Birds of a feather or opposites attract?

In the case of living a healthy lifestyle, you’re going to want to go with birds of a feather.

I read this blog post yesterday (it’s through Brazen Careerist — I don’t know if you need to be a member to be able to read it), and it got me to thinking about how much environment affects our choices.

This is long — roughly half of the post — but it is was so fascinating and powerful to me.  I decided to copy/paste instead of attempting to summarize.

One of the better-known experiments on conformity was staged by Solomon Asch. Asch’s study is best appreciated by imagining yourself as a subject (in psychology people are commonly called ’subjects’). Assume that you are seated at a table with six other students (don’t worry, this is simple). You are run through a series of trials, and on each trial you are shown three lines. Your job is to select the line that matches a “standard” pre-selected line.

As the testing begins, each person announces an answer for the first card. When your turn comes, you agree with the others. “This shit is easy,” you say to yourself. For several more trials your answers agree with those of the group. Then comes a shock. All six people announce that line 1 matches the standard, and you were about to say line 2 matched it. Suddenly you feel alone and upset. You nervously look at the lines again. The room fall silent. Everyone is staring at you. The experimenter awaits your answer.

Do you conform?

In this experiment the other “students” were all accomplices who gave the wrong answer on about a third of the trials to create group pressure. The results showed that real students conformed to the group on about one-third of the critical trials. Of those tested, 75% conformed at least once. People tested alone erred in less than 1% of the time. Clearly, people were conforming even when their eyes told them differently.

Do Some People Conform Easier Than Others?

People with high need for structure or certainty are more likely to conform. So are people who are anxious, low in self-confidence, or concerned about the approval of others. People who live in cultures that emphasize group cooperation (such as many Asian cultures) are also more likely to conform.

Conformity is more likely when people want to avoid standing out.

This ‘phenomenon’ is known as jeer pressure. There was a test ran where one group of people observed someone else being ridiculed for a physical characteristics or for failure on a task (while the other group of people was shown nothing). These people showed more conformity and greater fear of failure in several tasks than the other group of people who had not witnessed the ridicule.

How Do Groups Enforce Norms?

In most groups, we have been rewarded with acceptance and approval for conformity and threatened with rejection or ridicule for non-conformity. These reactions are called group sanctions. Negative sanctions range from laughter, staring, or social disapproval to complete rejection or formal exclusion. If you’ve ever felt the sudden chill of disapproval by others, you’ll understand the power of group sanctions.

Would the effectiveness of group sanctions depend on the importance of the group? Yes.

The more important group membership is to a person, the more he or she will be influenced by other group members.

That’s why the Asch experiments are interesting. Since the groups were only temporary, sanctions were informal and rejection had no lasting importance. Of course, for the very same reason, there was little reason not to conform; the decisions being made were inconsequential to everyone, and since the groups were temporary, participants had little investment in whether their group reached a correct decision. It would be a different thing to demonstrate such an effect with long-lasting groups, where each participant had something at stake in the accuracy of the group’s judgements.

In fact, we do have some evidence of effects of peer pressure in groups we identify with and spend years as members of. That is the situation many teenagers face. Peer pressure is extremely important to teens. In fact…

Pressure to conform is a better predictor of risky behaviour than the need to be popular.

In other words, teens who do risky things are not doing it to be popular, but in order to avoid standing out.

We should also think about whether the desire to avoid standing out sometimes leads us to not do risky things. You have to realize that conformity has been around for a long, long, long time. For example, in earlier Native/Aboriginal tribes, the non-conformist wouldn’t have lived long enough to have children (which sucks).

What Other Factors, Besides Importance Of The Group, Affect The Degree Of Conformity?

In Asch’s face-to-face groups the size of the majority also made a difference, but a surprisingly small one. Even more important than the size of the majority is its unanimity (unanimous agreement).

Having at least one person in your corner can greatly reduce the pressure on you to conform.

When Asch gave people an ally (who also opposed the majority by giving the correct answer), conformity was lessened. In terms of numbers, a unanimous majority of three is more powerful than a majority of eight with one person disagreeing.

Apply this to eating, since that’s primarily what we’re talking about here, or to anything in your life that you’re either trying to change or trying to maintain.

If you want to eat well, it will be easier to do if you’re eating with other people who are either already healthy eaters or have the same desire (and definition).  If you want to exercise, spending time with active people should at least help you to be motivated (and perhaps give you a workout buddy!).  If you want to stop drinking, having friends who don’t drink will make that task significantly easier.  And so on.

Do your friends and family mirror who you want to be?

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