Summer Series #7: On Social Influence. Do you see what I see...

Have you ever stopped to wonder why you bother asking people if they saw that? The phrase “are you seeing what I’m seeing” comes to mind, right? I mean for me, my vision is pretty poor, so it is just practical that I check with others, but generally speaking: Why bother asking for the confirmation? Aren’t your eyes good enough? Interestingly enough, maybe not.

Take the Müller-Lyer illusion as an example. Two lines, one with arrows pointing inward, one with arrows pointing out. Most people look at the lines and say that one is clearly longer than the other. They aren’t. They are the same length. I promise. A more recent example is “the dress” being blue and black or white and gold (I admit, I thought it looked white and gold). The dress was particularly interesting because how people perceived the colors could be altered depending on the qualities of the image (saturation etc.). The most interesting question about the dress, and other illusions, is why do we care?   

Interestingly enough, people tend to rely on others for confirmation of the things they are observing in the world. Usually the confirmation is about more subjective, personal issues-- ones that can range from inconsequential to monumental.

Am I right to be upset that my boyfriend didn’t call me last night? Isn’t this steak too salty? Should I fire this employee who I think is being lazy? The optical illusions like the dress are a little more hard hitting. It should be obvious. It is an objective view of the world. How could people possibly not see what I see? As it turns out, what people see (and perceive in general) is not as stable as you might think, and is often subject to the opinions of others. Psychologist have, for years, conducted various experiments and surveys on just how far social influence, persuasion, and conformity can go.

There are two classic examples of conformity in social psychology; Solomon Asch and Muzafer Sherif. Asch is famous for his line studies. The idea is that when presented with a group of others (confederates privy to the experiment) incorrectly identifying one line as longer than others people tend to agree with the group. Sherif, in a similar line of work, found that when asked how much a point of light appears to move, groups of participants will come to an unspoken consensus, that is unique to that group (called the autokinetic effect). Basically, we tend to use each other as rulers, to help us measure, quantify, and interpret the world around us.

That is why, when things like the dress happen, we get so worked up. Either everyone else is lying to us, there is something wrong with them, or there is something wrong with us. None of those options are good, because we need each other. We want to be objectively correct, and the only way we can make sure we are is to get the view and opinions of others.

And so, we ask for advice.

This post was written by Sooth intern, Nicolas Barreto. 

Nicolas is a fourth year Ph.D. student in social psychology with a co-concentration in Biostatistics and Epidemiology. He studies social influence and communication, focusing on small group interactions, and how group membership affects persuasion. Specifically, he has researched what information about a person goes into an individual being more or less likely to trust that person.