You want to wear one shirt out to the movies, but your friends persuade you against it. You arrive to the movie planning on seeing a long-awaited indie flick, only to be convinced the latest blockbuster is the better choice. And along the way to the theater, you get popcorn like everyone else, even though you wanted candy. Why?

Sure, you may be weak-willed. But you also displayed the classic social psychology phenomenon of conformity. Under the weight of social influences, your desires wilted in accommodation. While psychology has long known that group pressures can shape a person’s sense of judgment, the nature of that conformity has been less clear. Now a new study claims it’s mostly temporary, lasting for little more than three days.

“Our findings suggest that exposure to others’ opinions does indeed change our own private opinions — but it doesn’t change them forever,” said psychological scientist and study author Rongjun Yu in a news release.

Yu and a team of researchers from China’s South Normal University recruited a group of college students to rate the physical attractiveness of 280 photographs on an 8-point scale. After making their assessments, each student saw roughly 200 other students’ assessments of the same faces. This gave both the students and the researchers a chance to compare data across each participant.

One day, three days, and seven days later the students returned to give ratings. Despite the fact that the group average matched the participant’s rating roughly 25 percent of the time, within one and three days, the new ratings substantially swayed toward the average. By the seventh day, the ratings had normalized back to their baselines, the researchers report.

“Just like working memory can hold about seven items and a drug can be effective for certain amount of time, social influence seems to have a limited time window for effectiveness,” Yu explained.

The findings uphold recent theories in cognitive psychology that paint the brain as a limited bank for data storage. While neuroplasticity — that is, the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new environments — has genuine impacts on how we respond to certain stimuli, researchers are increasingly finding that teaching an old brain new social tricks comes with baggage. People who live in regions with heavy accents, for example, may never pick up the local tongue even if they live there for decades.

By contrast, the brain is also quick to adapt — much like Yu and his team saw in their study. The Rubber Hand Illusion demonstrates this rather viscerally, as subjects who have one hand brushed with a feather and a rubber hand brushed in the same manner begin to sense the false limb as their own. The hammer that comes smashing down on the rubber hand at the end of the experiment no doubt shocks subjects for this reason.

Like Yu’s study, of course, the effect is only temporary. Subjects walk away knowing both their limbs are intact — and thankfully, too. We can’t have people thinking they have rubber hands, can we? Then again, everything would be back to normal in three days anyway, so who knows?

 

Source: Huang Y, Kendrick K, Yu R. Conformity to the Opinions of Other People Lasts for No More Than 3 Days. Psychological Science. 2014.