The power of social pressures on behaviour


Here’s Don Norman in The Design of Everyday Things on fighting the incredible power of social pressures on behaviour. What kind of social pressures? The social forces that cause “otherwise sensible people to do things they know are wrong and possibly dangerous.”

When I was in training to do underwater (scuba) diving, our instructor was so concerned about this that he said he would reward anyone who stopped a dive early in favour of safety. People are normally buoyant, so they need weights to get them beneath the surface. When the water is cold, the problem is intensified because divers must then wear either wet or dry suits to keep warm, and these suits add buoyancy. Adjusting buoyancy is an important part of the dive, so along with the weights, divers also wear air vests into which they continually add or remove air so that the body is close to neutral buoyancy. (As divers go deeper, increased water pressure compresses the air in their protective suits and lungs, so they become heavier: the divers need to add air to their vests to compensate.)

When divers have gotten into difficulties and needed to get to the surface quickly, or when they were at the surface close to the shore but being tossed around by waves, some drowned because they were still being encumbered by their heavy weights. Because the weights are expensive, the divers didn’t want to release them. In addition, if the divers released the wights and then made it back safely, they could never prove that the release of the weights was necessary, so they would feel embarrassed, creating self-induced social pressure. Our instructor was very aware of the resulting reluctance of people to take the critical step of releasing their weights when they weren’t entirely positive it was necessary. To counteract this tendency, he announced that if anyone dropped the weights for safety reasons, he would publicly praise the diver and replace the weights at no cost to the person. This was a very persuasive attempt to overcome social pressures.


Normal, regular people — just like you and me — are out there every day risking drowning over a set of diving weights. Don Norman’s instructor is a genius and probably a hero. I hope you’re not going to get into life-threatening situations every day but you’re going to get into potentially life-worsening ones pretty often. It’s probably worth asking what potentially life-worsening or bettering behaviours you’re rewarding in your life.

2 responses to “The power of social pressures on behaviour”

  1. If you drop a weight, that’s literally “sunk cost” right? Crucial to have these tough conversations and ask hard questions early on in projects. And reward teams and people that have the mindset for bringing up tough questions and forcing decisions early on — because those problems will inevitably come back in the final hours.

    1. I can’t believe I missed that literal connection to “sunk cost” especially since I was thinking of the sunk cost fallacy when I was reading this. (Probably because I think I’m susceptible to it — though who isn’t?) Nice catch.

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