Day in and day out our peers exert a strong influence on us. That’s because we feel giving in to this peer pressure—such as saying that you love a movie because friends do—creates a positive feeling about belonging to a group. This positive feeling can make us repeat the same ‘giving in’ behaviour, according to a Baylor University, Texas, sociological study. This study sheds more light on why philanthropists continue to be so generous and why some individuals continue to stay in criminal gangs.
“Conformity leads to positive feelings, attachments, solidarity—and these are what motivate people to continue their behaviour,” said Kyle Irwin, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
The researchers conducted two ‘public good’ experiments. Participants had to choose a measure of their own resources to share with the group and how much to retain for themselves. Contributions were doubled and divided equally among everyone, regardless of how much people donated. This scheme allowed individuals to ‘free-ride’ and cash in on others’ generosity. In both studies, participants were informed that contribution decisions would be made one at a time, and that they would fill the last position in the sequence.
In the first experiment, the researchers used this design to stage-manage the average contribution of other group members. In one case, the contributions of the ‘others’ was very consistent; in another, very inconsistent. Group members in one instance donated about 65 per cent of their resources; in the other, they were stingy and donated around 25 per cent of their resources. Groups in which people contributed generously represented ‘high-achieving’ groups, while those whose members donated very little were similar to ‘slacker’ groups.
After the decision of contribution was made by the participants, they were asked a number of questions about the group; the questions were designed to measure feelings of attachment among members.
For the second experiment, the participants were again asked to decide how much to give to the group, but this time their individual contribution would not be disclosed. Irwin and Simpson used this experiment to ascertain how individuals would behave as a result of their feelings about the group and its members. Results indicated that people continued to conform to norms even when their decisions were anonymous.
The individuals who were part of the study believed they were interacting with total strangers. This leads Irwin to believe that, “It’s a pretty powerful process. They don’t know each other, but conformity to norms still generates positive feelings about the group. If we’re getting these results in this artificial context, think how much stronger it might be with people who know each other and have some sort of interaction history.”
The results show similarities in groups in which it was the norm to make sacrifices for others, as well as in groups where the norm was to slack off. In both cases, participants reported nearly identical levels of attachment to the group, and then continued to follow the norm in subsequent interactions. These findings could be significant for positive collective efforts, such as building public parks, funding public television and radio, or voting.