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The Desire to Conform Starts In Toddlers

Apes don’t have this problem — if they know the answer to a puzzle, they’ll do it, regardless of what their friends might think

(H. Armstrong Roberts/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

Remember that fad where teens attempted to scarf cinnamon and ended up in the hospital? Misguided attempts to conform are kind of like the dark side of learning by imitation. And like learning, conformity starts early.

A new study shows that kids try to blend in with their peers starting as early as two years old, reports Bret Stetka for Scientific American Mind. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany found out that human children will copy their peer’s behavior, even if they know a better way. The kicker: chimpanzees and orangutans have no such desires to keep their heads down and blend in.

In the study, one group of apes and children learned that dropping a ball into one particular section of a box divided into three would give them a reward—peanuts for the apes and chocolate for the kids. When the children watched their peers try the same activity without a reward and then were watched by the others in turn, the kids who should have known better dropped their ball into sections that didn’t offer a chocolate reward. But the apes stuck with what they knew and dropped their balls in the sections they had learned would give them a peanut. 

Stetka writes:

The results suggest that the human desire to conform is inborn or at least develops at a very young age. This urge to conform probably evolved to be stronger than that of our ape cousins because group harmony was extremely important in growing hominin communities dependent on the exchange of cultural information, according to the authors. “We all like others who are similar to us,” explains psychologist and lead author Daniel Haun. Conforming boosts these feelings of sameness.

The researchers published in the journal Psychological Science.

The findings fall in line with previous work on how humans like to be part of a group or live up to expectations but not exceed them. That’s why stereotypes can be so insidious. For example, girls can learn from their teachers that they should be scared of math and people conform to gender expectations even when given virtual gaming avatars of a different gender. Even if individuals try not to conform, the rest of the group makes sure that their odd-ball ways don’t affect group decisions. 

For the Washington Post, Chris Mooney reports on another psychology study that illuminates our tendency to discount expert opinions. It’s called an "equality bias." Mooney writes:

[E]ven when it’s very clear that one person in a group is more skilled, expert, or competent (and the other less), [people] are nonetheless inclined to seek out a middle ground in determining how correct different viewpoints are. Yes, that’s right — we’re all right, nobody’s wrong, and nobody gets hurt feelings.

You can imagine that these human habits have some advantages: If you don’t have any other information, "following the majority is usually a very good first choice," Huan told Scientific American. But all too often the wisdom of the crowd turns out to be wrong. Being social is a good thing, but keep a hold of your identity and your common sense.

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