Caving in to social pressure — from something as simple as saying you love a movie because your friends do, to participating in criminal activity to cement membership in a gang — creates good feelings about being part of a group. This according to a new study that shows that this caving in also produces more of the same behavior.

“The punch line is very simple: Conformity leads to positive feelings, attachments, solidarity — and these are what motivate people to continue their behavior,” said Kyle Irwin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University.

For the study, Irwin teamed with Brent Simpson, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, to conduct two experiments that showed similar results for groups where it was the norm to make sacrifices for others, as well as in groups where the norm was “to slack off,” Irwin said.

“In both cases, participants reported nearly identical levels of attachment to the group, and then continued to follow the norm in subsequent interactions,” he said.

The researchers contend their results could be significant for positive collective efforts — i.e., for the “public good” — such as building public parks, funding public television and radio, or voting.

But the same process also holds true for negative behaviors, the researchers note.

“Examples of this might include gangs or other criminal groups where it may be normative to achieve very little according to society’s standards, and to continue to do so because there is positive regard among group members. In other words, they may be happy in their mutual non-cooperativeness,” he said.

The researchers conducted two “public good” experiments in which participants chose how many of their own resources to give to the group and how much to keep for themselves.

Contributed points were doubled and divided equally among everyone, regardless of how much people donated. This means that individuals could “free-ride” and still cash in on others’ generosity, the researchers explain.

In both studies, participants were informed that contribution decisions would be made one at a time, and that they would fill the last position in the sequence.

The researchers used this design to manipulate norms and the average contribution of other group members (who were, in reality, simulated and whose behavior was pre-programmed).

In one case, the contributions of the “others” was very consistent; in another, very inconsistent. Group members in one instance averaged donations of about 65 percent of their resources; in the other, they were relatively stingy, averaging about 25 percent of their resources, according to the researchers.

The researchers point out that groups in which people contributed generously represented “high-achieving” groups, while those whose members donated very little were akin to “slacker” groups.

After participants decided how much to contribute, they were asked a series of questions about the group to help the researchers measure feelings of attachment among members.

Finally, participants made a second decision about how much to give to the group, but this time they were told that no one would see their contribution decision. The researchers used this decision to determine how individuals would behave as a result of their feelings about the group and its members.

Findings suggested that people continued to conform to norms even when their decisions were anonymous, the researchers said.

The studies were designed so that individuals believed they were interacting with total strangers, according to Irwin.

This led him to believe that “it’s a pretty powerful process. They don’t know each other, but conformity to norms still generates positive feelings about the group,” he said. “If we’re getting these results in this artificial context, think how much stronger it might be with people who know each other and have some sort of interaction history.”

The research is published in the sociology journal Social Forces.

Source: Baylor University

Abstract of a group of people in a circle photo by shutterstock.