Going Along Means Getting Along — and That’s Not Always Good

Released: 2/7/2013 1:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Baylor University
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Citations Social Forces

Newswise — Caving in to social pressure — such as saying that you love a movie because friends do — makes for good vibes about being part of a group and can produce more of the same conduct, according to a Baylor University sociological study. The finding has implications for people ranging from philanthropists to gangs, researchers said.

“The punch line is very simple: Conformity leads to positive feelings, attachments, solidarity — and these are what motivate people to continue their behavior,” said Kyle Irwin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor and lead author. The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, explores conformity and contributions for the “greater good.” It is published in Social Forces, a sociology journal.

The researchers’ experiments showed similar results in groups in which it was the norm to make sacrifices for others, as well as in groups where the norm was “to slack off,” Irwin said. “In both cases, participants reported nearly identical levels of attachment to the group, and then continued to follow the norm in subsequent interactions.”

Irwin and co-author Brent Simpson, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, say the results may be significant for positive collective efforts, such as building public parks, funding public television and radio, or voting.

But the same process holds for negative behaviors as well. In those instances where group norms prescribe acting selfishly, positive sentiments promote continuing these unwanted actions, Irwin said.

“Examples of this might include gangs or other criminal groups where it may be normative to achieve very little according to society’s standards, and to continue to do so because there is positive regard among group members. In other words, they may be happy in their mutual non-cooperativeness,” he said.

The researchers conducted two “public good” experiments in which participants chose how many of their own resources to give to the group and how much to keep for themselves. Contributed points were doubled and divided equally among everyone, regardless of how much people donated. This means that individuals could “free-ride” and still cash in on others’ generosity. In both studies, participants were informed that contribution decisions would be made one at a time, and that they would fill the last position in the sequence.

The researchers used this design to manipulate norms and the average contribution of other group members (who were, in reality, simulated and whose behavior was pre-programmed). In one case, the contributions of the “others” was very consistent; in another, very inconsistent. Group members in one instance averaged donations of about 65 percent of their resources; in the other, they were relatively stingy, averaging about 25 percent of their resources. Groups in which people contributed generously represented “high-achieving” groups, while those whose members donated very little were akin to “slacker” groups.

After participants decided how much to contribute, they were asked a series of questions about the group, enabling the researchers to measure feelings of attachment among members. Finally, participants made a second decision about how much to give to the group, but this time they were told that no one would see their contribution decision; it was anonymous. Irwin and Simpson used this decision to determine how individuals would behave as a result of their feelings about the group and its members. Findings suggested that people continued to conform to norms even when their decisions were anonymous. Their behavior did not change.

The studies were designed so that individuals believed they were interacting with total strangers. This leads Irwin to believe that “it’s a pretty powerful process. They don’t know each other, but conformity to norms still generates positive feelings about the group. If we’re getting these results in this artificial context, think how much stronger it might be with people who know each other and have some sort of interaction history.”

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 27 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.


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