So I was waiting at the crosswalk…
Just another weekday. Just another city. Just another sunny day which it would be a blasphemy to spend inside the house.
So I get to the crosswalk and there’s a whole bunch of people there. I’m talking about 20 people on each side of the road. We’re all crumpled together waiting for the green light as the cars are blazing in-between- us.
One side of the road is mean mugging the other one. Each member of the group is throwing dirty looks to the opposite side. Everybody is nervous, fidgeting around, waiting for the green light which seemed like it was never going to come.
I’m calm. Like, super calm. But people around me are visibly nervous. They’re going to work, they’re late for appointments, maybe they didn’t have their morning coffee yet. Who knows.
The tension is growing. The cars have stopped running by. Each member is pushing others out of the way, trying to be the first one to run across once that dreaded light turns green.
Time passes. The light is still red.
Everybody becomes increasingly more nervous, putting out anxious “sighs”, walking in place, and preparing themselves like marathon runners about to spring at the sound of the gun.
From what I could tell, I was the only one somewhat unaffected by this long wait. I look left. I look right. There were no cars in sight.
“Fuck it” — I said and started crossing the street.
People’s faces turned horrid. I’m not sure if it was awe, shock or disgust. Probably a combination of everything. To this moment, I’m not sure why. I mean, all I did was some light jaywalking in the safest possible way. What’s the big deal?
Heads were turning. Some guy from the group across the street looks left, looks right, then start crossing as well. An old lady follows. So does the guy in the business suit. About ten seconds later, after the initial hesitation, both groups of 20 people from each side started crossing at the same time. We blocked the entire street.
I found this funny. Why?
Because this small, insignificant experience can tell you a lot about human psychology — if you know where to look.
The Ambiguity Effect
OR: Why everybody waits for the green light at all
The premise of my story is that a whole bunch of people came up to a designated pedestrian crossing and stopped, waiting for the permission to legally cross the road.
Well, at first it was common sense, as they didn’t want to get run over by speeding cars. But after a while, the cars stopped and nobody decided to cross the road anyway, even those who were visibly anxious or in a hurry.
Enter: The ambiguity effect.
It’s a cognitive bias that implies we’d rather choose an outcome in which we know what’s going to happen rather than an outcome in which we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Wait for the light:
- The light will eventually turn green
- I will walk across safely
Don’t wait for the light:
- I might get fined for breaking the law
- A car might come out of nowhere and hit me
- People will look at me weird
By waiting for the light, you pretty much know what’s going to happen. There’s less risk involved. By choosing not to wait you become less certain of the outcome. Everything might be fine. Then again… there’s more risk involved.
You make these types of decisions all the time in life, even if you’re not aware of it. Just look at the following examples:
- Stay at the same job (even if you hate it)
- Don’t meet new people (even if you want to)
- Don’t speak about controversial things (you don’t want to offend anybody)
- Start a company (you might go broke)
- Talk to strangers (they might reject you)
- Stand for your values (even if some people dislike you for it)
This fear of an unknown — ambiguous — outcome is what is stopping you from doing a lot of the things that might benefit your life. Sometimes, that fear is justified. Most of the time it is not.
Sometimes, you just need to say “fuck it” and cross the road. With that being said…
OR: Why people on my side of the road are better
This is another cognitive bias that explains how you will always assume that members of your own group — friends, political party, country, family — are more intelligent, better looking, and overall superior to other groups.
Why? Because you are part of that group.
This is a well-researched phenomenon and even applies to members who were randomly assigned to your team — like people standing on the same side of the road.
One Canadian study* found that if you ask people to go through a photo album and select people in the photos who look like they are supporters of a certain major political party, both liberals and conservatives assumed that relatively attractive people are, in fact, supporters of their own party.
These results show just how little effort is needed to trigger this bias.
In fact, research has shown that even groups who have no history of conflict and whose members don’t even know each other, be it members within the same group of between groups, still show favoritism towards the group they are a part of.
Even something as mundane as waiting to cross the street was enough to trigger this bias, showing just how strong it is.
Be mindful of this. Just because you belong to a certain group, it doesn’t mean that your group and its members are superior (or even good people, for that matter).
Take a step back and reevaluate your social circles. You may be surprised by your own realizations.
OR: Why people followed crossed the street after me
So the gist of the story was that I was the calm guy in an anxious crowd, then I crossed the street and everybody immediately followed me as their leader. I’m the shit, right?
Well, I kind of am the shit. But that’s not why they followed me.
Here’s what you need to understand: You as an individual and you as part of a group are two different people.
In most cases, you will assume a completely new identity when your role in a group is diminished. Once you blend into a crowd, your behavior and tendencies change drastically.
In other words: The more anonymous you become, the less consequences you think you have for your actions.
Just think of the YouTube comment section. People can easily talk trash and insult everybody left and right because they are hidden behind their anonymity. If their profiles had their legal names along with a photo of their face, the comments would be much different.
In person, there is almost 0% chance they would behave as they do online.
So why did people follow me?
Well, think back to the ambiguity effect I mentioned earlier. Stepping out of a crowd of people and doing something sketchy is very risky. However, doing the same thing as part of the crowd is less risky.
More anonymity = Less Consequences = More risks.
Once I stepped out, I gave the second person more confidence to do the same. In turn, they gave confidence to the third person, and so on and so on, until the entire group of 40 people followed in my footsteps.
They weren’t “acting out” anymore, they were merely following the rest of the group.
Our brains are wired in funny ways. Sometimes, it makes sense if you understand it; other times, it makes no sense even if you do understand it. But the fact remains that our biases are here to stay.
Next time you’re in a social situation, take a moment to ask yourself: “Why do people act that way? How can I make sense of this?” It’s no coincidence this is the Rule #4 of mental strength. Do not act out of fear or uncertainty.
The more you understand the world, the less scary it seems.