18 December 2012

Why We Do What Others Do

Social influences are a component of the four dimensional model of behavior. In order to better understand the influences of others on our own behavior, we have to first understand their origin.

If you agree with the general considerations of Darwin’s evolution theory, then you know that “pre-humans” and early humans were a social species. In fact even today’s primates (our evolutionary distant cousins) live in groups.

Our ancestors from a couple of millions years ago were living in small communities of a few tens of individuals. One very important feature of the human species is division of labor. In today’s world the division of labor is a given and it is widely diversified. In the early stages of human evolution, however, the division of labor was much less diversified (the types of work done were very few). In addition, early division of labor had a very strong gender component – women were gathering fruits and other plants while men were hunters. In a similar vein the parental responsibilities were divided between parents – mothers were care-givers while the men were providers.

Going back a bit to evolution theory, there are two major goals that an individual has. First is survival and the second is successful reproduction, in other words having children that survive and have children of their own.

These evolutionary goals are better achieved if an individual (human or pre-human) lives in a group. Taking this view it is in an individual’s best interest to belong to a community of (pre)humans than to live alone.

Both survival and successful reproduction are better achieved in a group. An individual has better chances of survival if the group organizes defenses against potential threats such as predators. Similarly, within a group an individual has better access to food and shelter. Successful reproduction is achieved better in a group for two major reasons. First, an individual has better chances of finding a mate in a group. Second, the very large amount of parental investment (taking care of an infant and of a small child) needed for a newborn to reach adulthood is easier to be provided if an individual lives in a group.

To summarize, an individual living within a social group had evolutionary benefits. Individuals who didn’t live in groups were most likely removed by the evolutionary mechanism – the individual would die without having children, thus the genes being lost.

Humans have an inherent need of belonging to groups. This is not to say that there are no asocial individuals among us, but at the same time most humans feel a very powerful negative emotion (very close to real physical pain) when they are rejected by a group.

Our evolutionary heritage makes us to have to fit in a social group. Fitting in includes conforming to the group’s norms with or without awareness. Although in today’s world there are countless social groups and by all means we have the liberty to choose from the huge variety, the ancestral need of belonging to a group accompanied by the miserable feeling of being rejected make us to conform to the rules of the group to which we belong or in which we are simply by chance.

Fitting in a group includes adopting and conforming to the group’s norms. Sometimes these norms have a positive influence on ourselves, other times they have a negative influence on our wellbeing. Let me give some examples.

A positive example is when a student spends one more hour studying because her (close) colleagues study 5 hours and not 4 each day. The student might simply imitate the “study group” behavior without any awareness, or might consciously decide that she doesn’t want to look less worthy and she spends an extra hour of studying not to fall behind the group.

At the other end of the continuum the same mechanism of following the group and or not wanting to look less worthy can make someone drink alcohol to the level of entering a coma.

To sum up, it is human nature to need to belong to a social group. The origins of this need are embedded in our evolutionary past. Conforming to a group’s norms can be done with or without awareness. Under awareness one simply imitates the behavior of others, while in the awareness condition, one wants to impress or not fall behind the group. The same conformity mechanisms can have both positive and negative influences on our own wellbeing. 

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