Swept Along on the Highway of Life

I was driving into work not long ago and came across what I thought was a metaphor for life. I hit the road early, shortly before 7 a.m. on a beautiful spring morning to get a head start on my day. There was not a cloud in the sky, but there was a little chill in the air, and as I made my way east on the outer-belt I was struck by the fact that there were very few cars on the road. Seeing that made me glad I’d decided to head to the office early. Unlike some major cities, Columbus traffic isn’t bad at all if you leave a little earlier than normal. When I do that I can make it from my driveway to the State Auto parking lot, nearly a 15-mile journey; in 20 minutes or less if there are no accidents or road construction.

As I enjoyed my coffee, alone with my thoughts, I noticed there were cars well behind me and some a good distance in front. Like most people I don’t quite adhere to the speed limit so I was going about 70 mph in a 65 mph zone. The further I drove the more I noticed the cars behind me continuing to gain on me until all of a sudden I was surrounded by cars.

I don’t know about you but I tend to keep pace with traffic almost unconsciously. In this case, before I realized it I was actually going 80 mph! As I shared, like most people I flirt with speeds just above the speed limit but usually not 15 mph so once I recognized what I was doing I slowed down and boy was I glad I did because a few moments later I saw a highway patrol car join us on the drive.
After giving quick thanks for slowing down and avoiding a possible ticket I began to analyze the situation. Only after the fact did I realize how I was being swept along on the highway of life. The principle of influence that was at work on me is known as consensus, sometimes called social proof. This psychological principle describes the human tendency to look towards many other people, or people we see as similar to ourselves, for clues about how to act in certain situations.
Despite knowing the speed limit many of us don’t adhere to it and a big reason we don’t is because we observe so many others not obeying the law. And, sometimes in doing so we find ourselves doing things we might not do in the absence of other people. Case in point, I was perfectly content with my 70 mph speed until other cars surrounded me traveling much faster. It wasn’t even a conscious choice to speed up but before I knew it I had.

This applies to much more than just the highway. You might be reading this feeling a bit of pride because you don’t change your driving habits based on the habits of other drivers but there are many ways consensus might be at work on you:

  • Do you stand during standing ovations…even when you didn’t like the performance? Most people do.
  • Does your dress conform to those around you? If you doubt it just loo
    k at some old photos and you might be hit with this thought, “What was I thinking when I wore that outfit?”
  • Have you ever tried a restaurant dish because, “It’s our most popular menu item”? Part of reason the dish remains so popular is that little phrase used by the server.
  • If you’ve had a question have you ever held it until a few others asked questions first? It’s amazing how group dynamics change after one person breaks the ice.
These are all simple ways we’re influenced by the actions of others, the power of the crowd. Some people call it good etiquette; others call it being polite or good manners. However you label it it’s still the same because we’re unconsciously driven to do things and act in ways because of how we observe others.
This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, most of the time following the actions of others has very good consequences for us. We feel a sense of belonging, we are more readily accepted into groups and we avoid conflict. However, there are times when it can lead us astray and have very bad consequences.
  • Excessive speeding can be dangerous to us and others.
  • For teens, wanting to fit in can lead to bad choices when it comes to drinking, drugs and sex.
  • Following the crowd at work because “everybody does it” can cost you your job.
Most of the time I’m trying to get you to see ways to ethically use influence and persuasion to hear “Yes!” This week I encourage you to take time and reflect on why you’re doing some of the things you’re doing. Do you really want to do them or are you feeling internal pressure to conform? Are the choices you’re making in your best interests or are they to please some group? There are people out there who understand influence and persuasion but their intent isn’t ethical, it’s one sided for their benefit. If you’ll pay attention as you’re swept along on the highway of life you’ll retain control of where you go, when you want to go and the path you’ll take to get there.
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes!”
1 reply
  1. Drew Hawkins
    Drew Hawkins says:

    Like this post a lot. A great example of how becoming complacent at work and making our decisions based on what others do instead of making our own decisions. The traffic analogy hit home.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.