Research has found that people have a natural tendency to conform to the opinion of the majority. But a new study indicates that this tendency can be reversed when the majority is a strongly morally opposed outgroup.
The study, published Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, provides some clues about the growing political polarization in the United States.
“My general interest is in how people use things other than logic and value maximization to make decisions, and in particular how group memberships shape decisions,” said study author Randy Stein of Cal Poly Pomona. “So, looking at decisions in the context of political groups was a pretty natural extension of that, and a pretty clear way to stress the importance of the topic.”
Across three studies of 784 Americans, Stein found the typical tendency to conform to the opinion of a majority did not extend to groups outside of a person’s moral circle.
The participants were asked a number of non-political questions about consumer products, such as “Would you rather have a car that is forest green or silver?” and “Would you rather have a Dirt Devil or Hoover vacuum cleaner?”
After each question, they saw a new screen with a sentence such as “79% of Trump supporters chose forest green” or “85% of Americans chose Hoover.” The majority group opinions of Canadians, Clinton supporters, liberals, conservatives, pro-choice supporters, pro-life supporters, gays & lesbians, Christians, and white supremacists were also used.
The participants were then asked to answer the same questions again and re-state their previous answer a second time.
Stein found that when the majority group was “Americans” or another group participants belonged to, they felt an urge to shift their preferences in that direction.
But when a person morally opposed to Clinton was shown the opinion of Clinton supporters, the opposite effect occurred. The same was true of those morally opposed to Trump, those morally opposed to liberalism, those morally opposed to white supremacists, et cetera.
“I think the most important implication of recent research into motivated/group-based cognition (of which I’d say this article is a part) is that, even though we experience important decisions as made by us for the purpose of maximizing our own interests, decisions might better be described as a way of calibrating group memberships – a strategy to increase or reduce distance to certain groups,” Stein told PsyPost.
“My studies in particular suggest that, when dealing with moralized groups, by the time people start to think about decisions they’re already urged towards polarized outcomes.”
The researchers asked the participants about their urge to change their preference. But does that mean they actually would?
“The major caveat is that the ‘urges’ described in my studies aren’t the only input into decisions. People have those partisan urges, it doesn’t mean the urges rule behavior,” Stein explained.
“By this point it’s pretty well-established in the group cognition literature that people are quite good at maneuvering decisions in ways that reaffirm important group identities (in particular moral identities). So the big question that’s just starting to be addressed is what happens in those relatively rare instances when people do stop conforming to their moral ingroups.”