Peer Pressure Might Have an Expiration Date

Anyone who keeps an eye on psychological research will quickly internalize a key point: Group influence matters. In many cases, what our peers are doing and saying can actually override our own opinions and better judgement. A new study published in Psychological Science provides a pretty cool example, and suggests — at least within the specific confines of one lab experiment — that there’s something like a peer-pressure expiration date.

A trio of researchers from Chinese universities had subjects rate the attractiveness of 280 female faces. After each rating, they were shown the average rating the rest of the experimental group gave the face, which researchers contrived to only match the subject’s 25 percent of the time. The rest, it was up to three points different on the eight-point attractiveness scale.

Then the researchers checked how long these effects would last. As the press release explains:

The students were brought back to the lab to rate the faces again after either 1 day, 3 days, 7 days, or 3 months has passed.

The data showed that the group norm seemed to sway participant’s own judgments when they re-rated the photos 1 and 3 days after the initial session.

There was, however, no evidence for a social-conformity effect when the intervening period was longer (either 7 days or 3 months after the first session).

A bit of caution is warranted here because of the differences between the experimental and real-world settings. Social influence — especially on big, emotional questions — works in many ways, some of them more subtle than others. Things are rarely as clear as seeing a numerical figure for what percentage of your neighbors agree with you.

Still, this is an interesting finding, because it points to the power of having a group breathing down your neck. It’s like an updated, hot-or-not version of Solomon Asch’s groundbreaking conformity experiments.