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How to Ride in an Elevator in Five Easy Steps

Social life has norms and sociologists seek to uncover, explore, and understand these norms. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the norms of riding an elevator and what elevators can teach us about conformity and deviance.

Have you ever ridden in an elevator? What did you do? I imagine your elevator trip went something like this:

  1. You arrived to the elevator doors and pushed either up or down and waited for the elevator to arrive.
  2. The elevator doors open and after verifying it is heading in the direction you desire, you step inside. You move towards the back of the elevator if many people were getting on the elevator with you. If the elevator is crowded, you might even opt to let this car pass and wait for the next one. Once on the elevator, you take your position and turn around to face the doors. (What do you do if the elevator has doors in both the back and front of the elevator!?)
  3. You push the button to the floor you need and only to the floor you need unless someone else says they need a different floor. Under no circumstances do you push all of the buttons–no matter how much the lit up buttons may resemeble a Christmas tree. Resist the temptation!
  4. You cease any conversations with the people you boarded the elvator with. You do not talk to anyone else on the elevator. There are only two exceptions to this norm. First, you may ask new passengers what floor they are going to if they themselves can not easily reach or push the floor buttons or you are overcome with politeness. Second, if this elevator is in a building you live or work in, then you may talk to other people on the elevator. Otherwise, you do not talk to anyone–including people you know inside the elevator.
  5. Once you arrive at your floor, you exit the elevator. You do not wish your fellow passengers goodbye. You leave as silently as you arrived.

While conversations are often limited on elevator rides, some elevator norms are much more strictly followed. Norms are guidelines for behavior. Watch the following video about elevator behavior:

This clip from a 1962 episode of Candid Camera illustrates what happens when people violate elevator norms. The confederates (those people who pretend to be research subjects who in fact are in on the research project) are conducting a breaching experiment. Breaching experiments seek to expose the taken for granted social world. In the video clip, the confederates violated the norms of riding in an elevator.

Interestingly, when the elevator norms were violated, the elevator riders not in on the experiment conformed! The power of the group over the individual is quite strong. (See also Solomon Asch demonstrating the power of conformity.)

To be fair, the Candid Camera episode was from 1962 and Solomon Asch’s conformity studies were published in the early 1950s. People are much more individualistic and less likely to conform today. Right? Are you sure abou that? Would people today still fall for this? Would they hold firm to elevator norms or conform when those norms are breached? A more recent version of this experiment found that, yes, people do still conform to what others are doing in the elevator! In sum, elevator norms are persistent as is the likelihood of people conforming to the behavior of others.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Explain what a breaching experiment is. What knowledge can be gained from conducting a breaching experiment?
  2. Design your own breaching experiment. Identify the norms you intend to test. How do you think people would respond to your experiment if you were to do it?
  3. What do breaching experiments teach us about conformity? Why do people conform?
  4. Improv Everywhere is a New York City group that “causes scenes.” Visit their website and watch one of their stunts. Their stunts are a much larger breaching experiment than your typical sociologist might envision. What type of breaching experiment was conducted in the video you watched? How did people not in on the trick react? How did you react? How would you respond if you saw this group do one of their stunts in real life?