005 – The street corner experiment

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —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.


Coming …

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “005 – The street corner experiment”

  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

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