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Bowing to peer pressure

 In Insights, Realizer Blog, Science

We are all social animals.

So it comes as no surprise that we often succumb to social pressure when making decisions. My favourite psychology experiment about this showed how people will say “night is day” if they’re under peer pressure.

The series of experiments run by Asch in the 1950s had a subject answering multiple choice questions in a room with 7 other people. They were sitting in a circle, being asked their choice one at a time. Unbeknownst to the subject, the other 7 are actors, and have been instructed to give the wrong answer to a blindingly obvious choice, 6 times out of the 18 questions. The subject is answering last in turn each time. Therefore the subject has seen all 7 people give the obviously wrong answer. Will they conform and say the same as the group, or stick to their guns?

In these experiments, 75% of the subjects gave the obviously wrong but socially driven answer on at least one occasion. Meaning that, even in a room of strangers, our decisions can be hugely influenced by the social norms.

While this study is more than 50 years old, the impact is still true today. The effects of conformity in the workplace can be hugely detrimental to decision-making. Most of us have a strong desire to be liked and to impress.

Prism whistleblower Edward Snowden

Prism whistleblower Edward Snowden

Which is why it’s particularly hard to rock the boat; to be the whistleblower when everyone else is turning a blind eye. I would argue that for every Edward Snowden there are probably 100,000 people who turn a blind eye to corporate misbehaviour.

Most of us don’t want to be crusaders for truth like Edward or Julian Assange or Bradley Manning.

We do have a responsibility to stand for something though, to uphold our own personal values, and to pass these on to the next generation – young people are particularly susceptible to social pressure. So as a parent my thinking is about making sure my daughter has a strong sense of her own values, and the self awareness to see bullies and peer pressure, and know when it’s going too far.

Social pressure can be a good thing. It’s the reason we can all get on – we (mostly) know the social rules of how to behave on public transport, how to walk down the street without bumping into people, and how to queue for drinks at a bar.

The challenge is to know where to draw the line. Or how long the line is in the first place.

Posted by Rob Pyne