7 January 2013

Doing What Others Do – Social Influences of Peers

One of the components of the fourdimensional behavioral model proposed is “social influences”. Now, social influences can be divided in two categories: (1) peer influences and (2) authority influences.

In order to get a better understanding of the differences between the two types of social influences we should go back a bit to the structure of human society. From its early forms, (pre)human society was hierarchical. Now, don’t think about the “classical pyramid” of hierarchical structures since our distant ancestors were not educated in MBA programs. The essence of hierarchy is that not every member of a society is perfectly equal to other members of the same society. Reasons for this are numerous and include age, physical strength, dominance, gender etc.

To make a long story short, let’s just say that hierarchical societies are more efficient at achieving the ancestral evolutionary macro-goals of survival and successful reproduction.

A hierarchical structure, by its nature has two dimensions: horizontal and vertical. On the vertical we have the actual hierarchy such as “Master – Servant”. On the horizontal we have relationships based on “equality” in status and competition for higher status.

The vertical dimension or the power of authority will be addressed in a later post. Now I would like to focus on the horizontal dimension. Apparently the horizontal dimension presents a paradox, namely that relationships are characterized by both equality of status, solidarity and competition for higher status. To better understand how these things work, let’s make a leap of imagination and picture ourselves as “proletarians” in a large scale factory.

We are proletarians, you, me, and all the others around us. We are somehow all equal in status because we all have to answer to the (oppressive) management. At the same time we exhibit solidarity in the sense that we are proud to be proletarians and we go on strikes together to fight for our rights. Moreover, we attend union meetings and have similar leisure (such a bourgeois term) activities such as frying burgers and drinking beer. However, not everything is smooth and nice in our proletarian world. Some of us want to show that they are better skilled than others and compete for the “employee of the month award”; others want to exhibit their leadership skills and run for chairman of the labor union; while others simply want to be the most popular in the group. All these inner wishes lead to competition for status.

Despite being in competitive relationships, we have a need to belong to a group, which in the aforementioned example is the “Proletariat”. In an earlier post I have explained why we needto belong to a group

In order to belong to a group we (have to) conform to the group’s social norms. These norms can be formal or informal and just as a hint, informal norms are usually more powerful than formal ones.

Conformity to group (informal) norms was demonstrated by psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950 in a series of experiments which have been informally named Asch’s lines experiment.

To briefly describe the experiment take a look at the next picture. The question asked in the experiment was a trivial one: “With which of the right hand lines is equal to the left hand line?” Unless you are blind or have a serious seeing problem (and not wear your glasses) the answer is clear as daylight.  

Your answer is “A” and correctly so. But there is a bit more to this experiment than just testing one’s visual ability.

Imagine that you are in a room with another five people who are as far as you know just like you (peers). Every person gives the answer out-loud and you are the last to respond and your peers’ answers are as follows:

Person 1 Answers: “B”;
Person 2 Answers: “B”;
Person 3 Answers: “B”;
Person 4 Answers: “B”;
Person 5 Answers: “B”;

Now, it is time to give your answer. What will it be “A” or “B”? Now, with you in front of the screen you might say that for sure you will say “A” (which by the way is correct, while “B” is not), but when in a room with five other people just like you all saying “B” there is a good chance that you will conform and give the erroneous answer “B”.

There are numerous versions of this experiment and what they have shown is that about 75% of people conform at least once and give the wrong answer that the other participants were instructed to give. There are some nuances to the conclusions of the experiment. First, people conform only when the answers are spoken out-loud; when asked to write down the answer virtually no one gives the wrong (group) answer. Second, if at least one person out of the previous five gives the correct answer, then the last participant (who is the only real participant) will not conform to the group’s norm.

One particular criticism of this experiment is that it is the product of social norms of the US society in the 1950s. The counterargument suggests that students (who were the participants in the experiment) in the 1950 were more likely to conform than students in the 1990s since there have been consistent changes in the society overall. My opinion is that this criticism has some value in the sense that in today’s society there is a larger variety of “norms” that we conform to. For example non-conformists that buy “apple” products do not conform to the “norm of majority”, but conform to the norms of a minority. At the same time, conformity to social norms still exists.

Another characteristic of the experiment is that the correct answer is obvious. I believe that the main strength of the results comes from this very feature. Everyone sees and knows the correct answer and still in some cases people give the wrong answer which is the social norm. In the real world, however, we encounter numerous situations in which the “correct answer” is not straight-forward.

In day to day life we have to handle many situations which are at least slightly ambiguous and going with the group can be a good rule of thumb. One example of such an ambiguous situation is the “bystander effect” described in Despite 30 People Witnessed a Crime No One Intervened… It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (1) 

The bystander effect is an extreme example and (fortunately) we encounter less dramatic ambiguous situations in which we go with the group. Let’s see some simpler examples.

First, you might have noticed that on websites there is a “facebook” area where you see who “Likes” the page. The script behind is designed in such a way that you see in the list your “Facebook friends” who like the page… this is well designed since if you see that some of your “peers” (or at least people you know) “like” the page you will be more likely to “give a Like” to the page. The unconscious reasoning goes something like this: “If my friends like this, then there might be something interesting here for me too”.

Second, if you ever shopped on Amazon or searched a movie on imdb, then you might have noticed the area that says “People who bought this also bought…”. In this case, the only thing that you have in common with the group is that you and they have a common interest (bought something). Despite this very weak link, these recommendations have the desired effect, namely to at least look at another product (and sometimes buy it).

Third, in many advertisements there is a mention of “X thousands / millions satisfied customers”. This is another way to say that “The social norm is to buy our product” and it is aimed at making you conform to this norm.

Fourth, in both on-line and off-line commercials a certain product is mentioned as “Popular choice” which has the same meaning as the “X million satisfied customers”.

Fifth, especially in the on-line environment, but not exclusively, you can find “user ratings” which are another form of establishing a norm. The unconscious reasoning goes like this: “If other people say this is a 8.5 (on a scale from 1 to 10) product, then it must be reasonably good”. Moreover, some websites also say how many evaluations have been made. The more people say something is good or bad, the stronger the norm is.  

Up to now, I gave a lot of examples related to marketing, but conformity to social norms has by far many more applications.

One of my favorite examples of using conformity to social norms is in the public transport system in Rotterdam. Everyone checks in and out of the tram (bus) and thus not doing so (free-riding) is diminished by the social pressure. This is not the only factor that influences honest behavior, but it is one of them.

What we have to be aware of is that conformity to social norms has a very serious “Dark side”. We know that people conform to social norms (or in other words go with the group). What is essential is which norm people conform to. 

I come from a country which (still) has serious issues with corruption and at least part of this phenomenon is based on social norms. Of course the formal norm (law) is against corruption, but there still are informal norms which go for corruption and not against it. I will not expand this topic since it is not my purpose to make an analysis on corruption behavior. The key is that conformity to norms does not always mean that people conform to the “right” norm.
Before ending this post, I’d like to make one final mention on conformity. People conform to the norms of groups that they want to belong to. If we take a person and place her in a group that she dislikes, most likely she will not conform to the group’s norm. In fact it is very likely that the person will actually act in the opposite way than the norm suggests.

Here’s a video about the Asch’s Lines experiment

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