Australasian Mathematical Psychology Conference 2019

Evidence for a general conformity mechanism: People follow norms even when they come from the outgroup

Piers D. L. Howe
Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne
Campbell Pryor
Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne
Amy Perfors
Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne

People are more likely to perform a particular action or hold a particular opinion when they know that other people have performed similar actions or have similar opinions, a phenomenon known as the descriptive norm effect. There are a number of competing accounts of this phenomenon. Our previous work provided strong evidence against two of these accounts, the information and social sanctions account, and argued in favour of the account proposed by self-categorization theory (Pryor, Perfors, Howe, 2019, Nature Human Behaviour, 3, 57-62). Self-categorization theory makes the intuitive prediction that people will actively avoid conforming to the norms of an outgroup in an effort to remain distinct from that outgroup. We tested this prediction in a series of experiments. By comparing competing Bayesian models, we showed that people conformed to descriptive norms even when they came from the outgroup. This result was replicated across multiple definitions of ingroups and outgroups, including when the outgroup had opposing social or political beliefs to the participant, and was robust with respect to our chosen priors. Additionally, we showed this effect for both meaningful and arbitrary norms, thereby ruling out a number of alternative explanations. These results suggest that a general desire to conform with others may outpower the common ingroup vs outgroup mentality. We make suggestions as to how this general conformity mechanism may operate.