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How to live ethically

The Astonishing Power of Social Pressure

A new study shows that others can influence us more than we ever imagined.

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You and your relationships are bound together, each shaping the other in an interactive and undetermined manner. When your relationships are mutually enhancing, happiness abounds. When the relationships are one-sided, with an uneven distribution of power, or when people psychologically maim and harm one another, that’s where you find despondency.

The paradox is that while your personal self is born in social interactions, the outcome of ethical relationships is the development of a self that is more than the sum of those interactions—what some refer to as the "real" you, your inner or private self. This part that you most identify as your core is strongest when your relationships have been at their best. When it's treated badly, it's an assault upon your dignity.

Humans cannot exist without families, whatever the form—from extended to nuclear, from polygamous to monogamous—but at the same time families often maim, harm, hurt and damage. Because of the close contact, the unspoken bonds, and the intuiting of others’ feelings, the family is often a place where individual differences are least tolerated

Why Peer Pressure Works

Group pressure is enormously effective in producing social conformity, and nowhere is the pressure to conform stronger than in small, close-knit groups like those just described. And just how powerful group pressure can be has been demonstrated experimentally. Psychologist Solomon Asch conducted one of the earliest and most famous studies: He showed subjects two cards. On the first was one line. On the second were three lines, one of them the same length as the line on the first card.

The subjects would be asked which of the three lines matched the line on the first card. But there was an added wrinkle: Before the experiment began, Asch had arranged for seven confederates to give their answers before the other subjects did. Further, he instructed the confederates to sometimes give the wrong answers. In the end, despite the seeming simplicity of the task, three out of four subjects actually agreed with an incorrect answer given by the confederates at least once—one in four subjects agreed with the wrong answer 50 percent of the time.

A half-century later, in 2005, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Gregory Berns updated Asch's study—and found almost identical results. Berns asked a group of subjects look at objects, then decide whether they were the same or different. One by one, the participants were hooked up to a brain scanner, allowing researchers to see which part of the brain responded to the task. But unbeknownst to the 32 volunteers in the study, four other people—whom they met in the waiting room—had been prompted by Berns to give fake answers to some of the questions.

In the waiting room, each subject, and the confederates, chatted, played a practice round, and took pictures of one another, all as a way of forming a group bond. Then the subject went into the MRI room. The subjects were told that, first, the others would discuss their observations as a group, then decide if the objects were the same or different. The subject was shown the group's answer, and then the object. Sometimes the group unanimously gave an incorrect response; others times, a unanimously correct one. A few mixed answers were also included.

On average, subjects went along with incorrect answers more than 40% of the time.

The MRI imaging showed that subjects who gave in to group pressure had activity in the part of the brain devoted to spatial perception; those who didn’t had activity in the part of the brain that shows emotional salience. From this, Berns concluded that group pressure actually causes people to change their perception of reality, whereas those who resist group pressure experience emotional discomfort.

The results of these studies are astonishing: Social pressure often causes people to change their picture of reality, and those who resist it are emotionally upset. Fitting in feels good, even at the expense of your otherwise good sense(s)—and we pay an emotional price for the courage of our convictions.

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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