Audience of One


Researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted a study in the 60’s on the power of social pressure.  They had subjects enter a doctor’s waiting room, thinking they were there for a check-up.  As soon as they arrived, they were asked to fill out a lengthy medical questionnaire.  Then, after a few minutes, the researchers began pumping smoke in through the ventilation system.

The receptionist had stepped away, so the person was all alone.  What do you think the person in the experiment typically did?

Went for help, of course!  75% of the subjects noticed the smoke within 30 seconds and got up to find someone who could do something about it.

Next, Latane and Darley added two people to the waiting room, who were already filling out the questionnaire when the subject arrived.  These two were in on the experiment, so when the smoke started coming in, they looked up, noticed it, shrugged their shoulders and continued filling out the form.

Surprisingly, 90% of the subjects in these experiments never went for help.  They noticed the smoke, but when they saw the nonchalant attitudes of the other people in the waiting room, they went back to filling out their forms.  Even when they had to wave smoke away so that they could see their forms, they chose to stay in the waiting room.

Finally, Latane and Darley used three subjects who knew nothing about the experiment.  When they noticed the smoke, they sneaked looks at each other, but 62% still chose not to do anything about it.  They tried to “out-cool” the other people in the room and waited for the others to make the first move.

Our fear of “playing the fool” is a powerful motivator for us.  We put so much importance on what others think of us that we will do all kinds of illogical, counter-productive, even life-threatening things to make other people think we’ve got it together.

This past weekend, I was at a men’s retreat, and one of the guys spotted a small snake in a tree.  Wanting everyone to know that I had already acclimated to living in Thailand after only five weeks in-country, I suppressed my fear of snakes in order to try to flush this one out of the tree by poking at it.  Most of these guys had been living in Thailand for somewhere between five and 35 years, and I knew with that kind of tenure, they probably handled snakes all the time.

But while I was poking around in the tree, the men gave me their interpretation of “men’s retreat.”  Each slowly backed away from me in a large circle, and one said, “Hey, you know, most of those are poisonous.”   Their reaction did a lot to change my perception of the situation.  It was no longer “cool” or “manly” to be teasing a snake out of a tree; now it seemed pretty foolish and uninitiated.  I put my stick down and let the snake have it’s peace.

I love/hate this part of me that cares what other people think.  Love it, because my ability to empathize has been one of the skills that has helped me to build strong relationships, do consulting work, help hurting people…  Hate it, because I can’t shut it off.  I worry 24/7 about what other people are thinking.  It interferes with everything, because I have a commentator in my head asking me questions all day long.  “What will they think of that?”  “Did anyone see what you just did?”  “How will they react if you do this?” 

I suspect Satan has given me a full-time personal demon, named “Public Opinion,” who sits on my shoulder and whispers these questions into my ear.  Maybe you’ve got one, too. 

What would we do if we didn’t care what others would think?  (Keep your clothes on.  A little concern over public opinion is a good thing.)  I mean, what would we do for Christ?  Because, really, He’s our audience.  He’s it.  Our audience of one, says Big Daddy Weave.

If we’re worried about anyone’s opinion of us, it should be His.  When we get to heaven, this is going to be so obvious to us, but here on earth, it’s hard to remember who we should face from the stage.  All the people around us make so much noise, we forget Christ is even watching.  But if we tune out everyone else…  If we focus just on Him…  Then it won’t matter if the people in the audience are booing or cheering us.   But truth be told, they are probably doing neither, because they (like us) think that they are the show that everyone is watching.

(S – Latane, B., & Darley, J. Bystander “Apathy”, American Scientist, 1969, 57, 244-268.)

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