The effect of social pressure lasts around three days after a person is away from the group, new research suggests.
It’s well-known that people’s opinions are strongly influenced by others around them.
The classic study, conducted in the 1950s by Solomon Asch, found that people will even deny the evidence of their own senses in order to conform (see: Conforming to the Norm).
But the new Chinese study looked at the time limits for conformity after a person has left a group (Huang et al., 2014).
One of the study’s authors, Rongjun Yu of South China Normal University, explained the results:
“Our findings suggest that exposure to others’ opinions does indeed change our own private opinions — but it doesn’t change them forever.
Just like working memory can hold about 7 items and a drug can be effective for certain amount of time, social influence seems to have a limited time window for effectiveness.”
In the study, participants were asked to judge other people’s attractiveness.
Before each judgement, they were given a purported average rating for that face, supposedly reached by 200 other students.
Participants returned to the lab 3 days, 7 days and 3 months after the first session.
From the ratings it was clear that people were influenced by the implicit social group whose ‘average rating’ they’d been shown.
The social influence effect was still there after 3 days, but gone at 7 days and 3 months.
Forgetting group norms
Perhaps this study helps explain why people seem so free when they return to work after a week’s holiday.
It’s not just that they’ve been having fun, but also that a week is long enough to forget some or all of the constricting norms of office behaviour.
Any time people are away from their normal groups, this effect is likely to take place, as old group norms are forgotten and new ones start to be absorbed.
The effect will likely vary depending on how much social pressure is exerted.
In this study, participants were only exposed to a very weak social influence.
They didn’t see the other people who’d made the judgements and the other people were doing little proactively to influence them.
Many social situations — such as those operating at work and in social units like families — will be much stronger and will likely have a longer lasting effect.
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