Why People Conform: Maybe It’s Not Social Pressure After All

People move in herds — but simpler forces are at work than social pressure.

People move in herds — but simpler forces are at work than social pressure.

People copy each other all the time — it’s human nature.

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 copy other people (see: Conforming to the Norm).

But now a new study questions the established answer to exactly why people conform.

One of the new study’s authors, Diana Kim, explains:

“Social psychology has always explained conformity from social perspectives: group pressure, desire to belong to the group, belief in the group’s superior knowledge, etc.

The aim of the present study was to test whether even simpler mechanisms may account for at least some conformity effects.”

What they found was that the apparent desire for all humans to copy each other is not all about social pressure.

Maybe not even mostly about social pressure.

Instead the study suggests that behavioural decisions are a kind of ‘mental average’ of our own past behaviour plus that of other people.

We work out how to behave in a situation by recalling other people’s behaviour in the same situation…

…except we seem to get confused at recall and think that it was our own behaviour.

In other words: we copy other people, but forget that we are copying them, so it feels like our own decision.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science (Kim & Hommel, 2015).

Seesaw image from Shutterstock

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Hello, and welcome to PsyBlog. Thanks for dropping by.

This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.

It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.

I try to dig up fascinating studies that tell us something about what it means to be human.

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.