Imagine this hypothetical scenario. At three different Bondi cafés, all say within a 100-metre radius, we have a barrage of different people all out to get their Sunday morning caffeine fix. An out-of-town tourist is trying to work out which café is the one for him. He’s done some research and each place has a similar rating. Here begins your dilemma.
Café ‘A’ is not packed, but gives the illusion of being busy as most customers are outside either seated or milling around with what appears to be other like-minded hipster-esque types all chewing up data on ‘Insty’ like a horse wearing a chaff bag.
Café ‘B’ is a non-descript ‘hole in the wall’ type of joint with a couple of milk crates on the footpath. It’s doing a brisk trade and has a steady stream of clientele who move on once they have received their order.
Café ‘C’ appears to be more of a restaurant type of place doing table service, a little reluctant to do takeaways but will do them all the same. The place is packed and has people queuing down the footpath to get a table.
So which one does he choose? Remember, the coffee at each café has been rated pretty much the same. Before we go to his decision it’s worth taking a closer look at the influences going on here. Whether we realise it or not, people tend to have a direct impact on each other’s behaviour. In short, this is known as ‘social influence’, much of which goes on without awareness and tends to be automatic. Simple examples are how laughing and yawning can be ‘contagious’, often without the person affected even realising that they have been. In this sense we as humans tend to lean towards what has the most influence or exerts the most pressure to push us in a certain direction. In other words, we tend to follow the behaviour or lead of others.
So why do people conform? The reality is that conformity is the first step towards yielding to influence. Generally speaking, people will change their perceptions, opinions and behaviour to be consistent with the group. The pressure to conform can be immense, even if subtle. For example, when getting dressed each day – whether it be to go to work, school, the gym, the beach or even visiting the in-laws – do you put on what you feel like wearing or are you putting on something that is appropriate for the scenario? As much as I’d love to wear boardies and thongs when going out for dinner with my in-laws, my decision not to would be influenced by and consistent with group norms.
Let’s go back for a moment to our tortured tourist trying to find his coffee. Without him realising, the mere fact that Café ‘C’ has a large crowd draws him in like a moth to a flame. The truth is, the less informed our tourist believes himself to be and the more informed he believes others to be, the more likely he is to follow the crowd – surely all those people in the queue must know something he doesn’t. Perhaps what he doesn’t know is that deep down in most of us there is a natural tendency to conform – we like being right, we like being liked and we like to fit in to gain social acceptance.
It is understandable that people have mixed feelings about conformity and will never admit they’re conforming to the group (unless you follow AFL). After all, research shows that we tend to see others to be more conforming than ourselves. Why? Well, when judging one’s self we are looking inwards and being introspective, thus being blinded by our own conformity.
It’s worth noting that not everyone gets pulled by the magnet of conformity. People who resist the influence of the mob are considered independent, assertive, even defiant.
So the next time you feel yourself being lured by the mob, remember it is our natural tendency to conform and to feel part of a group. As Mark Twain once said: “We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove.”