The Grapevine

Majority Rules: We Tend To Conform, Unless We Have A High IQ

Conformity
Conforming is an instinct for humans. leg0fenris CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Like to take the path less traveled? You’re in the minority. The latest in research on social behaviors from the University of British Columbia examined how mathematical models can predict human behavior, and came up with a few answers, including that most of us prefer to follow the pack instead of branching out.

The research, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, tested when we should rely on “social information” and when we should go our own way.

"People are conformist — and that's a good thing for cultural evolution," said Michael Muthukrishna, a Vanier and Liu Scholar and recent PhD recipient from UBC's department of psychology, in a press release. "By being conformist, we copy the things that are popular in the world. And those things are often good and useful."

Though conforming can lead to problematic behavior on occasion, it can also cause us to behave in ways that are beneficial — even when we don’t know it. For example, most people aren’t aware of how exactly bacteria and viruses cause disease, but they know they should wash their hands after using the bathroom. Even if this behavior is spurred by nothing but the feeling that one should follow a social norm, it ends up being beneficial.

"Our whole world is made up of things that we do that are good for us, but we don't know why," said Muthukrishna. "And we don't need to know why. We just need to know that most people do those things."

Interestingly, the research found that those with higher IQs are less likely to follow the crowd — but only because they are choosing to do so at more strategic times. Smart people tend to make their own decisions because they believe they have the correct answer on their own. On the rarer occasions when they are unsure, however, they are more likely than those with average IQs to utilize the majority as a resource and follow them.

In addition, the more diversity of opinion there is, the more likely we are to follow the majority opinion. In other words, as the number of presented options increases, we become more uncertain, and the solid majority opinion sends an even stronger signal that we follow. "These mathematical theories and experiments contribute to a greater understanding of what it is that makes our species so unique — culture," said Muthukrishna. "Our smarts are acquired, not hardwired."

Source: Muthukrishna M, Morgan T, Henrich J. The When and Who of Social Learning and Conformist Transmission. Evolution and Behavior. 2015.

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