Sheeple: Studies About Social Conformity

be careful of being a sheepleThe other day, a study was published that I thought was rather interesting. I then found 2 older studies that were sort of related and thought I'd share them with you. This is an area that is quite interesting to me. I've always been a bit of a black sheep, never really following the trends of the majority in much of anything. So when I read about how people make decisions, especially as a mob group, I find it to be a bit mysterious and fascinating.

Here are the studies:
Children As Young As Preschoolers Tend To Follow Majority Opinion
In this study, three- and four-year-old children watched as a small group of people (either three or four members) named a novel object. The majority of group members would use the same name for the object; the lone dissenter would pick a different name. The children were then asked what they thought the object was called.
The results revealed that majority rules when it comes to influencing the opinion of preschoolers.
Children as young as age three and four are able to recognize and trust a consensus. In addition, young children are good at remembering who was and was not a part of the majority group.

I'd love to know more about how this was conducted. Were the people all careful to keep their expressions neutral and that sort of thing? Were they all dressed the same, etc? And who says the consensus is correct and should be trusted? It all shows a window into indoctrination, which I was talking about the other day. If enough people around a child are praying and talking to invisible gods in the sky, it seems natural for a child to easily accept that as trustworthy. And when something gets into your basic foundational belief system when you're so young and impressionable, it is really stuck in there.
People Often Think An Opinion Heard Repeatedly From The Same Person Is Actually A Popular Opinion
The experiments included dividing students into three groups, (three person control group, single opinion group and repeated opinions group).
Participants in the three person control group read three opinion statements each made by a different group member. The participants in the repeated opinion group read the same three statements but they were all attributed to one group member. Those in the single opinion control group read one opinion statement from one group member.
The studies found that an opinion is more likely to be assumed to be the majority opinion when multiple group members express their opinion. However, the study also showed that hearing one person express the same opinion multiple times had nearly the same effect on listener's perception of the opinion being popular as hearing multiple people state his/her opinion.

This is interesting too. So, if you are around the same people expressing the same opinions, you're going to think most people think that way? And if you combine that with the study above, would you then be inclined to accept it as the "right" consensus? Maybe. I don't know. But it's food for thought.
Social Change Relies More On The Easily Influenced Than The Highly Influential
Study finds that it is the presence of large numbers of "easily influenced" people who bring about major shifts by influencing other easy-to-influence people.
"Under most conditions that we consider, we find that large cascades of influence are driven not by influentials, but by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals."
"Anytime some notable social change is recognized, whether it be a grassroots cultural fad, a successful marketing campaign, or a dramatic drop in crime rates, it is tempting to trace the phenomenon to the individuals who "started it," and conclude that their actions or behavior "caused" the events that subsequently took place," the authors write.
However, they explain: "...under most of these conditions influentials are less important than is generally supposed, either as initiators of large cascades, or as early adopters."

Ahh, now combine this with the first two and what have you got? A recipe for disaster. People are sheeple, easily influenced, easily led and manipulated with lies, half truths and twisted facts. Repeated often enough by the majority of the people you pay attention to, and you are a mindless puppet drone, parroting the words and thoughts of others.
If you look at how this plays out with politics and religion, you see that people are easily influenced and indoctrinated to follow blindly in the footsteps of the authorities who they have been subjected to from early childhood onward.


  1. Those are some interesting studies, especially, as you said, when looked at together. I was most struck by the title of the third one that says that social change relies more on the easily influenced than on the highly influential. Perhaps because there are more of the former category?

    Great food for thought. :-)

  2. Wow. What an amazing trio of studies!

    I'm continuously amazed by how our minds work, and how knowing a little bit about how they work doesn't make it easier to fight it. I find myself having to force myself to check snopes if I get what sounds like an urban legend in my inbox for example...

    This group consensus thing was made readily apparent last weekend when I was sitting at a dining table with four other couples. Once the topic of gay marriage came up, the three religious couples assumed the two non-religious couples were religious, and the popular religious opinions were expressed as if they were totally true. It was... difficult.

    You can read about it here, if you want...

  3. Hey Dan, yes, maybe there's something to the third study that involves herd mentality... just the sheer overwhelming volume of easily influenced.

    I'm glad you found them food for thought. :)

  4. No, you're right Steve, just knowing a bit about how it all works doesn't make it easier to fight it.
    I love Snopes. I found that it was easier to just block my father-in-law's email and mark it as spam was way easier than getting his 20 emails a day spouting that drivel though. :P

    Funny how people assume others are just like them. Even though I've always been a black sheep, I've found that I still struggle to remember sometimes that most people think radically different to me. So I sympathize.

  5. Steve, the link you left didn't work, but I found the post anyway.
    Maybe this will work:

  6. WRT the preschooler study, I wonder if following the herd is ingrained or if we do it because we're trained to one way or another. We are socialized from birth to please others, and we find out quickly that one way to please others is to do things they do/like, and agree with them.

    "People Often Think An Opinion Heard Repeatedly From The Same Person Is Actually A Popular Opinion"

    Is there any wonder RRRW individuals have a select few talking points they repeat ad-nauseum? Then, of course, is the practice religionists have of pushing their faithful to attend church routinely (where they hear the same message again and again), avoid conflicting viewpoints and associate only with like-minded people. And of course that only goes hand in hand with relying on the "easily influenced".....

  7. Eh, the conformity study is nothing new. They've shown similar things with adults, though I do like this particular study because they at least presented a model for dissent. Most other conformity studies have a complete consensus that is usually clearly wrong, and I haven't seen one that tries to dilute the majority rule like this. I'm sure its been done, but maybe that is what it is contributing...

    I don't know how they managed to control for this study, but I assume that the reason behind conformity in these situations is, initially, simply fear of seeming to be in opposition. Going against the herd, being contrary, makes you vulnerable to criticism in addition to possibly offending the opinions of those in the consensus. Best to sit down in your chair, and silently agree without questions in order to avoid confrontation. And then they've got the foot in the door to further exploit your unwillingness to dissent and can ride your cognitive dissonance all the way to True Believersberg.

    As for the "multiple repetitions=truth" finding...I knew it! I knew people would believe something just because they hear it a lot. It's why people in America find Christianity more credible, out of hand, than any other religion. It's why talking points just will not die. And it explains another finding that I've seen elsewhere, to the effect that people will still believe in discredited claims. Belief perseverance. We truly are simple animals, we humans.

  8. All these are fascinating, but I'm not sure what the preschooler study proves. If the question involved were a question of external fact (like whether there were eggs in a basket), it would prove that preschoolers are ruled by consensus. But as it is, being focused on a social fact (what something should be called) the tendency to go with the consensus just makes sense. Perhaps even a preschooler can recognize that naming conventions are a matter of consensus: that it makes no sense to call something by a name that most people don't use...

  9. WRT? RRRW? Buffy, I'm stumped and feeling completely old because I have no idea what those acronyms mean. :P

    Otherwise I agree with you. :D

  10. Yes, I agree with your idea that people don't like to be oppositional (unless you're like my husband.. lol). Going against the herd is not really productive in most social situations.

    Yes, the multiple repetitions = "truth" study is pretty cool. Ugh, I hate talking points! Oh the belief perseverance... I just ran across something on that the other day. It was from around 1985 and seemed like a pretty neat study.

    Do you really think we're that simple? I guess in some ways we really are, you're right. In other ways we're so exquisitely complex. Then again, so is e. coli. :P

  11. Well, I agree, I don't know what the preschooler study proves in the long run. But it's food for thought.

    You make a very interesting point, though. Naming conventions make sense to follow the crowd.