My first brush with what I call “instructed behaviour” occurred as a newly licensed driver. I observed something strange about drivers’ actions – whether in my hometown, or halfway around the world. As cars queued to turn right at a stoplight (in countries where one drives on the right side of the road), the first driver in line could have a profound influence on the behaviour of the drivers behind her. If she decided to use her turn signal, a large proportion of those in line behind would as well; if she decided not to, the drivers would also mimic this behaviour.

It was not a foolproof theory, but I feel it demonstrated a powerful concept about how social norms and behaviours can inculcate similar responses in others within a group.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and I noticed the phenomenon again. I am a regular visitor of my gym’s co-ed sauna; I go twice a week. Once, I walked into the sauna to hear one woman and one man having a light conversation – “oh, what weather we’re having,” that kind of thing. As more people filtered into the wood-paneled room, the conversation quieted.

But then something happened. When the woman left, she said “ciao!”, seemingly to no one and everyone, and flashed a smile to the small group.

Then the man left and remarked, “ciao!” As others left, I noticed that those not even part of the original conversation continued the new tradition.

“Ciao. Goodbye! So long.” they merrily went.

I decided to stay – long past the recommended timeframe – to test a theory. Nearly everyone who entered after the initial “goodbye” would utter a goodbye upon departure. Half-delirious from dehydration and skeptical of the quality of this dubious social experiment, I decided I would start informally testing a theory of subconscious instructed behaviour. [1]

Each week, I would choose a day to initiate a conversation and “instruct” a goodbye. (To test how contagious the instructed behaviour was, I would leave and then return shortly after to record the scene inside). On days when I initiated a goodbye, the number of people who would do the same upon their exit increased; on days without the instruction, people were perfectly happy to remain in their own worlds with no goodbye. What was going on and how did this apply to my training as a policy designer?

In social psychology, social exchange refers to the sharing of emotions, goods, services, and social outcomes in-group dynamics. It has different names, but Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is perhaps the most well-known.

He writes, “most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Albert Bandura). Social learning theory, therefore, explains how humans’ behaviour is influenced by “continuous reciprocal interaction” between cognitive, behavioural, and environmental influences.

Bandura believed in reciprocal determinism. That is, the “world and a person’s behaviour cause each other,” while the concept of behaviourism essentially states that “one’s environment causes one’s behaviour.” In this way, observed actions re-enforce one’s behaviour.

The example of mirroring clearly demonstrates this. People will often attempt to blend in with their environments by mimicking others’ behaviour. If you see the car in front of you using a turn signal, your subconscious is likely to note this and instruct you to flick the yellow, flashing light on.

Interestingly, researchers studying mimicry also found that those who had been mimicked were much more likely to act favourably toward the person who had copied them. Furthermore, those who had someone mimic their actions were, on average, nicer and more agreeable than the control group — just as with the sauna example, it can affect even those who were not involved in the original situation.

This primarily has to do with the validation that occurs when your actions are mimicked. When someone repeats what you say in a discussion (e.g., “building off what Ann said…”), it makes you feel important and understood. Similarly, when you observe the car behind you using its turn signal, it validates your decision to use your blinker and makes it more likely that you use it in the future.

This has real applications to policy-making. If we can engender positive social responses through our own behaviour – ones that nudge people towards welfare-increasing actions – we can create a better social environment. If we are validated by others following these positive actions, it signals that we are all better off when people follow instructed behaviours. It is the basic example of a positive feedback loop.

But we need to understand a few aspects that underpin social influence before it can be applied to public policy design.

First is motivation. This describes why a person will imitate (or mimic) certain actions. Motivation is explained by past behaviour in which one has engaged, potential benefits one perceives and how one sees and feels the effect of an action.

Second is retention, which is defined as remembering the action one intends to mimic.

Last is reproduction, which refers to recreating – whether through verbal or physical means – the instructed behaviour in question. This is perhaps the most important, as it involves actually carrying out the instructed behaviour.

However, it stands to reason that some individuals may be motivated to use this psychological tool to maximize their benefits at the expense of aggregate social welfare. Would this approach to policy-making leave us vulnerable to politicians and policy designers taking advantage of us? What are the ethics? If people are given the societal go-ahead to flex this kind of “psych-of-policy” approach, what are the limits?

Similar debates have trickled into the (related) field of behavioural economics, which have yet to be resolved. It is obvious that more research is needed by social scientists in order to understand whether people tend to follow instructed behaviour more or less when it has an objectively good or bad outcome.

The questions above – while all valid – miss a key benefit layered within the dynamics of social psychology: the positive reinforcement effect noted above.

For instance, Stephen Cohen (1964) argues, “an influence to conform to the positive expectations of others…” is partly what motivates people to fulfill instructed behaviour. In other words, no one wants to be that guy who does not use a turn signal when weaving through lanes of traffic. No one wants to be that woman who did not say goodbye when others – even strangers – were doing so. That is just not how the human brain and spirit work, so research tells us.

Still, concerns ought to be probed. As Plato remarked, “good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” Limiting self-interested behaviour in this context is a chief concern as more research is conducted in this area.

The application of psychology to political issues is not a new idea. James Madison wrote with prescience on the dynamics of groupthink and the way in which political ideals can stick or fade within the minds of the public. In Federalist No. 49, Madison contends, “the reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated” (1787).

But only recently has the true power of social psychology been realized in the field of political science. We need to study this intersection of disciplines further to understand the full impact instructed behaviour could have on the way we design public policy.

 Alex Bluestone is pursuing a Master in Public Administration at the London School of Economics, where he studies the interplay between social psychology and policy development.

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