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17 September 2014
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Social Psychology

  • Do you trust your own eyes or what other people tell you?
  • Why do people give in to peer pressure?
  • Diffusion of responsibility: would you help someone in distress?

Do you trust your own eyes or what other people tell you?

Psychologists have discovered that even the most independent-minded of us will conform to social pressure when we are with a group of people. In one classic experiment, people were shown a vertical line and asked to find a line of identical length from a selection of three.

You might think that this is an absurdly easy task, and when people perform it by themselves they do very well. However, psychologists have discovered that we are very easily swayed by the opinions of other people when we do this task in a group. In one study, a group of three people was set up, where two of the people were confederates of the experimenter. When the confederates deliberately gave wrong answers, people were often swayed to give the wrong answer also. In fact, 75% of people gave at least one wrong answer, with some people conforming to peer pressure on every occasion.

Why do people give in to peer pressure?

But why do people conform in this way? In an easy task like this, it seems that people do not want to step out of line with the prevailing opinion of the group. On more difficult tasks, people also conform because they lose confidence in their own ability to make decisions and prefer to trust the majority opinion instead.

Diffusion of responsibility: would you help someone in distress?

A stark example of this kind of conformity arises when we come across people in distress. Would you help a woman who has been attacked in the street? It turns out that you are much more likely to go to her assistance if you are alone. When other people are also around, a diffusion of responsibility occurs. People are paralysed into inaction, because everyone assumes that someone else will go to the woman's assistance.


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