Ever notice how everyone at Burning Man—the premier alternative event—is all dressed the same? As a society, we Westerners exalt individualism and self-reliance, and yet our biology moves us in other directions. Humans evolved as social animals, and we posses a number of behaviors that motivate us towards group conformity. The feeling of wanting friends, of desiring a peer group, and of needing to feel like we are valuable members of that group is something we all can directly relate to, and we usually experience those feelings as a positive thing. Yet there is a bit of a dark side to our social nature that we might not notice, particularly because so much of its action goes on underneath the level of conscious awareness. Our biological wiring for group cohesion is so strong that we will do almost anything to fit in, and to feel anxiety if we don’t belong, or if our sense of social standing is low. Here are five proven ways that we bend over backwards to be part of the group, even when we don’t want to:
1. We sway to group pressure.
Nobody likes being the odd one out. That's why many of us will agree with the group rather than stand apart, even when we know that the group is wrong. Take the Asch conformity experiments, in which 1950s students were subjected to a mock vision test. The students were placed in a group of fake “participants” and asked to match up images of lines according to their length. These planted participants stated that certain lines matched when they blatantly didn't. When the real participant was asked to match the lines later in the mock test, he or she would mimic the rest of the group, giving an obviously wrong answer in response to peer pressure.
This bending to conform doesn't just happen in experimental settings; everything from teenage trends to political movements utilize the power of direct peer pressure. Active policing of behavior seen as disruptive to the group has even been observed in chimpanzees. With such strong proscriptions against social upheaval coded in our genes, conformity comes naturally to us. Demonstrating solidarity, whether it's with a particular group or with society at large, marks us as cooperative and predictable group members: an asset rather than a liability.
2. We obsess over broadcasting our status.
When you see somebody decked head-to-toe in designer labels and bling, do you immediately think he has something to prove? Whether its a fast car, an immaculate lawn, or a pair of the latest Louboutins, we use these symbols to signal our group status. It's no surprise, then, that studies have shown that when we're reminded of our low place in the social hierarchy and our status feels threatened, we are more likely to buy expensive luxury goods or even to consume higher calorie foods. The irony is that these unconscious compensatory actions can often indirectly lower our social status by putting us in debt or making us fat.
Among evolutionary biologists, this boasting behavior is known as signalling and is part of selling oneself to potential mates. When the ability to pass on your genes hinges on your place in the hierarchy, status displays become about more than just an ego stroke. Though our ancestors may have been able to show their social status by taking physical risks during a big mammoth hunt, we are left with Ferraris, Hermès, and lobster dinners to prove our worth to potential partners.
3. Groups make us stupid.
By their nature, groups can reinforce the roles we have written for ourselves in our heads. Group dynamics can make the shy person withdraw even further and the extroverted person even more outgoing and effervescent. And though many of us consciously dumb ourselves down in social situations for an eventual gain, groups can also insidiously undercut our intellects without our knowledge. For some people, the social cues they receive in group settings can alter the expression of IQ, making them functionally less intelligent. In studies, this was found to be particularly true among women, possibly due to pressure to conform to traditional, weaker gender roles.
A 1996 study subjected Asian-American women to a mathematics test. The researchers found that when the women were first reminded of their ethnic identity by answering a few questions pertaining to being Asian-American before taking the test, they performed better, in accordance with positive stereotypes about Asian-Americans and math. When instead they were reminded of their gender identity beforehand using the same methods, they performed worse, corresponding to negative stereotypes of women and math.
4. We engage in groupthink.
Peer pressure can consciously entice you to change your behavior, but what about those things lying deeper in the psyche? The social milieu in which you exist can also unconsciously shape how you perceive reality itself. A classic example of groupthink in action was how the US military rationalized away any concerns prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor; despite ample evidence that the Japanese military was prepping for an offensive attack, the US simply couldn't conceive of the attack being on the United States. The dominant social perception of the invulnerability of the United States colored how its military interpreted information.
Political scientists sometimes talk about groupthink as a spiral of silence, the idea that individuals are unlikely to voice opinions on issues if they feel their opinion is in the minority. As mass media popularizes a certain dominant viewpoint, those who hold contrary opinions will suppress them due to an unconscious fear of becoming isolated as a result of their difference. Groupthink begins to shape not only how these people see the world and those around them, but it can make or break social issues thanks to the sway media has over group opinion.
5. Groups can make you temporarily insane.
So you buy some extra flashy gear, or act a little dumber around cute potential mates. Big deal. You may think that all this social behavior is a bit boring and obvious, but on the far end of group conformity we find a slew of human behaviors that are downright scary, dangerous, or even deadly. Consider the mercurial whims of the stock market, and the inevitable pandemonium once a bubble bursts and we scramble to save ourselves. Human “herd behavior” can sometimes veer into extreme, sudden violence like riots and massacres. It may even devolve into genocides like those we saw over the course of the twentieth century in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda. If a group feels threatened, it takes frighteningly little to convince its members to turn on its supposed persecutors. In these circumstances, the drive to fit in reaches a point where individual identity itself is almost lost.
If you grew up in the Western world, raised to believe in individuality and free will, these insights may be a little unsettling. It’s not so comfortable to realize that we are often compelled to follow social norms subconsciously, despite our best efforts to go our own way. This doesn’t mean that we’re somehow doomed to strict obedience to a herd mentality, but it does help us to understand why we so often feel anxiety about wanting to fit in and to be an asset to the group. And the good news is that the urge to cooperate, properly directed, can help make society function more effectively.
What crazy or ill-advised things have you done to try to fit in? How do group dynamics make you feel?
photo by Michael W. Taft