Conforming to Social Norms

How does variation in conforming to group identity and social norms affect individual success?

Conforming to group identity assists individual success in a variety of ways. First, conformity helps group unity and can increase cooperation among group members. Increased cooperation helps the group be successful at procuring resources necessary for survival and increased fitness.

Research has show that humans have a cognitive bias towards noticing social norms in people’s behavior. Further, conformity to social norms can be considered a costly signal that people pay in order to get the benefits of being a member of the group. In the example of the Hutterites, being a member of the group increases success, but it requires a considerable amount of individual cost to be a member. Conformity can also increase individual success when people begin to imitate adaptive behaviors of other groups, and adopt marker traits of that group in order to benefit more.

How does variation in conforming to group identity and social norms affect individual success?

O’Gorman, Rick, Wilson, David Sloan, & Miller, Ralph R. (2008)

An evolved congnitive bias for social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 71-78

In An evolved cognitive bias for social norms, O’Gorman, Wilson and Miller incorporated an evolutionary approach to studying social norms. Social norms have long been used to explain human behavior, and the authors wanted to determine if there is an evolved cognitive bias to following social norms and to avoid violating them. They designed three experiments in which volunteers read different texts with social content and were then tested on what behavioral content they retained. The prediction was that in all three tests, participants would have a better recall of normative information.

In the first experiment, the participants were broken into two groups and read slightly different versions of the same text. The text was about Tikopian life, and the readers were asked to imagine that they were an anthropologist. One version used cue words to indicate that behavior was in accordance with social norms, and the other indicated that behavior was more to unique to the individual or situation. The participants were then given a multiple-choice test to test their recall. The second experiment the participants were given the same texts to read, but were then tested with a cued recall test. The third experiment used an altered text, removing any mention of the importance of normative information, and the participants were told they were part of a reading comprehension study. They were tested in a cued recall format.

In all three experiments, normative information was more consistently recalled and the hypothesis was consistently supported. I thought that the methodology of the article was well conceived and executed. I thought that the idea of using a text about a culture that no participants would have any knowledge of was a good way to test what people cued into. Further, slightly altering the same text to see if participant results varied with cue words was a good method to determine how well people pick up of social norms. And lastly, using varied testing methods of recall rounded out a good study.

The article was a good introduction to the specific area of study. The results certainly help to support the argument that conforming to group identity and social norms affects individual success. A consistency for better recall of normative information indicates that the ability to cue in on social norms has been selected for throughout our evolutionary history.

Sosis, Richard. (2002) Why Aren’t We All Hutterites? Costly Signaling Theory and Religious Behavior. Human Nature, 14, 91-127

In this article, Sosis discusses the theory that adhering to the rituals of a religion may be a costly-signaling strategy to gain the long-term benefits of intra-group cooperation. Sosis proposed a proximate explanation of how people pay for the short-term costs of adhering to rituals and discussed three problems: Why free-riders do not join religious groups, the relationship between cost and group stability, and the requirement of private rituals.

One of the predictions, based on work by William Irons, is that the costliness of rituals ensure that it is difficult for people to fake commitment to the group, and helps to build group stability. Three main questions posed were: Why aren’t we all Hutterites?, How costly is ‘costly-to-fake’, and Why do religious groups require private ritual performance? The methodology used to examine the problems is a cost-benefit analysis and model of seriously considering joining a Hutterite colony.

The methodology began with looking at psychological motivations and consequence of ritual performance. Psychological motivations focus on proximate rewards based upon past experiences. The consequence of ritual performance is much more complex and draws from theories that behavior can change attitudes and beliefs. Rituals are generally public, cyclical and formal, and contributes to bridging the gap between peforming the physical and social action, and believing the corresponding ideology.  Sosis moved on to develop a costly signaling model of ritual, arguing that it communicates one’s level of commitment to the group. Individuals willing to accept the costs of signaling are more likely to cooperate with the group, contributing to the group’s success, and the group’s success in turn increases the individual’s success.

Simple models were developed to show that individuals who believe in the ideology corresponding to the ritual perceive lower costs and higher benefits than individuals who simply perform the ritual without belief. The model can be further expanded to predict how costly a ritual must be to eliminate free riders and ensure stability.

Sosis determined, based on models and analysis, that free riders do not join religious groups because the perceived costs are too high. The relationship between ritual cost and group stability requires two factors. First, the perceived cost for a free rider must be greater than the difference in benefit between free rider and believer. Second, the perceived cost for a believer must be less than the previously described difference. Private rituals are used to ensure that there are large differences in cost for free riders and skeptics. We are not all Hutterites because we don’t believe in the ideology, and therefore the costs off adhering to the rituals are perceived as too high.

I have mixed feelings about the article. It was a valuable discussion, and presented a good set of ideas and theories about how conforming to social norms and group identity can affect success. I think that the article could have made more references to the Hutterites, and specific data pertaining to them, to help illustrate the points made in the article. For example, the reproductive success of Hutterite groups was only mentioned, and there was no specific mention of the rituals involved. The models developed worked well to support points, but there was no data to show where the graphs were derived from. These elements weakened the article, but did not detract from the overall value of the discussion.

Boyd, Robert. & Richerson, Peter J. (1987) The Evolution of Ethnic Markers. Cultural Anthropology, 2, 65-79

The article discusses what the authors call a ‘Dual Inheritance’ theory of the interaction of genes and culture. Two key results appear from models based on the theory. First, the cultural system of inheritance is different from the genetic system. Second, cultural inheritance can lead to behaviors that are maladaptive to increasing fitness.  They use the models developed from the theories to discuss the evolution of markers of group membership, particularly why humans can be broken down into ethnic groups. The specific questions addressed are: What are the processes that would cause a human population to split into two groups distinguished by cultural marker traits? And could such processes give rise to cultural variation that is biologically adaptive in the sense of increasing reproductive success?

They predicted that most people will imitate beliefs and values observed in successful people, and therefore values that lead to success will spread. Further they predicted that groups occupying different habitats would become culturally isolated because the propensity to adopt successful values from those similar to oneself would cause cultural markers identifying similarity to diverge.

To methodology used was that of a simple qualitative model examining two  ecological niches that differ by according the optimal value of an adaptive character. The niches were moist and dry, and the adaptive character was the extent a person relies on livestock as opposed to cultivation. This was labeled as the adaptive trait, since it directly affected fitness. Another trait, dialect, was included and labeled the marker trait, because it marked membership to a group but did not directly influence fitness. They further elaborated the model by looking at the transmission of each trait across the life cycle. Marker traits are adopted at an early age from social agents, and adaptive traits are transmitted at a later age through the observation of a wide range of models. During teenage years, people begin to adopt adaptive traits, and are more likely to adopt them from someone who is successful and has similar marker traits. The goal of the authors was to use the model to understand how the transmission processes might change the distribution of cultural variance in a population over time.

Four types of transmission and imitation were considered in the model: faithful copying, mixing, biased transmission based on similarity, and biased transmission based on success. The model was then expanded to include a mathematical model to make an analysis of the population over time.

Much of the first question was answered in the description of the model. Processes of migration into new environments, imitating successful adaptive traits and also the correlating marker traits, can lead to a population splitting into two cultural groups. The authors interpret the information from the model as suggesting that cultural variation can be biologically adaptive, because they can allow a population to best track a heterogeneous environment. Imitating those around you and adopting marker traits can help the group to become isolated and then be able to the adaptive trait to converge to the optimum.

I thought that the article was very interesting and presented a good balance of description and modeling. The authors made an effort to ensure that the model was presented in a simple enough manner to be understood without an advanced knowledge of mathematics. The article was also valuable in reference to my question because it presented a scenario of how conforming to a group through different marker traits and adaptive traits can affect individual success.

Baron, Robert S., Vandello, Joseph A. & Brunsman, Bethany. (1996) The Forgotten Variable in Conformity Research: Impact of Task Importance on Social Influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 915-927

The authors were interested in examining how task importance affects conformity and social influence. They defined task importance as how much pressure an individual feels to give an accurate judgment on a task. The common prediction is that as the importance of a task increases, so does the impact of social influence, even in cases where the social influence is inaccurate. They predicted that in low difficulty situations, conformity would decrease with importance. They predicted the opposite to be true in high difficulty situations, and that conformity would increase with importance. The authors go further to assert that task difficulty mediates the relationship between task importance and social influence.

The methodology consisted of two studies that tested for the relationship between task difficulty, social influence, as well as two baseline control groups. The two tests were eye-witness identification tasks, one in the from of a line up, and the other the form of description. Three participants were in a room at each time, and were shown a drawn image of a man in one slide, and in the next slide had to pick out the same man out of 4 men in a lineup. Two of the participants were blind confederates, and always agreed on the wrong answer. In the description portion of the test, a drawn image of a man was displayed, and the participants subsequently had to answer question about describing his appearance. Task difficulty was varied by how much time each slide was displayed for, and how many times it was displayed. The task importance was varied by the instructions and information given to the participants at the beginning of their test, and with the possibility of a monetary reward for accurate responses.

The results of the lineup test supported the first hypothesis of the authors. Conformity on tasks of low difficulty was low, and decreased with task importance. In high difficulty situations, conformity increased as task importance increased. Conformity levels were significantly higher than in the control groups, indicating that the confederates influenced conformity.  The description test yielded similar results, with conformity increasing with task difficulty and importance.

The statistical difference of conformity difficult tasks was only borderline, so the authors devised a second study to try to reinforce and replicate the results from the first. They used only high difficulty situations, and tested for a relationship between conformity and post-judgment confidence by using confederates who were unanimous and highly confident in answers. The prediction was that participants would feel a higher post-judgment confidence if they had conformed to the group norm.

The methodology used the same materials and procedures from the first study, with some alterations. Participants ranked their confidence of each response after the trial, only the lineup task was used with difficult situations, and confederate confidence was manipulated to portray either low or high confidence.

The results of the second study reinforced conclusions from the first, specifically that people with conform more to inaccurate answers when difficulty and importance are high. A positive correlation between conformity and post-judgment confidence was also found.

I thought that the article was very well done and presented. The questions it asked were highly relevant to my question, and the results of the study have considerable implications in the real world. I thought that the methodology was well developed and executed, and worked well to research the described questions. Developing the second study was particularly effective, because it tested for variables and attempted to replicate results, instead of simply accepting the results of the first study and stopping. The implications of the findings have far reaching applications into the realm of social influence, such as advertising and religious doctrine, as the authors pointed out. (6 million people can’t all be wrong…)

While the article did not directly address individual success, the findings about group conformity, social influence and confidence are applicable. One could imagine scenarios in which the results of the studies, in terms of real world behavior and decisions, could affect success and fitness. For example, in deciding whether to go to hunting patch A or hunting patch B, it seems logical that the difficulty of the decision and the importance of the decision would inline hunters to conform to those around them, even if they are wrong.

O’Gorman, Rick, Wilson, David Sloan, & Miller, Ralph R. (2008)

An evolved congnitive bias for social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 71-78

Sosis, Richard. (2002) Why Aren’t We All Hutterites? Costly Signaling Theory and Religious Behavior. Human Nature, 14, 91-127

Boyd, Robert. & Richerson, Peter J. (1987) The Evolution of Ethnic Markers. Cultural Anthropology, 2, 65-79

Baron, Robert S., Vandello, Joseph A. & Brunsman, Bethany. (1996) The Forgotten Variable in Conformity Research: Impact of Task Importance on Social Influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 915-927

Fessler, Danial M.T., (2004). Shame in Two Cultures: Implications for Evolutionary Approaches. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 4.2, 207-262

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