People adopt social rules invented to be part of a group

If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you follow them? For parents, it’s meant to be a rhetorical question – a way to win any argument that begins with “But all my friends are…” But behavioral science has revealed that adults will make a long list of. stupid things just to maintain links. within social groups, they consider their peers.

In the latest sign of how stupid we can become, researchers have found that people are willing to adopt an ethical standard after learning that people like them have been randomly assigned that position.


The new work has been published by Campbell Pryor, Amy Perfors and Piers Howe of the University of Melbourne. It is based on previous research that looked at how social norms are set. This work has suggested two ways that lead to their adoption. One is simply practical: people will adopt social norms that are popular because those norms are likely to have some use. An alternative explanation is only slightly less practical in that it postulates that adopting a social norm will ensure that you can avoid punishment by the rest of society for the violation.

Both assume that the adoption of social norms has practical consequences. But another explanation suggests that it is to establish the identity of the group (the technical term for this concept is “self-categorization theoryIn this view, people adopt standards because those standards help establish a shared identity with a group, while reinforcing differences with people outside the group. In this view, there is no does not need any practical benefits arising from the social practice itself; instead, the benefits are all indirect and based on the identity of the group.

To understand what is going on, the researchers have done their best to remove any practical consequences from the equation. They formed a group that never existed and assigned it a random social norm. They also ensured that study participants were out of touch with group members by recruiting them through Mechanical Turk.

To establish a group identity, study participants underwent a brief personality test. The results of this test were used to establish a group identity. Participants could then learn about various things about “people like you” and refer to a personality type, as well as the age and gender of the person.

For the actual experiments, the researchers offered some ethical dilemmas for the topics to consider: should you hire a friend or someone highly qualified? Should you report someone who robbed a bank but gave the money to a decaying orphanage? Participants learned that an earlier study group had faced one of these dilemmas and had been randomly assigned to consider one of the options, such as reporting the thief or hiring a friend.

False, unnecessary and randomly assigned

In reality, these earlier experimental groups never existed. The researchers simply told the real study participants that a high percentage of people like them in the fictitious group had been randomly assigned to consider one of the two options. Participants were then asked to decide which of the two options they would choose.

It should be emphasized how tenuous this link is. The past group was fictitious. The characteristics that subjects shared with the fictitious group were limited to age, gender, and one of five personality types. The actual participants were informed that the fictitious participants were only asked to consider a position rather than Choose this position, it had been assigned to the fictitious subjects at random. It is difficult to imagine that this would be enough to cause any identification as a member of a group, or to regard this option as some kind of social norm or ethical norm.

And yet …

Being told that people like you were randomly assigned to consider an opinion seemed to create a clear bias in favor of that position. Participants who were told that people like them were frequently called upon to consider hiring a friend were more likely to choose this as their own position; instead, if they were told that people like them were being asked to consider hiring the qualified person, they were more likely to choose that option. The same goes for whether or not to report a thief who gave money to an orphanage.

Replicated and controlled

The researchers included questions to eliminate those who misunderstood the scenario. They also swapped the wording so people would be made aware of the less common option. People have always shown a bias in favor of the popular option. Changing the description of fictitious former participants to be asked about an unrelated ethical issue reduced the bias to statistically insignificant noise. These seem to exclude that the choice is simply a matter of misunderstanding or familiarity.

As a final test, the researchers told the real participants that the invented ones considered both standards, but only specified one standard as the one considered by people like them. In this case, the bias has largely disappeared in the group, indicating that part of the effect is simply an affinity for what others were thinking. But they found out which participants had the strongest affinity for the group of people like them (again, using age, gender, and personality type). Among these participants, the bias in favor of this standard reappeared.

All of this is in line with a lot of previous research, which has indicated that establishing a group identity is extremely important to humans. The new work expands this to show that it is likely that group identity is also a major influence on the establishment of social norms, even when they have no use, and even though they are meant to be established by random assignment. So, all parents who are tempted to ask the question “if your friends jumped off a bridge” might want to take a moment to think about the fact that if their peers jumped off a bridge, they might suddenly find an affinity for the bridge jump. .

Nature Human Behavior, 2017. DOI: 10.1038 / s41562-018-0489-y (About DOIs).

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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