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Personal judgments swayed by group opinion for 3 days: study

May 26, 2014
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

We all want to feel like free thinkers, but there’s noth­ing like so­cial pres­sure to sway opin­ion. New re­search sug­gests that peo­ple do change their own per­son­al judg­ments so that they fall in line with the group norm, but the change only seems to last about 3 days. 

“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,” said psy­chol­o­gist and study au­thor Rong­jun Yu of South Chi­na Nor­mal Uni­vers­ity. The re­search is pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

That per­son­al judg­ments are swayed by oth­ers’ opin­ions is well known, but it’s un­clear wheth­er it leads to a gen­u­ine change in per­son­al opin­ion. If so, it might be ex­pected to per­sist even when so­cial in­flu­ence is re­moved. Yu and col­leagues re­cruited Chin­ese col­lege stu­dents to par­ti­ci­pate in a study sup­posedly ex­plor­ing how “peo­ple per­ceive fa­cial at­trac­tive­ness. The stu­dents looked at 280 pho­tographs of young Chin­ese wom­en and were asked to rate the at­trac­tive­ness of each face on an eight-point scale.

Af­ter rat­ing a face, they saw the pur­ported av­er­age of 200 oth­er stu­dents’ rat­ings for that face. Im­por­tant­ly, the group av­er­age matched the par­ti­ci­pan­t’s rat­ing only one fourth of the time. The rest, the group av­er­age fell one, two or three points above or be­low the par­ti­ci­pan­t’s rat­ing.

The stu­dents were brought back to the lab to rate the faces again af­ter ei­ther one, three, or sev­en days, or af­ter three months. The da­ta in­di­cat­ed that the group norm seemed to sway par­ti­ci­pan­t’s own judg­ments when they re-rated the pho­tos up to three days, but no long­er.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers, three days is long enough to sug­gest that group norms had a gen­u­ine, al­be­it brief, im­pact on opin­ions. But the re­search­ers are un­sure why the ef­fect lasts for three days. They plan to study wheth­er there might be a neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal rea­son, and wheth­er the ef­fect can be ma­ni­pu­lated to last for shorter or long­er dura­t­ions.


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We all want to feel like free thinkers, but there’s nothing like social pressure to sway opinion. New research suggests that people do change their own personal judgments so that they fall in line with the group norm, but the change only seems to last about 3 days. “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,” said psychologist and study author Rongjun Yu of South China Normal University. The research is published in the journal Psychological Science. That personal judgments are swayed by others’ opinions is well known, but it’s unclear whether it leads to a genuine change in personal opinion. If so, it might be expected to persist even when social influence is removed. Yu and colleagues recruited Chinese college students to participate in a study supposedly exploring how “people perceive facial attractiveness.” The students looked at 280 photographs of young Chinese women and were asked to rate the attractiveness of each face on an eight-point scale. After rating a face, they saw the purported average of 200 other students’ ratings for that face. Importantly, the group average matched the participant’s rating only one fourth of the time. The rest, the group average fell one, two or three points above or below the participant’s rating. The students were brought back to the lab to rate the faces again after either one, three, or seven days, or after three months. The data indicated that the group norm seemed to sway participant’s own judgments when they re-rated the photos up to three days, but no longer. According to the researchers, three days is long enough to suggest that group norms had a genuine, albeit brief, impact on opinions. But the researchers are unsure why the effect lasts for three days. They plan to study whether there might be a neurological reason, and whether the effect can be manipulated to last for shorter or longer durations.