by Charley Button
You leave the bar with your friends to head home for the night. They cross the street despite the red hand signaling “Don’t Walk.” You weigh the potential risk of oncoming traffic against ostracization from your group. In this scenario, you can either break the law by jaywalking or break with your friends momentarily. A self-preservation instinct to maintain group identity conflicts with your concern for safety and your law-abiding conscience.
When social and internal pressures compete, societal expectations habitually win out to the detriment of the individual. According to research by McGhie, Lewis, and Hyde (2011), the more you identify with a group, the more likely you are to conform to group behaviors such as “drink walking.” Their study examined the influence of psychosocial factors on individuals’ intentions to drink walk, on a scale of 1 to 7, across four scenarios. These scenarios manipulated the independent variables of high/low conformity and high/low group identity. Each incorporated a risky crossing situation, such as an intoxicated pedestrian walking against a red hand signal. Of the 151 Australian undergraduate students given this questionnaire, a large majority of individuals admitted elevated intentions to drink walk in the presence of their “closest friends” (high group identity), or when their friends were crossing in spite of the red hand signal (high conformity). When alone or with strangers (lacking group identity), subjects reported significantly lower intentions to disobey signals.
In heightened stakes, prioritizing “fitting in” over safety can lead to more serious misjudgments than ignoring pedestrian signals. Research suggests that juvenile crime is strongly influenced by peer behavior, as argued by Patacchini and Zenou (2009). Gang activity accounts for a large portion of underage lawbreaking and demonstrates the impact of neighborhood on social activities and on attitude toward the law. Patacchini and Zenou’s study revealed that petty crimes seem to be inspired by observed behavior of peers and replicated within groups, according to a desire to conform to the group’s norm. Criminal behavior of adolescents can rarely be explained on an individual basis.
In many circumstances, the need for group identity somehow overrides concern for safety, legality, or truth. Young people especially will risk their health and go against their better (individual) judgment, assimilating to a crowd’s bad decision. As Asch (1951) discovered, individuals will doubt their own judgment of the length of a line when contradicted by a group of at least three people. In order to blend in we disregard what our own eyes perceive, even when the norm is incorrect or inadvisable.
Whether it is jumping into the road or jacking a car, you are more likely to do it if your friends are. Take note though: the evolutionary importance of group identity is only beneficial if large numbers contribute to survival. When the group makes bad decisions, the individual’s wellbeing should take priority. To quote everybody’s mother, “If your friends walked off a cliff, would you follow them?” (more…)