How Quickly Can Our Opinions About Something Be Changed by the Views of Other People?

More quickly (and more often) than we might imagine. Although humans are a famously conformist species, many people (especially in individualistic cultures like the United States) imagine themselves to be independent “free agents,” whose opinions are equally independent. In fact, almost a century of research demonstrates that our values, preferences, and even our visual perceptions are altered by those around us. Everything from our beliefs about racial equality to our perceptions of lines waver in the presence of others, eventually leading us to “fall in line” with people around us. Such social influence occurs quickly, powerfully, and often without our awareness.

People often find this information unsettling. At first blush, conformity seems to belie the weakness of an individual’s principles. This is predicated on the idea that conformity is a type of lying: We maintain our own private opinion or knowledge, but pretend to feel otherwise in order to fit in with a group.

Is social influence really a type of lying? New research suggests that it isn’t. Instead of simply pretending to fit in with a group, conforming individuals might be experiencing something deeper: an actual “aligning” of their perceptions with those of others. For example, in a recent study, my colleague Jason Mitchell and I asked male participants to rate how attractive they found hundreds of female faces. After rating each face, they learned how a large group of their peers had supposedly rated that same face (these “group” ratings were actually fictional). We then scanned participants’ brains while they rated each face a second time. Participants conformed to their peers, claiming to find popular faces (those liked by their peers) to be more attractive than unpopular faces. Were they lying about this newfound aesthetic? Our brain imaging results suggest not: Their brains responded as though they found popular faces more rewarding than unpopular faces. In other words, conformity represented an actual shift in people’s emotional responses to faces, based on what they believed others felt: Peers’ opinions “leaked into” individuals’ private evaluations, and changed their view of the world around them.

This suggests a new take on conformity. Of course we are all individuals with unique views of the world. But we are also deeply interdependent on our social groups, and need to cooperate constantly in order to survive. Conformity—not as a form of lying, but as a deep shift in how we see the world—is a powerful and efficient way for individuals in a group to align, bond, and work together.

Jamil Zaki is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University.

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