Behavioral conformity has been studied extensively and is commonly explained in terms of social pressure or impact. Surprisingly, however, recent research by Leiden psychologists Diana Kim and Bernhard Hommel suggests that social factors may not be necessary to produce or explain conformity. According to their study, published in Psychological Science, people may simply confuse memories of their own behavior with memories of the behavior of others, and then reproduce mental “averages” thereof.
People often change their behavior/beliefs when confronted with deviating behavior/beliefs of others, but the mechanisms underlying such phenomena of conformity are not well understood.
Kim: “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.”
This idea was motivated by Hommel’s Theory of Event Coding, a general framework of perception, action, and embodied cognition. The theory claims that perceptions and actions of oneself and of others are neurally coded in very similar ways, so that people often cannot distinguish properly one from the other. This explains why imitation is so easy but it also suggests that even actions without any social meaning can induce conformity effects, especially if they are similar to one’s own actions.
In two experiments female participants were requested to rate the attractiveness of 220 female faces on a scale from 1 to 8 by pressing the corresponding number key on a keyboard. After each rating they were presented with distracting information: a video showing another person’s hand pressing a number key—which could refer to a number that was lower than, similar to, or higher than the participant’s rating). In a subsequent 2nd session, participants were asked to rate same 220 faces again.
Even though it was explicitly mentioned that the numbers in the videos were randomly chosen, that they would not have any social meaning, and only presented to distract the participant, participants adjusted their judgments of the faces into the direction of the distracting video. This conformity effect was particularly strong with the movie showing the actual manual decision-making act and weaker if just a meaningless number was presented on the screen, suggesting that similarity between observed action and one’s own action matters.
When social meaning was added to the distracting information (participants were told that the number represents other students’ rating) the conformity effect turned out to be stronger than with mere numbers but still weaker than with the videos.
Why do we conform?
These findings suggest that people do not necessarily adjust their behavior to the behavior of other people because they feel pressured to do so, or because they believe in “the wisdom of the group”, as some authors have suggested. Rather, people seem to represent their own actions and other people’s actions alike. Once they have judged a particular stimulus, they seem to store the stimulus together with their own judgment, but also together with other people’s judgments.
If they then face the same stimulus again on another occasion, they simply retrieve all the stimulus-related judgments they have stored and react according to a kind of mental average of all stored judgments.
Kim: “Our study suggests that conformity should not be studied as a dedicatedly social phenomenon: the mechanism underlying it seem to be the same that operate on non-social information”.