Tag Archives: conformity

Ceremony Dance

Fear of punishment and conformity might explain how traditions are created and mantained

The threat of punishment and humans’ seemingly innate tendency to copy other behaviors form the basis of a psychological model that explains how traditions or entrenched ideals are formed and maintained in society.

Ceremony Dance

Image: Venice Clay Artists

Animal behaviorists have extensively studied social learning and how it relates to danger. For instance, when there’s a threat a flock of birds will quickly react and fly away after one member signals the presence of a predator. Yet, this kind of social learning dimension has been given little thought in human-centered research.

Swedish researchers conducted 4 experiments which included 120 participants, showing that humans, if threatened with punishment, are exceptionally prone to copy and transmit the behavior observed in others. In the first experiment, participants had to choose between two pictures, A and B, on a screen 20 times. If they chose the wrong picture, they were told they’d receive an electric shock, which they had felt beforehand (fear factor). The catch is, however, that there is no wrong answer and no electric shock would be applied no matter the chosen picture. Before making their choice, the participants watched a video of a person taking part in the same experiment, but without being shown whether he got zapped or not. The person in the video choose picture A each time. Surprisingly, so did the subjects in more than 95 percent of their choices.

In a second experiment, instead of a electric zap for choosing the wrong answer, participants were promised a reward for the right answer. This time, they adhered to the choices shown in the video only 60% of the time. In an experiment where there was the threat of an arbitrary punishment, adherence to the example in the video dropped to below 70 percent.

“Our conclusion is that when we are promised a reward, we are more inclined to break the pattern, and social learning tends to play a smaller role. But when it comes to avoiding danger, social learning has a powerful influence on our behaviour when it is proved to yield good results. But in cases where social learning is shown not offer effective protection from danger, we are also more inclined to break the pattern,” says Andreas Olsson, docent and research team leader at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet.

This explains why some people follow a lead when faced with the prospect of punishment. To see if this also becomes transmitted, in the last experiment ten subjects were separately shown the video in which the person choose option A and were asked to make their choice. Then another ten persons were shown a video recording of one of the first ten subjects choosing between the two photographs. Again, they were not shown the consequences of his choice. When five generations of had made their choices after watching someone from the previous generation make their choice, picture A remained the chosen alternative in 95 percent of answers.

The two mechanisms – the tendency to copy the actions of others through social learning, together with the rewarding properties of avoiding a threatening punishment, whether it exists or not in reality – might explain how traditions arise and are maintained, as reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. We’re all guilty of it, least we forget. It’s easy to be judgmental of other people wearing funny clothes or some religion. It’s easy because everybody’s doing it and because we’re afraid of the social cost of non-conformity. After all, people follow the norm even when it’s dictated by a computer , and it’s wrong.

“Arbitrarily prohibiting certain types of food, for example, that do not need to be avoided for any particular reason, could be maintained because the individuals in the group will tend to fear the disapproval of their group peers if they ate the forbidden food,” says Björn Lindström, a researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience.

People follow the norm… even the norm is a computer, and wrong

People tend to follow the norm – that’s pretty well documented, and well understood. However, a new study has found that not only do people tend to follow other people, but they also follow the lead of a computer – even when it is blatantly wrong.

World of Warcraft is one of the most played computer games in history. In it, the player constructs an avatar and then completes quests.

In modern society, real life interactions and discussions are becoming rarer, substituted by computer or mobile phone interaction. Many routine tasks are delegated to virtual character, we often talk to people who are very far away from us in real life, and many people spend several hours every day playing computer games with a virtual avatar. This new study conducted by Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany shows that for better or for worse, this type of activity enables people to acquire and practice real-life skills and new viewpoints. Weger and his team wanted to see how this affects people in day to day activities.

[Also Read: Interview with researcher Simone Kuhn about video games and the brain]

Participants in the study were asked to play an avatar computer game for seven minutes and then answered some questions where they had the chance to override wrong answers given by the computer. It was found that actually playing the game makes people identify with the computer, and follow its lead – even when it gave wrong answers. This further confirms that humans have a tendency to follow others’ lead, even when it’s a non-human lead.

The reason why such behaviour happens is something called information conformity. Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. Information conformity is applying that set of behaviors to (of course) information. Researchers believe that as more and more people play video games for longer and longer times, it’s important to understand how this affects us in real life activities.

“Parents, educators, and players will need to take these consequences into consideration and take appropriate countermeasures,” says Weger. “For instance, at the very least it would be appropriate to reflect on what it really means to be human. We need to examine how this humanness can be educated and strengthened when it is shifted towards a more robot-like nature during virtual journeys as an avatar. The long-term consequences of such virtual reality gaming is also difficult to estimate – for instance in terms of a potential alienation from real-life encounters. By the time we know for sure what the consequences really are, it is likely going to be more difficult, perhaps impossible, to take appropriate countermeasures.”

Video games have received much attention in recent years, and rightly so. After the initial surge of disapproval coming from parents, scientists are starting to understand that video games can actually improve cognitive abilities. In 2013, a study found that playing video games improves spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning and further research showed that violent games don’t encourage violence in real life. Still, as this study found, there are still many effects we are just starting to understand.

Reference: Weger, U.W. et al (2014). Virtually compliant: Immersive video gaming increases conformity to false computer judgments, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, DOI 10.3758/s13423-014-0778-z