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Doing What Others Do – Peer Influences

January 17, 2013

Groups are by their very nature a number of people who share various things. Groups are held together by shared values, common goals, similarities among members and, most importantly, norms. The norms of a group are both formal and informal. The two types of rules can coexist without any real issues. Formal norms are the written rules that all members of a group have to respect and obey. For example if the social group Manchester United Football Fans Organization has a rule book that each and every member has to comply to. Such a rule might be something like this: All members of the group will never support Manchester City. Manchester City and Manchester United are rivals and a rule that forbids fans of United to support City is more than plausible.


At the same time, the Manchester United Football Fans Organization might have some informal rules such as the members of the group to supporting each other in difficult moments of their lives. For example, there can be an unwritten rule that in case of members needing money for a sick member of their family or for a funeral or wedding, the group gathers its financial resources and collects money for the one in need.



Formal and informal rules are at play in large groups such as societies. Across the world there are formal rules in the form of laws. All societies forbid theft and murder through formal rules. At the same time in all societies there are informal rules that govern social life. One simple example is reciprocity. If you are invited for dinner at someone’s house, it is normal for you to bring a gift for the hosts. 

People are allowed to conform or not to both formal and informal rules of society. When not conforming to formal rules such as laws, people are usually punished. For example, if a member of the Manchester United Football Fans Organization goes to a Manchester City football match and cheers for City, then he will be punished by the Manchester United Football Fans Organization. Very likely, in the book of rules of this organization there is a punishment for cheering for Manchester City.


When a person does not conform to informal rules, there is also a potential punishment. This punishment, however, is not based on a written book of rules, but rather takes the form of social exclusion. For example, if a member of Manchester United Football Fans Organization refuses to contribute to the collection for one its members who has a sick child, then the person who refused will not be punished with a sanction from the book of rules, but will be marginalized by other members of the group who will forget to invite him to their next barbecue party.


Up to now, you have learned about formal and informal rules and about one motivation for conforming to them, namely the potential punishment. Indeed people do not want to be punished neither formally nor informally. At the same time, fear of punishment is not the only motivation for conforming to formal or informal norms.

As mentioned in earlier chapters, people have a natural drive for being in a social group. The natural drive is not powered by fear. Of course fear of exclusion plays a role, but most people comply with social norms because it is simply natural to do so.


Peer influences on human behavior are two folded. First, there is social pressure: conforming to group norms in order to not feel or be excluded (including standing out). Second, there is social proof: conforming to group norms because people believe that others know something that they don’t. Both social pressure and social proof have the same outcome, namely that people conform to group norms and in the end they do what others do. However, the mechanisms that lead to this outcome are distinct in social pressure and in social proof. In the remainder of this chapter I will present both social pressure and social proof and discuss their similarities and differences.


Social Pressure


Conformity to group (informal) norms through social pressure was demonstrated by psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s in a series of experiments which have been informally named Asch’s lines experiment. To briefly describe the experiment, take a look at the next picture. The question asked in the experiment was a trivial one: With which of the right hand lines is equal to the left hand line? Unless you are blind or have a serious seeing problem and not wear your glasses the answer is clear as daylight.