What Would You Do?


At the last supper the apostle Peter said to
Jesus, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Jesus told
him, “I tell you the truth. This very night, before the rooster crows, you will
disown me three times.” Peter protested, “Even if I have to die with you, I
will never disown you.” And the rest is history – Peter did deny the Lord three
times before sunrise.
I love that story because it reveals Peter’s
humanity and ultimately the forgiveness of Jesus. I also believe it tells us
something about each of us as individuals – we never really know how we will
act until a situation is upon us.
I believe Peter meant what he said with all of
his heart. To his credit he was ready to die for the Lord when he drew his
sword and cut off the Roman slave’s ear. However, he wasn’t ready when the
situation changed slightly. In the early morning in the courtyard outside the
temple when he was under no physical threat he denied knowing Jesus when asked
directly three times.
Quite often we “think” we know what we’d do in
a situation. We would never participate in the holocaust; we would have done
something about Jerry Sandusky had we been at Penn State; we would not have
participated in segregation in the South even if we had grown up there. Then
social psychology comes along and bursts our bubble with experiments that show
us otherwise. For example:
We believe we could resist the pressure to conform (consensus) if we knew we were
right. That’s what people assumed going into the Asch conformity experiments in the 1950s. And
yet, an amazing number gave into the crowd and went along with them even though
their senses told them they were correct, not the crowd.
Most of you reading this believe you’d never
harm another person just because an authority insists that you do
so. The participants in Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment in 1961 probably
thought the same thing going into the experiment. However, two-thirds
eventually gave a series of 30 shocks with the last being 450 volts!
The college students in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment probably thought
they’d never behave sadistically when acting as prison guards just because of the environment. After all, the late ‘60s
and early ‘70s were known for young people railing against the establishment,
not conforming to it. In reality the students were so sadistic the two-week
experiment was halted after just six days!
When it comes to how we’ll react in stressful
situations we often overestimate our goodness and underestimate the impact of
people in positions of authority, the environment we’re in, and the pressure we
feel from others to conform.
Not everyone gave in during those experiments
and maybe, just maybe, you’d be one of those who would have resisted. However,
most people did give in so we’d be a little arrogant to just assume we’re so
different than those ordinary people that we’d always do the right thing.
So what’s a person to do? Peter tried relying
on his willpower and we know how that turned out. Heck, he was even told
explicitly what he’d do and that wasn’t enough for him to catch himself and
make a different choice.
Wouldn’t it be better to understand how people
typically think and behave? If you have that understanding it can create the
self-awareness you might need to make a better choice should you find yourself
in a situation where you know the right thing to do but feel paralyzed by fear.
That fear can be rejection from the crowd, retribution from the authority or
the feeling of powerlessness in the situation.
This is where social psychology comes in handy
because quite often our hunches about human behavior are incorrect. Dan Ariely
wrote two books about this very subject; Predictably
and The Upside of
. I encourage you to keep checking in with Influence PEOPLE
each week. An investment of five minutes might be all it takes for you to catch
yourself and make a better choice than Peter did and most people in the
experiments I mentioned.

** To vote for Robert Cialdini, President of Influence At Work, for the Top Management Thinker of 2013 click here.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.
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