A few weeks ago my wife went out dancing with friends, when she came back the one thing that had stood out for her in the evening was how similarly certain groups of people had been dressed. As the youngsters dancing around her left and were replaced each new batch had it’s own discernible style, this type of clothing with that kind of jewelry. Of course there were variations within each group but the similarities, at least to her, were far more striking. We all know of people around us that seem to slavishly follow the crowd, who wear the popular clothes, style their hair the popular way, listen to to popular music or in other ways agree with the popular opinion. We are certainly not as easily influenced as them, we are individuals.
There does seem to be this tendency to be able to recognize conformist behaviour in those around us while simultaneously denying such influences in ourselves. Our peers follow the pack while we make reasoned and informed choices. This effect is the focus of a study performed by Stanford and Princeton Universities. Students were subjected to a number of different surveys and situations designed to show how much they deemed their own choices were dictated by social influences versus their peer group. From university policy decisions to political party positions, driving behaviour and why they bought an iPod respondents consistently followed popular behaviour themselves while ascribing to their fellows more susceptibility to such influences.
This pattern seemed to hold whether or not such conformity was described as positive or negative behaviour. In other words even when making the same choices as their peers was set up as being desirable they still denied that it was a factor in their own choices. As discussed in the final paragraphs of the study this difference in perception of other’s behaviour compared to our own is likely to contribute to exacerbation conflict and misunderstandings when dealing with those whose views disagree with our own. In such circumstances if we regard ourselves as rational and others as blindly following the crowd (and vice versa) then this makes finding common ground more difficult and demonising the enemy easier. So it may be more constructive not to wonder why are they behave the way they do but to step back and consider why do I think the way I do?