We often believe that self-control comes from within, but many of our actions depend as much on our friends and family as ourselves. Those with whom we surround ourselves have the power to make us fatter, drink more alcohol, break less about the environment, and be more risky with sun protection among many things.
This is not just peer-press, where you deliberately act a certain way to fit into the group. Instead, it is largely unconscious. Under your consciousness, your brain constantly captures counts from the people around you to inform your behavior. And the consequences can be serious.
It is now well accepted that our personal sense of self is derived from other people. "The more of your identity you draw from a group even if you're not in this group, the more likely you are to maintain those values," says Amber Gaffney, social psychologist from Humboldt State University. "If much of how you identify is like a university student, or as a graduate, that's what you take with you in most interactions with others. I see things first through my lens as a graduate." For example, students tend to have stronger attitudes toward things such as legalization of drugs or supporting environmental sustainability than the rest of the population.
These are called social norms. And although these norms are usually stable, some interesting things happen if only one person in the associated group works out of character.
Consider the following study, which showed that people would likely change their opinion on green travel if they found out that their peers acted hypocritically.
Students from Humboldt State University live in a small socially liberal city in northern California, relying on their environmental credentials. The pupils who are largely also environmentally aware. You would expect a peer's carbon emissions violation not to fall well.
Having listened to an interview with a student at the university, emphasizing the importance of walking or cycling short distances rather than taking a car and then later admit to driving to the interview, participants were asked about their own environmental prospects. They did this while sitting next to an actor. The actor took the role of either a third student with a university jersey or a professional in clothing. When the interviewer's hypocrisy was revealed, the actor made either a negative comment about their behavior or remained silent.
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How the participants judged the importance of walking or cycling short distances depended on who they listened to the interview with and how the person responded. When they sat with someone, they thought they were another student, and who shared their environmental values, the participants repeated the importance of cycling. When sitting with an outsider it was not so clearly cut.
An outsider who commented on the hypocrisy of the interviewee evokes the strongest environmental feelings of the participants. Defending the interviewee from criticism reinforced their own perception that cycling was important. This is perhaps because they felt that the interviewee would normally be more environmentally responsible. Conversely, the participants judged whether the outsider was quiet, the importance of cycling the lowest. So, how an outsider judges our peers has a great influence on whether we take them up or not.
"This was an interesting study," adds Gaffney, "because we were able to make some people more aware of the environment. Normally, this is not something we would like to do, but understanding where those views come from. , can help us crush people in the other direction. "
In the light of a foreign critic, we can come to our colleagues' help. But if we are left to form our own opinions, we interpret the hypocritical behavior as a sign that we can relax our own views. This is called vicarious dissonance.
"Vicic dissonance is when you see a person behave in a way that is incompatible with your attitudes to change your attitudes," Gaffney says. "I should be embarrassed to see you acting in a non-environmental way, but it doesn't always happen. I don't necessarily want to start copying you, but I will change my attitudes to reflect your behavior because I feel like you and I see you as an extension of myself. "
This study was inspired by several pieces of work in Australia on vicarious dissonance about sun protection use. Again, a person acting hypocritically will relax people's attitudes about using protection, where the norm must be extremely vigilant.
How we talk about our health choices with friends can also have a significant impact on our decisions, both positively and negatively. Talking about an anti-smoking campaign with friends reduced people's cigarette intake, perhaps because these conversations allowed smokers to find out what information was most relevant to their lifestyle ̵
"The biggest cause of death is preventive health behavior such as smoking and obesity, and we have access to a great deal of information online, but we still smoke and we still don't train," says Christin Scholz of the University of Amsterdam. "Everything our friends do affects us in ways that we are aware of or not. Your presence can determine whether we are dealing with these health information or ignoring it."
Scholz asked university students in the United States if they had spoken to anyone about a recent experience with alcohol and whether these conversations were positive or negative. If they had spoken positively about alcohol consumption, they were more likely to drink more the next day and vice versa. These patterns, however, are heavily influenced by the social conditions in which we find ourselves.
When making decisions, we continuously evaluate the value we may have from each choice – a process called value maximization. Our decision to take the stairs instead of an elevator depends on how much we ate for lunch if we have already been to our daily races and whether we entered the building with our triathlete colleague. No effect of a conversation with friends can ever be seen in isolation. And that's why our willpower swings.
"Say I have a conversation with a friend the day before about some of the negative sides of alcohol, but the next day I'm in a bar with other people – I still want to argue that conversation has some kind of influence on me, "Scholz says. "However, it is a fairly simple representation of human decision making. We are not always rational – we make these decisions fairly quickly. The importance of certain types of information changes throughout the day."
Our choices are influenced by who We are involved when asked about the question how these people responded, what conversations we may have had in advance and our basic understanding of what is normal for that group of friends. But if we are still in doubt, it is easiest to look at what others are doing and copying them. We do it all the time and we may not understand the impact.
When we eat with people who eat a lot, we eat more
"When we eat with others, we have a natural tendency to use their behavior as a guide," says Suzanne Higgs, studying the appetite psychobiology at Birmingham University . "Many studies have shown that when we eat with people who eat a lot, we eat more. People are not often aware that they are being affected that way. They could say that it was taste or price or hunger levels rather than the people around them. "
The phenomenon was first described based on an analysis of the diaries of John de Castro in the 1980s. These detailed diaries noted what people ate, but also where, when, and who. He was so able to check for the effects of feasts whether alcohol was consumed if the meal took place over the weekend and other factors that could have affected the amount of food eaten.
These effects have since been repeated in laboratories. Higgs asked students to have lunch either with a friend or isolated in a laboratory. It seems to happen even when you eat with another friend in a very controlled environment. But this effect only occurs in people you know well.
The presence of another person shoots our ability to pick up signals from our bodies that we are happy with.
Higgs suggests that the presence of another person shoots our ability to pick up signals from our bodies that we are happy with. The normal process of feeling full is disturbed by the feeling stimulated by our friends. Other distractions, such as watching TV, have been shown to increase food consumption.
Higgs then followed his field research to see if eating behavior could be affected by other social signs. She wanted to encourage people to choose vegetable dishes by providing information on choosing other diners using posters. "Of course, we know it explicitly says" Vegetables are good for you "doesn't work," says Higgs. Instead, the posters showed out which side heat most customers bought. Higgs put a vegetable side dish on top. 19659002] "These posters have just described other people's behavior – and that's enough for some," says Higgs. "When we enter a new environment, we look for signs of how to behave. So to see that a particular choice is the most popular we really help. "
The effect was seen even after the posters were taken down. Higgs had created a new norm.
" There is good reason to believe that when we use normative behavior, it makes us feel good because we associate with a social group, "says Higgs." If you are with a new social group, you are more likely to imitate behavior. "
Our decisions may not always be in our hands, but that also means that we can use our influence for good. "Similarly, a negative behavior can spread through a network of people, a positive one can spread through a network," says Scholz. "We have evolved to live in a group to spread positive actions and to seek approval by others. "
William Park is @williamhpark on Twitter. Javier Hirschfeld created the artwork for this article.  Become a member of one million Future fans by like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter or Instagram .
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