There is often strong social pressure for people’s judgments and beliefs to conform to those of people around them. It can be hard to be the only person in a group to express a divergent opinion. At times, people will actually express an opinion closer to that of others while with a group in order to fit in.

What is the long-term impact of this conformity?

It is difficult to study this question, because it is hard to set up situations in which people disagree. In addition, it is hard to get enough observations for each person to be able to make a strong statistical claim about the effect of conformity.

An paper by Hi Huang, Keith Kendrick, and Rongjun Yu in the July, 2014 issue of Psychological Science explored this question using judgments of facial attractiveness. Although the study is not entirely satisfying, it has some intriguing effects. 

In this study, participants rated the attractiveness of 280 faces on a scale from 1 (not very attractive) to 8 (very attractive). After making their rating, participants saw a rating that they were told reflected the average rating from 200 other people who had seen the same picture. The rating they saw was either the same as the one they gave, or was between one and three points higher or lower.

Across studies, participants then returned to the lab one, three, or seven days later, or three months later. Then, they rated the attractiveness of the same set of faces. 

It is actually difficult to examine the second set of ratings statistically. The group rating can only be substantially higher than the participant’s rating for faces that the participant rated as relatively unattractive. The group rating can only be substantially lower than the participant’s rating for those that the participant rated as relatively attractive. So, changes in the rating from one session to the next might just reflect a tendency to move more extreme ratings toward the middle of the scale.

The researchers used a statistical technique to control for this tendency for high ratings to get lower and for low ratings to get higher. With this statistical control, they found that faces that they rated as attractive in the first session were seen as less attractive in a subsequent session when the group rating was lower than the participant’s rating. However, this effect occurred only when the section session was one or three days after the first session. By seven days later (and also three months later), there was no significant effect of the group rating on the participant’s later rating.

This result suggests that when people hear an opinion that deviates from their own, there is a small tendency to revise their opinion in the direction of the group. However, these effects are small and short-lived. After about three days, the group influence seems to be gone.

On the one hand, this is an intriguing finding. It suggests that just being exposed to the opinions of other people once does not necessarily have a long-term influence on a person’s beliefs.

That said, there is a lot more work that needs to be done on this issue. People see many faces each day, and so it is not clear why group judgments about attractiveness ought to have a long-term impact on people’s beliefs. In contrast, political beliefs or social beliefs might be more susceptible to the impact of other people. In addition, people made a total of 280 judgments in each session of the study. It is hard to believe that participants could really remember the judgments of others. Indeed, it is surprising that there was any effect of the group judgment at all in this study. 

In the end, this study provides an interesting demonstration of how hard it can be to test what seems like a straightforward question.

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