Follow My Lead

Our moral choices are heavily influenced by social norms, research finds—even when those norms are known to be meaningless.

By Katherine Bourque, published June 14, 2019 - last reviewed on July 2, 2019

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If your friends are against the death penalty, you might be, too, especially if they give compelling reasons. But even if their position is completely arbitrary, you may still be swayed. According to a paper published in Nature Human Behavior, moral choices can be influenced by social norms even when such norms are recognized as meaningless.

Across five experiments, University of Melbourne researchers posed two moral dilemmas to participants: In one, they had to decide if they would turn in a robber, and in the other, if they would hire a friend over a more qualified candidate. Before deciding, they were told that in a past study, due to a computer error, a majority of participants of their age and gender had been assigned to say either yes or no. In some experiments, they also learned what past participants of other ages and genders had been assigned to pick. Despite knowing that the past “decisions” were random, participants still tended to vote for whatever choice appeared  more common among their demographic.

People who define themselves as part of a certain group might mimic other members’ decisions, even arbitrary ones, in part to feel that they belong, says study co-author Piers Howe. “Maybe I drink one beer and not another because that’s the beer that Red Sox fans drink,” Howe says. “I’m copying their behavior to affirm my identity in the group.”