People Follow Social Norms Even When They Are Completely Arbitrary, According To New Research

    So, we are all kind of sheep, according to this new study.

    People's decision to conform to a social norm is heavily influenced by whether or not other people are following it — even when people know its popularity is completely arbitrary, according to a new study from the University of Melbourne.

    The research, published in Nature's Human Behaviour journal, involved 300 participants filling out a brief personality quiz that rated them on the "big five" traits (openness, agreeableness, emotional stability, extraversion and conscientiousness), and then being given one of two moral dilemmas.

    The first dilemma asked participants whether or not they would report a criminal to the police if they had witnessed them robbing a bank and then giving half the money to an orphanage. The second dilemma asked if they would hire a friend or a more qualified candidate for a job at their firm.

    For the robber scenario, half of the participants were told that most people had chosen to report the robber to the police. The other half were told that most people had refrained from reporting them.

    The same manipulation applied for the job candidate scenario.

    However – it was made clear to all the participants that the way that the majority voted before them was entirely arbitrary because a faulty programming error made one choice more popular than the other.

    That is to say, all the participants believed the social norm they were presented with was not grounded in a logical – or even a conscious – decision.

    Despite believing this, participants overwhelmingly chose the most popular decision. This effect was even more profound when the participants believed had done the experiment before them shared their gender and personality traits.

    Lead author of the study, Campbell Pryor, told BuzzFeed News that reasoning related to evolutionary psychology could be driving this effect.

    "It could be something basic like a deep-seated desire to follow a herd," he said. "Evolutionary-wise, we may have a desire to do what other people are doing because it makes us feel safer."

    However, because participants tended to blindly agree more with the decisions of people who shared their personality characteristics, Pryor believes it is more likely that people make these choices in order to maintain a sense of social identity.

    "One possible factor at play is that people just have some kind of internal desire to identify with people," he said.

    So, where does this kind of information come in handy?

    Pryor says that this kind of irrational decision-making should be taken into account for public health policy related to underage drinking.

    While peer pressure dominates the dialogue around teen drinking, Pryor believes that even if experts were able to remove peer pressure from the equation, this research suggests that "simply knowing that your friends are drinking" would lead teenagers to make the same decision to drink.

    Pryor believes that the study shows that policy that targets "rational reasons to follow norms may not be as effective as we would have previously thought".