005 – The street corner experiment

Posted by  Anecdote International —February 5, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

A story type we love here at Anecdote is the story of a scientific experiment. It has the double benefit of giving you a story with a good business point and it’s based on peer reviewed research. An experiment story has authority, especially with people who value evidence and science.


This week’s story is the street corner experiment. It’s based on a study done in the 1960s by psychologists Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz. You might remember Stanley Milgram from his infamous experiment that demonstrated that people will electrocute strangers (they didn’t really kill anyone but the subjects thought they did–wouldn’t pass the ethics committee today) if you are told to do so by someone in authority. You will be pleased to know the street corner experiment is benign by comparison.

The main point of this episode’s story is that people are highly influenced by what other people are doing. Psychologists call it social proof. This is especially true if things are uncertain.

In business we are constantly trying to influence others to do something that seems like the first time. This experiment story illustrates that we should find examples of what other people are doing and make it visible in order to persuade people to action.

Apple did this when they introduced the iPod. They knew it would mostly be in people’s pockets so how could they make it visible to show that lots of people were listening to their music this way? So they included a set of white headphones with each iPod. People started to see white headphones everywhere which gave them social proof to do something similar.

On the show Mark and I discussed how it would have been useful to know what city the experiment was held in. So I had a look at the published paper (citation below) and here is what they said:

“The subjects were 1,424 pedestrians on a busy New York City street who passed along a 50-foot length of sidewalk during thirty 1-minute trials. The study was conducted on two winter afternoons in 1968.”

Some nice details there to add to the story. See For Your Story Bank section below.

If you have any comments on how this story helped you at work or reminded you of another great experiment story, please let us know below.

Milgram, S., Bickman, L, Berkowitz L. (1969), “Note on the Drawing Power of Crowds of Different Size,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13(1), 79-82

The idea of social proof is one of 6 principles of influence in Robert Cialdini’s seminar book of the same name.

Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Quill Publishers.

And the Milgram study where he ‘electrocutes’ experiment participants:

Milgram, S. “Behavorial Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 (1963): 371– 78.

For your story bank

Relevance statement: People are highly motivated to do what other people are doing.

Three psychologists Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz ran a simple experiment to illustrate this.

It’s 1968.

The researchers asked a single person to stand on a busy street corner in New York City and look into a spot in the sky for 60 seconds. The researchers track who else followed their gaze.

Then put a group of 5 people on the street corner and it quadrupled the number who looked up.

With 15 people standing and staring at a single spot in the sky, 45% more pedestrians stopped to join them.

This is called social proof. We tend to do the same things we observe other people doing.

Podcast Transcript


Welcome back to Anecdotally Speaking, a podcast that helps leaders and sellers find and tell great oral stories. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.


And I’m Mark Schenk.


God, what a great week we’ve had. It’s been very busy. It’s great to be back on the show, right?


It is. It’s nice to be sitting down and getting away from the computer and email and doing one of the things I love to do.


Indeed, now one of the things that’s been keeping me busy this week is I’ve been recording the audio book of putting stories to work. And so, it feels like this week has been a very big audio week for me. I’ve had a bit of a croaky voice as well, so I’ve been trying to get through that, but it’s been great fun. I’ve learnt lots of interesting things.


So, you’ve spent two days reading your book into a recording device; what has struck you?


What I’ve really noticed is that reading something out aloud is so different to reading just sitting on the couch, flicking through the pages. It’s a totally different experience. And some sentences that you write are really hard to translate into how you say it.

It just reinforces that whole idea that oral language is different to written language and I tell you what some of those things I said are tongue-twisters.


Yeah, I was helping a CEO prepare a speech and some of the things that were written down I simply couldn’t say, and I had to rewrite because they did not translate into spoken word at all.

And in fact, when I went back and looked at those particular phrases and what I noticed when I read them again I actually didn’t understand them. And so, the act of saying them out loud caused me to question how comprehensible, how understandable those things were.

And so, did you find the same thing with the book?


I think so. There were some bits, which I looked at and I was using the $20 words instead of the $1 words. And in oral story telling you just don’t use the $20 words. It’s actually more like the 50-cent word, right?

It’s very basic simple language that you use when you’re sharing a story, so I think that that really struck me. And a tip to writers; you really should be reading out your writing aloud and anything that you stumble over or that you find a little hard to say out loud maybe you should rewrite.

I should have done more of that. I did a little bit but there are bits where I really didn’t nail it home.


Ah, second edition.


Second edition, yeah. Now one of the things that we’re doing with the podcast, just making it easier for people to use, is adding the transcripts from all these conversations into the podcast notes.

So, when people go to the blog post and they see the podcast entries, they’ll be able to jump in and see the transcripts. One of the other things that really struck us when we were talking about this just the other day. In episode 3 we were talking about the story bank and how important that is.

And in fact, I had a nice email from my 20-year old nephew who said to me, ‘Uncle Shawn, I’ve been listening to your podcast. I’ve created a story bank and I’ve got a bunch of stories in there’ and he actually wanted me to remind him of a story I told over Christmas.

Isn’t that great that we’ve got these young people actually wanting to give it a crack in terms of being systematic about their story-telling?


Yeah, and one of the other things that we’re doing to make it easy for people to put these stories into their story bank is that we’re actually putting a written version of these stories into the show notes just like it would go into your story bank—just to make it easy for people to collect these stories and have them in their pockets available for use.


That’s right; you can just cut and paste and pop them into your story bank. And make your own notes; the bits you need to make it memorable for you. So, hopefully that’ll make a big difference.


So, what’s today’s story?


Well today’s story is one of my favourite types of story and that is the story of the scientific experiment and the reason I love the scientific experiment story is you get this double whammy benefit.

On the one hand you get the benefit of the story-telling; on the other hand, you get the benefit of peer-reviewed research that backs up your story. And this particular example is all around this idea that we’re so influenced by what other people are doing, what we can see people doing.

They did this fascinating simple little experiment to show this back in the 1960’s. It was conducted by three psychologists; Stanley Milgram.


Hang on, wasn’t Stanley Milgram the psychologist that was doing research on electrocuting people?


Yeah. Obviously, the standards for ethics were a little lower in the 60’s but yes, he did that. That was a fascinating experiment but it’s not about that one. This was a fairly benign experiment you’ll be pleased to know.

So, there was Stanley Milgram, and there were two other researchers, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz and it’s called the street corner experiment. And the way it works is that (cast your mind back to the early 60’s) they get a single person and they put them out on a busy street corner.

And they get that person to stare up into the sky at a particular point and maintain that gaze for 60 seconds and then they’re recording to see if anyone else is following their gaze.

With one person on the street corner hardly anyone follows their gaze (hardly even notice really), one or two people look up. But when they put five people on the corner all of a sudden, the numbers quadruple.

You’ve got a whole bunch of people looking up into the sky, just wondering what that guy’s looking at but staring in the same direction. But what’s fascinating is that when they put 15 people on the corner they had something like 45% of the people passing by would stop and join them and look up at the sky.

We are so influenced by what other people are doing; it’s that herd mentality. But there’s good reason for it, right? And that is when you’re a bit uncertain and you don’t really know what’s going on a great strategy is to do what everyone else does.

So, when you walk into a meeting and everyone is sitting down, what do you do? Sit down. Everyone’s standing up you stand up. And so, we’re always looking for those cues. Now, Apple did a really interesting thing when they introduced the iPod.

When they introduced the iPod they knew it was going to be in everyone’s pockets; no one’s going to see it so how do you get that social proof? So, what do you do? White headphones and all of a sudden (because all other headphones are black) these stand out and as soon as you see some white headphones you start going, ‘oh, they’ve got an Apple iPod in their pocket’.

The more headphones you see the bigger the social proof. Anyway, that’s the little story I wanted to share. It’s an example of an experiment and it’s backed up by peer review. By the way, I’ve got the research paper written down—I’ll put that in the show notes and you can go to the actual citation.


And of course, that links into other research about influence; Robert Cialdini is a world authority on the subject of influence. Social proof is one of the key sources of influence, one of the things that influences us, and we see it around us every day.

So, let’s talk about what worked or didn’t in that story.


The thing that I like about it is that it is a very simple story. It’s got these three parts and by the way we love threes in stories, so you’ve got the one person, the five people, the 15 people so it’s a very simple structure for a story, right?


It doesn’t take long to tell, which is always important. You can probably tell that story easily in 90 seconds.




One of the important points, when you tell a story like that, is you set it up. You gave us a relevant statement, so we knew why we were listening to this; the research was examining the extent to which we’re influenced by other people. And so suddenly the audience knows why they’re listening to this story so that was good.

But, you’re right; simple, short—business stories do not have to be sagas.


One of the other things that I like in it too is because there’s a famous researcher and when I mentioned Stanley Milgram you immediately went, ‘ah, isn’t that the guy…’? And I think if you can do anything that connects the audience with a familiarity with your story helps them and brings an authority with it; ‘O.K. so this is a well-known psychologist who had done some amazing work in a range of different areas’.


And there’s another way of doing it and that’s not to say who the researchers were and just say ‘there was some research that showed’ and it’s the details that add the credibility to the story.




I hear people saying all the time, ‘research shows that…’ and my immediate question is ‘what research?’ ‘Who says?’ So that’s another good point, those details.


So, how to make it better?


The first thing that came to mind was where was this? Was it New York, London or L.A.?


I asked myself that question as I was learning the story and I couldn’t find it easily, so I thought I’ll leave it out. But you’re right; I did have this urge to say ‘oh this is Manhattan’ but we were talking about this before. You can’t just throw in the name of the city if you don’t know the name especially when you’re talking about peer-reviewed research.


Exactly, the temptation is to make it up. Our advice is that you shouldn’t’ make it up especially if it’s peer-reviewed research. It’s so easy for somebody to go and find out and then the credibility of what you’re saying is gone completely because that detail isn’t correct. So, please don’t make it up.


Where would we tell this one? What are the places where this would be a useful story to tell?


One of the things organisations all over the world are grappling with is collaboration and so there is lots of activity around communities of practice, works of excellence and these things are hard to get started.

If you remember back in the late 90’s with the ActKM community of practice, we just didn’t have enough people at the start to get that tipping point and so we scheduled members of the committee to post messages and people saw it.

And the more activity they saw and when we got to about 100 members that exploded and we very quickly had 1,000 members and it would take you hours to read the number of posts that were posted each day.


So, it was a big tipping point wasn’t it?


It was a huge tipping point but again it was social proof. People saw that there was activity and that encouraged them to participate as well.


And a story like this would be great anytime you’re trying to get people to try anything new. And you’re trying to say, ‘how do we get people to try this thing?’ Well, we’ve got to show that other people are doing it and we’ve got to create a feeling that there’s something going on.

The flipside to that social proof element is if your network is not working then the worst thing you can do is go out and say to your community is, ‘hey guys, we’re not getting many messages. It’d be great if you posted something’. Because what you’re telling everyone is that it is not working.

And the social proof is saying ‘gee, not many people are posting so maybe I won’t post’.


Exactly right, that is the worst thing you can do because it just proves to people that there is no activity.


How would we summarise this in terms of the key lessons that we covered today?


Well one of them is that experiment and peer-reviewed research is a fantastic source of stories—so useful and that was a good example of that. The importance of the relevance statement so that people understand why they’re listening. Short and simple—less than 90 seconds.

You mentioned the three pars. We love those three so that’s another good thing to have in your mind.


But you wouldn’t construct it? You wouldn’t try to create that if it wasn’t there, right?


Exactly. So, any other thoughts about why that worked?


I think just having those specific details; the researcher’s names, it has that specificity about it rather than the general ‘research says’. We don’t want to do that. What would you give today’s story?


I would give it a 7.


Yeah, I’d give it a 7 as well. It’s a nice one to have in your back pocket. It would actually serve a purpose but on the day it’s easy to remember. You’d probably forget the names of the researchers, but you might remember Stanley Milgram but that’s part of it, especially if you can associate it with painful electrical experiments he’s done. And maybe we’ll talk about that in another episode.

Well thanks guys, for tuning in to Anecdotally Speaking. It’s been great to have you here. Of course, put your comments on the blog post—we’d love to hear them and if you have any questions for us, we’d love to be able to answer some questions wouldn’t we, Mark?


And if this story triggered any stories of your own we’d love to hear them.


So, guys, just keep putting your stories to work and we’ll see you next time.

About  Anecdote International

Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.


  1. Paul Cooper says:

    Guys – I really admire your dedication to sharing IP – your provision of transcripts is great. Couple of thoughts: maybe just remind people where to find your website for providing feedback comments – it’s not coming high up on Google search rankings. Your suggestion of the Story Bank and keeping it to some trigger words was great. I have started doing that. In fact my wife Jacqui and I discussed your last blog and the Milgram one reminded us of how important the human mind is to achievement. There is a great story of the runner who couldn’t get under the 4min mile – until the day his timekeeper (who was calling out the splits to him) made a mistake and was calling out earlier times. He was so inspired by how he was running that he accelerated even harder and found he broke through. After that achieving the under 4min mile was straightforward. He had been blocked by the invisible barrier of his mind. I will try and source the actual runner. Cheers and thanks again

  2. I loved this story!

    It is very powerful to use story to illuminate the point of “group think” and how we all influence each other, there is a very strong message in here that causes me to reflect: how much of what I am doing is “me” and how much is “copying others”? Where is creativity if we are so influenced by one another? There is also the power of positive example, of showing by doing and getting others to show by doing- in this way we kind of “infect” each other positively.

    I appreciate your stress on “getting the numbers right”. I have heard people in the storytelling sectors I have visited that it is not always important to get the exact numbers right because it is “the principle ” that matters….but not so if you are talking in business and all the more so in “peer-reviewed research”! I think taking the time to check and make sure you have the exact details conveys a message of professionalism, of trust of reliability.

    Thanks also for these transcripts they are really helpful.

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