Conforming just to fit in is a trait unique to humans and often begins in early childhood, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science. In fact, it is nonexistent in apes.
“Conformity is a very basic feature of human sociality. It retains in- and out-groups, it helps groups coordinate, and it stabilizes cultural diversity, one of the hallmark characteristics of the human species,” said psychological scientist and lead researcher Daniel Haun, Ph.D., of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Jena.
“This does not mean that conforming is the right thing to do under all circumstances — conformity can be good or bad, helpful or unhelpful, appropriate or inappropriate both for individuals and the groups they live in. But the fact is that we conform often and that human sociality would look very differently without it,” said Haun.
“Our research shows that children as young as two years of age conform to others, while chimpanzees and orangutans instead prefer to stick with what they know.”
In previous research, the researchers discovered that both human children and chimpanzees rely on the majority opinion when they are trying to learn something new. This makes sense when the group has knowledge that the individual doesn’t.
But other research has found that human adults sometimes follow the majority even when they already have the relevant knowledge, just so that they don’t stand out from the crowd.
For the current study, the researchers presented 18 two-year-old children, 12 chimpanzees and 12 orangutans with a similar reward-based task.
Each participant was given a box that contained three separate sections, each of which had a hole in the top. By playing with the box, the participants found out that although the ball could be dropped in any of the three sections, only one of the sections would deliver a treat (peanuts for the apes and chocolate drops for the children).
Next the participants watched while three familiar peers, who had been trained to all strongly prefer the same colored section of the box (different from the participants’ preference), drop the ball into the box. The participants then had to decide which section to drop the ball into while their peers watched.
The findings showed that human children were more likely to adjust their behavior to match that of their peers than were the apes. The apes and orangutans almost always ignored their peers, sticking to their original strategy, whereas the human children conformed more than half of the time.
A second study of 72 two-year-olds found that children tend to switch their choice more often when they make the choice in front of their peers compared to dong things privately. Interestingly, the number of peers didn’t seem to make a difference — children were equally likely to switch their choice whether it was one peer or three peers.
These findings show that the motivation to fit in begins very early in humans.
“We were surprised that children as young as two years of age would already change their behavior just to avoid the relative disadvantage of being different,” said Haun.