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Social Pressure: How to Use Conformity to Break Bad Habits

In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments to investigate the power of social pressure1. At the start of each experiment, a participant entered a room with a group of strangers. The subject didn’t know it, but these people were actors pretending to play other participants.

Asch began by giving the group a “perceptual” task. First, he showed them a card with a single line on it and a second card with a series of lines. Then, he asked each person to point out the line on the second card that was the same length as the line on the first card. It seemed easy enough:social pressureInitially, everything went as expected. For the first couple of trials, the entire group agreed on the same line. But after a few rounds, the actors would deliberately selected what was obviously an incorrect answer. The bewildered subject then had to decide whether to trust their own judgment or conform to the group.

The Power of Social Pressure

Asch ran this experiment several times in many different ways. And what he found was that as he increased the number of actors, the conformity of the subject also increased. One or two other “participants” had little impact. But as the number of actors increased to three, four, and all the way up to eight, the subject became more likely to give the same answer as everyone else.

Overall, 75 percent of participants gave an incorrect answer at least once. In the control group, where there was no pressure to conform to actors, the same error rate was less than 1 percent.

How could that be? Well, one of the core human needs is to belong. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s far more important to be accepted than to be accurate. So, for the most part, we prefer to be wrong in a group than right by ourselves.

As a species, we are ill-equipped to live on our own, so the human mind has evolved to get along with others. Because of that, we experience tremendous internal pressure to comply with the norms of the group. And, as a result, we tend to conform to those around us.

It’s a natural thing to do, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But there can be severe downsides to this tendency. If you’re not mindful of it, your intentions can get consistently overpowered by the prevailing group norms.

Pick Your Influences

If something seems like the normal thing to do, you’ll naturally gravitate toward it — regardless of the outcome. So, when you’re trying to break a bad habit, it’s important to apply positive social pressure. Here are some examples:

  • Find a relevant support group where you live.
  • Sign up for an online community related to the bad habit you want to quit.
  • Join a Facebook group with people who are trying to make the same change as you are.

You become the average of the people you spend the most time with. Over time, the way they do things become the way you do things. So, choose your influences wisely.

Do you want to master your habits? Get my book The Habit Blueprint.

Footnotes

  1. Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments