Psychology Magazine

Psychological Distance Enhances Conformity to Group Norms.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

In yet another of one of those studies that give what would appear to be a generally applicable result, but is based on experiments carried out on two rather selective population represented by undergraduate psychology students at a U.S. college (UC-Davis, and NYU), Ledgerwood and Callahan demonstrate that psychological distance can enhance conformity to group norms, contra the usual association of the distanced or abstracted thinker (think Spock or Obama) with reasoned opinions that resist group pressure.
In the first study noted in their abstract below. they manipulated the temporal distance of a policy by varying whether it would be implemented in the near or distant future. They then provided participants with information about the majority opinion before asking them to report their own attitudes toward the policy. (The study's 67 participants (72% female) completed a study described as an online student opinion survey. All participants read an article excerpt (ostensibly from an online campus newsletter), which stated that the Davis City Council was considering whether to approve a proposal that would require all bicycles - the primary mode of student transportation in Davis - to use rear bicycle lights for nighttime travel.) Participants tended to conform to group opinion when the policy would be implemented in the relatively distant future, expressing more favorable attitudes when the group favored the policy than when the group opposed it.
The second study, a bit more complicated, asked students who had been primed in a diversionary task that required thinking in either concrete or abstract terms, to vote on a previously defined affirmation action issue. They did this by privately placing a number of 'yes' or 'no' tokens proportional to how strongly they felt in boxes that already contained tokens placed by the group of previous voters (actually the experimenters). Participants conformed to the group norm after they had been led to think abstractly, voting more strongly in favor of affirmative action when the group seemed to support it rather than oppose it.
Here is the abstract:

Intuition suggests that a distanced or abstract thinker should be immune to social influence, and on its surface, the current literature could seem to support this view. The present research builds on recent theorizing to suggest a different possibility. Drawing on the notion that psychological distance regulates the extent to which evaluations incorporate context-specific or context-independent information, we suggest that psychological distance should actually increase susceptibility to sources of social influence that tend to be consistently encountered across contexts, such as group norms. Consistent with this hypothesis, two studies showed that psychological distance and abstraction increased conformity to group opinion and that this effect persisted in a novel voting-booth paradigm in which participants believed their voting behavior was both anonymous and consequential. We discuss implications of these findings for understanding the social side of abstraction as well as the conditions under which different types of social influence are likely to be most influential.

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