Who influences your outlook?

What do a school of fish, a toddler, and a hotel guest all have in common? Conformity. Let's look at each one.

Have you ever watched in wonder at a school of fish? Maybe you've had a chance to visit an aquarium where you can observe a live school of fish swimming around you. If not, at least you can see lots of videos online. What enables the fish to swim like one giant organism? Scientists still aren't sure, but they're pretty sure it's genetic. In fact for these fish, schooling is natural behavior, and a stress reliever.Experiments have shown that individual fish removed from a school will have a higher respiratory rate than those found in the school. This effect has been attributed to stress.

Have you ever noticed what happens when a toddler falls down? Try to recall the last time you witnessed such an event. How long did it take the child to start crying? It didn't happen right away, did it? No, the child did something else first. She looked around for her parent. Why? The sensations of pain were impossible to ignore, but what should she do? She needed information, guidance on the next step, and instinctively she turned to her parent. How would the parent react? If the parent lovingly expressed calm concern, the child might go right back to what she was doing before. On the other hand, if the parent reacted with panic, you can be sure the toddler was screaming in agony in the next few seconds. 

A hotel guest finishes taking a shower and reaches for the towel. After drying off, what does he do with it? Does he hang it up to be used again or does he drop it on the floor for housekeeping to clean and replace with a fresh one? If he's a frequent hotel goer, he might do it without making a conscious choice at the moment. Or maybe he rarely stays at hotels, in which case, he may have been paying close attention to whether he saw a lot of dirty towels on the housekeeper's cart. Or he may have asked a fellow hotel guest what he does with his towel.

In all three cases, the behavior of the individual is affected by the influence of others, often without any realization that this is happening. Just as you've probably never seen a fish have to stop and think about whether to swim with its fellows, most of the time we humans, as intelligent as we are, use social cues to guide our behavior with very little conscious thought.

a knob, like a volume knobWhy is this subject worth consideration?

I've already written on the subject of conscious choice.  Imagine you had a dial, such as the one above, that controls the amount of influence others have on you. Turning it all the way to the right means others control your every action. All the way to the left means you have complete control over everything you do and say. Others have no influence over you whatsoever. Where would you set the dial?

I can't imagine anyone wanting to turn the dial all the way to the right. We have a need for control. None of us want to be a robot or a puppet. But what would happen if you turn it all the way to the left? Imagine all the choices you would be faced with. As a child, you would have no idea what to do with the distressing nerve signals that accompany injury. And while you may think you know exactly what you would do with that towel, are you really sure that decision wouldn't be burdensome without influence from others?  Below, we'll discuss why we benefit from the influence of others, and why I can confidently say many of the decisions you and I think we're making all by ourselves really aren't that way at all.

Now imagine another knob like the first one, but this one controls your awareness of others' influence on you. Which way would you turn this one? To me, this seems like an easier decision than the first. I have a hard time picturing any situation where I want someone to have control or influence over me without my knowledge. If you feel the same way, you're in the right place. Let's look at what science can tell us about how much we know about others' influence on us, and how much we know about how much we know. Don't worry if I lost you with that last sentence. It will become clear soon.

Informational social influence: social proof

According to a 2005 study published in Social Psychology, "We conform because we believe that others' interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action."Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2005). Social Psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. This is what the toddler and the hotel guest are doing. Robert Cialdini, in his 1984 book Influence, coined the term "social proof" to describe this phenomenon. Today this phrase is well-known in marketing industry.  People are more likely to trust individuals who have symbols of success associated with their name, such as advanced degrees from prestigious institutions, affiliations with powerful people or companies, or just lots of money. It's also known as informational social influence. It serves a useful purpose, giving us a convenient way to decide what to do in ambiguous situations. The downside is, it invokes a herd mentality that can cause a lot of people to converge on a choice that none of them would choose if any of them had taken the time to decide more effectively.Don't follow the crowd when it comes to important decisions.  But we can't spend all our time debating every little decision.  The best we can do, then, is to choose reference groups made up of people who generally think things through.  Much easier said than done though....

Social identity

Social proof is closely related to social identity. Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s). Henri Tajfel made significant contributions to this field, proposing that the groups people belong to - such as social class, family, and sports team - are an important source of pride and self-esteem. Social identity is a fairly simple concept that involves three stages:

  1. Categorization
  2. Social Identification
  3. Social Comparison

Categorization: We naturally tend to put things and people into categories. We can categorize people by race, nationality, occupation, group affiliation, and so forth. In categorizing people we invariably end up stereotyping them, that is, exaggerating the differences between groups and the similarities of people in the same group. This is not due to any malice on our part but to our brain's need to simplify things in order to better process them.

Social Identification: We adopt the identity of the group(s) we have categorized ourselves as belonging to. For example, a person who considers himself a student will adopt many behaviors he considers typical of students. A person who identifies as an athlete will likely train harder and be more disciplined than someone who simply has a goal of being in better shape. As Robert Cialdini writes in Influence, "Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment."

Social Comparison: According to Saul McLeod, at The University of Manchester, Division of Neuroscience & Experimental Psychology, "Once we have categorized ourselves as part of a group and have identified with that group we then tend to compare that group with other groups. If our self-esteem is to be maintained our group needs to compare favorably with other groups." He concludes:

In social identity theory the group membership is not something foreign or artificial which is attached onto the person, it is a real, true and vital part of the person.McLeod, S. A. (2019, October 24). Social identity theory. Simply Psychology.

When considering these elements, it's easy to see why people are especially likely to perform certain actions if they can relate to the people who performed the same actions before them.

So far we've discussed two reasons why people conform: We need information to help us make decisions, and we need to know who we are so we can act consistently with that identity. Let's discuss a third, and very powerful way that humans conform: social norms.

Social norms are unwritten rules

"Social Norms are unwritten rules about how to behave," writes McLeod in another article. "They provide us with an expected idea of how to behave in a particular social group or culture. For example, we expect students to arrive to a lesson on time and complete their work." To drive home the point, he quotes Shakespeare:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits, and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.

It's easy to understand why we need social norms. What kind of world would it be if no one cared about the expectations of others? It would be like a city without traffic controls at intersections. Chaotic at best; at its worst, deadly.

Even rebels follow rules

While norms are the rules, normative social influence is the phrase used to describe their effect on us. When we agree with the rules, we follow them readily. Even when we might not agree, we follow the norms because we care about how others feel about us. And because we care, even our attitudes and beliefs are affected.

A broad array of potential moderators or mediators of the relationship between attitudes and behaviors has been suggested including ... values, beliefs and norms.Ewert, A., & Galloway, G. (2009). Socially desirable responding in an environmental context: development of a domain specific scale. Environmental Education Research, 15(1), 55–70. doi:10.1080/13504620802613504

Here's an important question to consider: Who sets these rules? Many rules in our world are set by those with power or status. While those in power enact and enforce laws, and those looked up to in society often influence us with their choices, these are both informational social influences. We become aware of the penalty for breaking a certain law. The toddler looks to her mother, a status figure, for guidance on how to react to pain. We tend to want to act and dress like people we look up to. But none of these are norms.

Who writes these rules?

Norms have power over us because of the people we consider when we think of acting a certain way or avoiding a certain behavior. The people we think of may or may not be the same as the "social identification" group(s) mentioned above. While there's likely to be some overlap, this group has a different association in our minds. The phrase "reference group" is used to apply to those whose opinions matter to us. It is credited to Herbert Hyman who coined the phrase in Archives of Psychology, in 1942. Solomon Asch and Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif were also pioneers in exploring this concept. Determining factors include how similar members of the group are to each other and the way its judgments are expressed. And while closeness of members of the group to the individual have an impact, it's not what you might expect: According to Deborah Prentice and Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University, "Consensus information - statements about what 'people in general' or 'everybody' thinks and feels - has more influence on social norms when it comes from weak ties (distant friends and acquaintances) than from strong ties (close friends and family members)."Prentice, D., & Paluck, E. L. (2020). Engineering social change using social norms: Lessons from the study of collective action. Current Opinion in Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.06.012 They also point out that people look to the bottom of the status hierarchy, rather than the top, for information about social norms. Thus, people are more likely to be persuaded by a colleague than a superior.Cialdini, Robert B.; Wosinska, W.; Barett, D. W.; Gornik-Durose, M. (October 1999). "Compliance with a request in two cultures: The differential influence of social proof and commitment/consistency on collectivists and individualists". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 25 (10): 1242–1253. doi:10.1177/0146167299258006 That's why the behavior of other guests, not the manager of the hotel or the behavior of some famous person, is most influential on our hotel guest's decision about towels.

Engineering behavior change

Above, I pointed out ways that other people can knowingly affect our behavior. They can write and enforce laws. People with influence can set an example, good or bad, that will be imitated by others. But what about norms? Can people consciously manipulate them? Since science has a good idea how norms work (after all, they are basically just unwritten rules), can we rewrite them? Can we manipulate them to affect positive behavior change? The answer is yes. It's called the Social Norms Approach (SNA), or, less often, norms engineering. I first became aware of this relatively unknown concept on an episode of Invisibilia (highly recommended). 

A social-norm intervention, in its simplest form, informs individuals of what others are doing or what others approve of, in order to encourage them to do the same. Prentice and Paluck, quoted above, describe the assumptions that underlie this approach to efforts to improve social behavior:

  1. Perceived norms are consistently associated with behaviors
  2. Individuals tend to misperceive or under/overestimate their peers’ behaviors and attitudes
  3. Such misperceptions are associated with the increased/decreased engagement in those behaviors; and
  4. Interventions which correct such misperceptions should promote more positive behaviors

Let's use an example. Earlier we referred to a person who has an identity as a student, let's say, a college student. College students are aware that overdrinking is a common behavior among students. They may have heard stories of wild parties with lots of drunkenness. They may know a few people who have gotten drunk at college parties. These experiences may lead them to believe that binge drinking is a very common, even ubiquitous behavior of other college students, and this may lead them to think they need to overindulge in order to fit in.

According to the publication Prevention Tactics, by Stephen Hahn-Smith and Fred Springer, there are three types of misperceptions concerning social norms: 

  1. Pluralistic ignorance,
  2. False consensus, and
  3. False uniqueness.

Pluralistic ignorance, the most common misperception, occurs when a majority of individuals falsely assume that most of their peers behave or think differently when in fact they are similar. For example, most students drink moderately or not at all, yet they incorrectly assume that other students drink more than themselves.

False consensus is the incorrect belief that others are like oneself when they are not. For example, heavy drinkers may think that most other students are heavy drinkers when this is not true.

False uniqueness occurs when individuals exaggerate the difference between their own behavior and the behavior of others. False uniqueness, like false consensus, is a misperception about the differences between oneself and others. Abstainers, for example, may assume that they are “unique” in their behavior and withdraw, feel isolated, or experience unwarranted questioning of their own position.

A case study in SNA intervention

A social norms intervention was undertaken at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1995. A campus-wide survey found that "89 percent of students typically drank alcohol during the average week and that 55 percent of students were frequent heavy drinkers often drinking five or more drinks in a row." Baseline data was collected showing that the students perceived alcohol use and binge drinking to be even more prevalent than they actually were. Using multiple forms of media, the information campaign emphasized facts, such as the fact that one-third of all HWS students consumed three-fourths of all alcohol consumed on campus, demonstrating that heavy drinking involved a minority of students.

Students were tested before and after the intervention to determine whether their perceptions, and therefore behaviors, had changed. Not only did the majority of students reduce their estimates of the extent of alcohol consumption on campus, the actual drinking, as reported by the students, decreased as well.The paper doesn't discuss how trustworthy the students' self-reporting was, but from other studies mentioned below I have reason to believe it was fairly accurate. This change in perception persisted, as a follow-up survey five years later found that students' perceptions of the actual norm as moderate were 40 percent higher.

Other examples

Other SNA interventions have been successful in stimulating positive behavior changes.There are definite pitfalls involved in such endeavors, which shouldn't come as any surprise. Further discussion is outside the scope of this article but a good place to start is Cislaghi, B., Heise, L. Theory and practice of social norms interventions: eight common pitfalls. Global Health 14, 83 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-018-0398-x Households that received normative information describing the amount recycled by an average neighborhood family increased both the amount and frequency of their subsequent curbside recycling behaviors. Schultz, P.W. (1999). Changing behavior with normative feedback interventions: A field experiment on curbside recycling. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 25-36. How about our hotel guest with the wet towel? If he were part of an SNA intervention in a hotel setting, he would be 28% more likely to reuse his towel than previously.Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (in press). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research.

Behind the veil

I hope you have been following me so far. We've covered a lot of concepts - in fact, I'm pretty sure this article is the only one in existence that has tried to cover all these topics at once - but up to this point these are all fairly simple concepts. Now here's a twist: We're all affected by social influences, every single day, but for the most part, we aren't aware of it. Pause and think about it for a minute.

Don't turn that dial! (You can't anyway)

Think back to the dial illustration above, specifically to the second dial, the one that determines how aware we are of the influence of others on us. Most of us would probably want to turn it all the way to the right, wouldn't we? Can you imagine anyone saying, "I don't want to know when someone else is influencing me"? And yet, that is exactly the situation we are all in!

One reason for this is that we are very, very good at fooling ourselves. I'll be writing a lot more about this as time goes on, but for now, let's consider some ways we fool ourselves when it comes to the influence of others.

Another case study, with a surprising twist

Let's start with an SNA aimed at helping people reduce their energy use. In late October 2003, 810 residents of California were dialed at random and asked about their beliefs related to energy conservation. Then they were asked to describe the efforts they were making to conserve energy. Their reasons given (saving money, environmental protection, social responsibility, others are doing it) were recorded and then compared to their descriptions of efforts their neighbors were making. The study found that "descriptive normative beliefs were more predictive of behavior than were other relevant beliefs, even though respondents rated such norms as least important in their conservation decisions."

A follow-up study used a different set of households, and this time residents were presented with factual information using one of the above four reasons to encourage conservation. In the weeks that followed, residents were contacted with a follow-up survey, and actual meter readings were taken. The meter readings were used to verify the verbal responses of the residents. "Meter readings showed that a descriptive normative message — a message merely containing information about the conservation behavior of the majority of one’s neighbors — spurred people to conserve more energy than did the control message or any of the three other messages that contained appeals that are traditionally accorded motivational power." In other words, factual information about their neighbors' efforts to conserve energy had a stronger effect on their own behavior than messages about protecting the environment, being socially responsible, or even saving money. Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative Social Influence is Underdetected. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 913–923. doi:10.1177/0146167208316691

Interventions using this strategy have enjoyed considerable success: the reports led to an immediate reduction in energy use, which becomes more stable over time and persists even when the reports are discontinuedPrentice and Paluck.  See full reference above.

I tried to keep that as brief as possible, but I want you to realize this was a very well-executed study. While it may be surprising that normative messages have more power than other self-interest-directed messages, here's an even bigger surprise: In general, the respondents did not believe that this was the case! "Residents did not detect the influence of these messages, rating them as least motivating." Notice what they actually thought was happening:

Participants in this conservation study did not believe that such normative messages could influence their behavior; they attributed their conservation efforts to environmental concerns or social responsibility needs.

This point is worth repeating: The study respondents changed their behavior because of learning about their neighbors' behaviors, but they thought it was because of other motivations.  The study made this clear, but they couldn't see it.  They were fooling themselves.

Other influences we're not conscious of

The paper continues with a discussion of the scientific study of non-conscious influences on behavior over the past 25 years. Besides normative messages such as factual information about others in the reference group, other factors can "produce strong and perceptible changes in behavior." One of these is priming. Just talking about going to the library can cause others to unconsciously lower their voices.

Participants who were primed with words related to conformity (e.g., adhere, agree, comply) were subsequently more likely to conform to the opinions of confederates who gave very favorable evaluations of a boring task (Epley & Gilovich, 1999). The observed behavior of other people may also be processed nonconsciously. For example, participants mimicked a confederate who was either rubbing their face or shaking their foot but were unaware that they had done so (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999).

It seems that both informational and normative social influence are underdetected.

The authors conclude: "Although people may not believe that the behavior of others should motivate them to conserve energy, their behavior was powerfully influenced by it nonetheless."

An illusion of the mind

Another reason why we can't see the influence of social norms on our own behaviors might be because they directly influence our perceptions. Kind of like optical illusions play tricks with our eyes. A 2005 study, to the authors' knowledge, "is the first study of brain activity associated with social conformity and independence."Gregory S. Berns, Jonathan Chappelow, Caroline F. Zink, Giuseppe Pagnoni, Megan E. Martin-Skurski, Jim Richards, Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation, Biological Psychiatry, Volume 58, Issue 3, 2005, Pages 245-253, ISSN 0006-3223, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.04.012. The study used fMRI to detect which regions of the brain were activated during a task which involved spatial processing (thinking about rotating an object in space) and group interactions, both with other humans and with computers. Besides results which "affirm the hypothesis that brain regions classically associated with perception can be altered by social influences," the study also observed that, during times when participants reached conclusions that differed from the majority, the amygdala region of the brain was activated. This is the part of the brain most closely associated with fear. According to the study, this provides "support for the point that resisting normative social influence can often lead to negative emotional consequences for individuals." In other words, going against the norms activates the fear center of the brain. No wonder social norms are so powerful. But we knew that already, didn't we?

The amygdala activation in our experiment was perhaps the clearest marker of the emotional load associated with standing up for one’s belief.

While we're on the subject of fooling ourselves we might as well go a bit further. We're barely conscious of the effect of social norms on our behavior, but what about our preferences? Are they affected too? While we're still looking behind the veil, we might as well take a good look at this one too.

Social desirability means fooling ourselves

Wait, what?

To be honest, this one really is just another form of normative social influence. We can understand why social norms would alter our behavior. For example, in the energy conservation study above, it's easy to understand why people would conserve energy when they knew their neighbors were doing it - no one wants to be the energy hog in the neighborhood. But does that mean they all suddenly became environmental activists? Of course not. While their behaviors were modified, their mindset probably wasn't. That is, not right away. Maybe they were over time, after they got into the habit of conserving energy and saw the savings on their electric bill, and of course they were cultivating a new habit which as you know, tends to stick unless there's an influence the other way. Not to mention that most of them believed they were changing their behavior because of "environmental concerns or social responsibility needs."

Still, it's not hard to imagine going along with social norms even when we don't agree with them 100%. I'm pretty sure that describes all of us to a certain degree. If we had a knob we could turn, we would probably adjust the norm a bit closer to our own comfort zone. (Of course, there's always SNA interventions, but those are a pretty big undertaking....) So we just adjust our attitude, probably, and go with the flow. What's the point in making a stink?

Enter social desirability. Social desirability is simply this: When we are asked for our opinion, we often give the answer we think the other person wants to hear rather than our true opinion.  And, like the unconscious influence of normative information, we usually aren't even aware we're doing this.This concept first had a label put on it in the 1940s in a paper (Meehl, P., & Hathaway, S. (1946). The K factor as a suppressor variable in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The Journal of applied psychology, 30 5, 525-64.) which referred to at least three other papers in the 1930s that touched on the concept, and then in the 1950s Allen L. Edwards wrote a book with "social desirability" in the title. He gave a lot of thought to the idea so he deserves at least some credit for getting the ball rolling.  At the time it was generally perceived only in the narrow field of personality assessments, as near as I can tell, but over the years the concept has come to be more commonly recognized in other fields. I'm including this information here because currently Wikipedia gives all the credit to Edwards.

Can something so difficult to detect really have a serious impact on our world?  (Certainly. Think about bacteria.)

I'll be writing more about this subject but for now let me introduce a related concept: "preference falsification". In fact, in my opinion, these two concepts are the same psychological phenomenon in different clothing.  While social desirability refers mostly to the way people respond to surveys, preference falsification has a real impact on the world in general. While I haven't finished listening to the five-part podcast Nice White Parents, I can tell you that this phenomenon features prominently in the podcast, whether mentioned by name (I doubt it), or not.  I hope you will listen for yourself and let me know whether you agree or not.

I plan to write an article specifically on this phenomenon, but let's let it rest for now. Because this leads into my final point.

The veil doesn't just cover my eyes - all of our eyes are covered!

I've referenced quite a few scientific studies here, and I feel like these are all solid. And over the years we've had some skilled, dedicated individuals build up a significant body of knowledge on these subjects and the subject of conformity in general. But, like pretty much everything I write about on this site, despite solid evidence a lot of this stuff is on the very periphery of public consciousness. In other words, as important as this stuff is, most of us don't have a clue about what's going on.

I discovered a common theme in several of the articles I researched in order to write this article. Let me list them here, in chronological order:

From a 1946) study by Meehl & Hathaway:See previous footnote

It is a significant sociological fact about the psychologists that in spite of the strong reasons, both a priori and experimental, for accepting the reality of this phenomenon in objective personality testing, very few systematic efforts have been made to correct for it or to overcome it. ... It almost seems as though we inventory-makers were afraid to say too much about the problem because we had no effective solution for it, but it was too obvious a fact to be ignored so it was met by a polite nod.

Have we come a long way since 1946? Well, consider this quote from a 2017 study:

Despite current enthusiasm for studying the effects of conformity on opinion change […], agent-based models have yet to investigate the repercussions of agents’ verbal belief falsification on public opinion.Duggins, P.: A psychologically-motivated model of opinion change with applications to American politics. J. Artif. Soc. Soc. Simul. (2017). https://doi.org/10.18564/jasss.3316

And another from last year:

Outside the field of sociophysics, the classical work of Timur Kuran (1987a, 1987b, 1989, 1990, 1991a, 1991b, Kuran 1995) highlighted preference falsification as one of the possible mechanisms behind abrupt changes in public opinion that seem to explain unexpected revolutions. But we do not know much about other possible mechanisms that could explain these and other types of shifts in public opinion.... With only a few exceptions, the understanding of patterns of public opinion change has generally been dismissed in the literature on opinion dynamics models.León-Medina, Francisco J. (2019) 'Endogenous Changes in Public Opinion Dynamics' Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 22 (2) 4 <http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/22/2/4.html>. doi: 10.18564/jasss.3967

And finally, this one, published just a few months ago:

In recent years, the number of opinion dynamics models and extensions of old models has continued to grow, to the point where the literature on this issue can be overwhelming. However, in this vast and rich literature, the role of preference falsification has generally been dismissed.... beyond the study of opinion dynamics, preference falsification in contexts in which individuals are confronted with social forces that exert an explicit and manifest influence on them was a central theme in many classical works in the social sciences.... However, this issue has been largely (and, in our view, unjustifiably) ignored in recent years.León-Medina, F.J., Tena-Sánchez, J. & Miguel, F.J. Fakers becoming believers: how opinion dynamics are shaped by preference falsification, impression management and coherence heuristics. Qual Quant 54, 385–412 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11135-019-00909-2

It looks like this subject is still in our collective blind spot. Well, as individuals we can still do what we always do when we learn that something is in our blind spot:

We can turn our head.

So go ahead and turn those knobs. Turn them in the direction you want. Just be aware it's going to take some work. But, as everyone with a bright outlook knows, nothing without effort is truly worthwhile.