By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
A fundamental finding in psychology concludes that people will do things in a group setting that they would never do on their own. How is this tendency to conform to members of our social group hardwired into our brains and how does this social influence affect us, for better or for worse?
The ways in which social influence our attitudes and behavior are relatively subtle. And yet, when it comes to teens, there is an overarching fear of social rejection that motivates behavior.
The drive to conform and the fear of social rejection is especially strong among teens. Their focus on social information seems to be caused by hormonal changes brought on by puberty that lead to physiological changes in the brain.
Adolescents are intensely focused on belonging to a group, and care much more about fitting in with their social group than do adults. They think more about acceptance and rejection, feel worse after being excluded by their peers, and feel better when they are socially accepted.
Lack of Maturity
The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of impulse control and judgments, continues to develop into the mid-20s. The lack of maturity of this part of the brain seems to lead teenagers to rely heavily on what their peers are doing to guide their own behavior, instead of evaluating the consequences of their choices, as adults tend to do.
Researchers in a study, published in 2009, examined gender differences in how much teenagers care about peer approval. Preteens and teens, ages 9 to 17, looked at photos of potential partners for an online chatroom and rated their interest in interacting with each person. They also rated how likely they believed each of these people would want to interact with them.
The Intricate Dynamics of Social Interactions
When older girls thought about how their peers would rate them, particular parts of the brain—the ventral striatum, insula, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala—were activated. These brain regions process emotions, rewards, memory, and motivation. This neural response was greater in older girls than in younger girls, and greater than in boys of any age.
This suggested that with age, girls become more focused on the intricate dynamics of social interactions. They pay attention to what their peers are doing, worry about what their peers think of them, and are highly sensitive to social signals.
Other studies have found that one of the ways to change all sorts of behaviors is by emphasizing what other people are doing.
Here too, middle school students seem to respond better. They engage in less bullying when they believe other students oppose bullying. Similarly, it was observed that college students consume less alcohol when they believe most other students don’t engage in frequent binge drinking. These studies provide encouraging news about the power of group influence to lead to positive changes in the world.
Telling People that Others Care
Researchers in one creative study compared different types of messages placed in hotel bathrooms encouraging guests to reuse their towels, something that really benefits hotels by helping reduce energy costs.
In the study, some hotel guests received the standard pro-environmental message: ‘Help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay’.
Other guests received a similar message, but with a slight twist. They saw the elaborate message: ‘Join Your Fellow Guests In Helping To Save the Environment: Almost 75 % of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do so by reusing their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.’
The researchers did not know what percentage of guests actually read the messages. But, about 35% of those presented with the simple message, about saving the environment, reused their towels. And that number jumped up to 44% for those who presented with the elaborate message about their fellow guests’ decision to reuse their towels to help save the environment.
Thus, telling people that others care about Mother Earth seems to be even more effective at changing behavior than simply encouraging people to care about Mother Earth on their own.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Increasing Voting Turnout
Another study by political scientists found that simply informing people about their neighbors’ participation in voting can increase voting turnout.
They sent 80,000 households in Michigan one of four mailings, encouraging them to vote. One mailing reminded them to vote, another told them that researchers were studying their voting participation, a third listed the voter participation rates within their household. A fourth listed the actual rates of voter participation, both within their household and within their neighborhood and informed people that these rates would be updated following the next election.
Researchers then examined actual rates of voting during the next election in response to all four mailings. They found that the fourth message was by far the most effective. The other mailings increased voting between two and five percentage points, but the mailing about the neighbors increased voting by more than eight percentage points. It had an even larger effect than phone calls encouraging voting and was as effective as door-to-door canvassing!
Even Low-level Social Influence Matters
This study provides clear evidence that even low-level social influence, merely educating people about actual voter rates in their neighborhood, can increases civic engagement. The key take away is that humans are deeply social beings; we want to fit in and be liked and we are influenced by directly and indirectly by those around us.
Social influence can lead to mindless conformity and slacking off and obedience to unjust authorities. But the power of social influence can also be used to create good behavior, in ourselves and those around us. It’s just a matter of emphasizing the good that other people are doing.
Common Questions about the Power of Social Influence
The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of impulse control and judgments, continues to develop into the mid-20s.
It was observed that college students consume less alcohol when they believe most other students don’t engage in frequent binge drinking.
Low-level social influence—such as merely educating people about actual voter rates in their neighborhood—can increase civic engagement. The key take away is that humans are deeply social beings; we want to fit in and be liked and we are influenced by directly and indirectly by those around us.