Imagine sitting down at a table in a small room with seven other people.
You’re all about to participate in a psychology experiment concerning people’s visual judgments.
The experimenter places two cards in front of you. The card on the left contains one vertical line. The card to the right has three lines of varying length.
The whole group is now asked, one at a time, to choose which of the three lines on the right card that matches the length of the left card. This task is repeated several times with different cards.
Everything is going smoothly. But then, all of a sudden, the entire group unanimously choose what is clearly the wrong line before it’s your turn.
The experimenter turns to you. What would you say?
As is often the case with psychology experiments, the experimenter has played a little trick on you.
In reality, you’re the only participant. All the other people at the table are actors who have been carefully instructed to give the wrong answer simultaneously to some of the cards.
It’s not your visual judgment, but your level of conformity to the rest of the group that’s being tested.
This clever study design is one of the most famous ones in psychology and was initially conducted by Salomon Asch (1). And the results he got were remarkable.
On average, about 33 percent of the participants who were placed in this situation conformed to the clearly incorrect majority. Over 12 attempts, about 75 percent conformed at least once (!).
In the control group, where there was no pressure to conform, less than 1 percent of participants gave the wrong answer.
Human beings are social creatures. Our need for belonging is very strong. Apparently, so much so that we prefer giving an answer that is clearly wrong as long as it makes us feel part of the group.
This tendency to adapt to the people around us has some serious practical implications for our lives. One study, for example, showed that if your friend becomes obese, your risk of obesity increases with 57 percent (2).
Social scientists are well aware of how much we affect each other. They know that humans have a strong tendency to adopt the same goals (3) and even the same feelings (4) as the people around them.
In other words, it’s been well documented that:
A couple of months ago, I was regularly writing 1,000 words per day. I felt like I was stretching myself and considered dropping back to 500 words per day. Then my accountability coach Nik told me that he was writing SEVERAL thousand words every day for his 4 Minute Books site (which is awesome, by the way).
Suddenly, my 1,000 words a day goal didn’t feel like such a stretch anymore. And instead of lowering it, I found ways to increase it. By just telling me about his goals, Nik had successfully raised the bar for what was normal for me. If I didn’t have him in my corner, I would’ve lowered my goal instead.
And this kind of influence affects us all the time in every area of our lives. If the people around us have high standards, we’ll naturally adjust our own to match theirs. Unfortunately, if they have very low standards, that’s the way we’ll tend to gravitate instead.
And this is why it’s so important to have the right people in your corner. If you want to realize all your potential, you need to surround yourself with individuals who are already at the level you want to be at (or who are at least enthusiastically pursuing the same goals as you are). Here are some ideas:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
— Jim Rohn
Who are your five people? Are you happy being the average of this group? Or is it time to start looking for some new influences?