students are aware of what is going on, the teacher isn’t going to change the perception of what’s “normal” by calling attention to the behavior.

    Similarly, students are going to see right through teachers and administrators who habitually exaggerate the positive. When we recognize average or sub-par students with rewards of excellence, it cheapens all the other awards that are given out by the school. The students recognize the lack of integrity these awards have right away. Insincere or exaggerated statements meant for correcting student behavior, will give your dimmest students a false sense of accomplishment, and will make your best students skeptical of the school system.

    I believe the best policy is to be honest with students, and avoid public floggings over private behavior. Be honest with yourself as an authority figure, don’t exaggerate the behavior or the results of the behavior. If a student does something that isn’t disruptive to the entire class, talk to problem students in private, and give them an honest explanation of why their behavior is hurting themselves, the class, or the school. But if the behavior does, in fact, stop the entire class from learning, then there’s no reason why that student shouldn’t be called out in front of the entire class. Don’t be cruel, don’t get personal, but be severe enough that the entire class understands what rule was broken, how it hurts the group, and what behavior is expected… please don’t ignore the behavior for the sake of being “positive.”


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