We all like to think that we are independent, responsible for our decisions and behaviors and not prone to be influenced by others. Unlike others, we aren’t moved by what others think or do. We are our own masters.
This, however, is no more than an illusion; everyday we are influenced by what others think and do, looking for clues on how to behave in ambiguous situations or changing our behavior in order it to be tuned to how others behave. That much was proved in the 1950’s by social psychologist Solomon Asch in the attempt to study conformity.
The conformity studies designed by Asch were cleverly simple: experimental subjects were show a card with a line drawn on it, then they were shown another card with three lines being their task to identify which of those three lines was similar to the line shown on the first card. A simple, unambiguous task that shouldn’t create many errors. However, there was a simple experimental manipulation: the subjects had to perform their task in the company of 6 other fellows given their comparison estimates one at the time. What wasn’t known to the subjects was that these fellows wera actually confederates that were instructed to give blatantly wrong answers on some trials and cause the illusion of consensus leaving the real subject as the outsider.
What Asch was trying to measure with this was the amount of subjects that would conform with the confederate’s wrong answers. The results were clear: 75% of the subjects conformed at least once, while 5% conformed with the group on every trial!
What this study as shown is that, although we like to think we aren’t influenced by others behavior, when we are unsure about what to do, how to behave or when what we believe is the right choice clashes with a consensus from everyone around us we tend to conform, to change the way we think and behave in order to be more in line with the rest.
You can see this happening all the time in marketing with people buying the same brands the their friends bought, not because they’re the best but because we want to fit in, to be part of the group, to conform with the “norms”. Peer pressure is one of the most powerful weapons of marketers.
If you’re in doubt of the power of peer pressure just check this video of a “Candid Camera” episode that clearly shows conformity works: