When we think about the environments in which individuals are most likely to conform to social norms, I am sure that colleges are at the top of the list. However, when listing the types of behaviors that students conform to social norms with, most of us would be likely to list sex, drinking, and drugs as the most likely ways that students conform. You can imagine my surprise, then, when viewing my college cafeteria through my social scientist’s lenses, I saw the most obvious example of conformity to social norms I had yet to see on my college campus: the choice of whether to get a meal on a plate or in cardboard to-go box.
While looking around the cafeteria, I had noticed that although everyone was sitting down to eat at the tables in the cafeteria, only faculty and staff had chosen to use the more appropriate option of a re-useable plate for eating. Even though the students were going to sit down at a table and not bring the food back to their rooms with them, they chose to have their food served in a to-go cardboard container. When asking a student why most students chose to-go containers, he told me “Only faculty and foreign students use plates, if you don’t use a to-go box, you don’t look cool.” Shockingly, I discovered that since I was a professor, he did not think I was cool!
As a social psychologist, I am well aware of the reasons that humans are likely to conform. Sometimes we conform because we want to gain acceptance from our peers (Asch, 1955), and other times we conform because we believe that others have more or better information than we have (Sherif, 1936). As an evolutionary psychologist, though, I was very curious as to whether this behavior of conforming to social norms is an evolutionary adaptation or not, and if it is an adaptation, what adaptive problem would this behavior solve? Boyd and Richerson (1985) began to tackle this question with their idea of conformist transmission, a specific type of social learning in which individuals are likely to adopt cultural traits that are most prevalent in the given population. Further research on this topic supported the theory that humans are likely to adopt popular cultural traits as long as the environment does not change too rapidly (Heinrich & Boyd, 1998). So, why are we likely to conform? Most of the research on conformity looks at punishment for not conforming. For example, Lachlan, Janik and Slater (2004) found, using a territorial game, that aggression towards non-conformers was more successful than random aggression. This suggests that in general, people are more likely to condone punishment towards non-conformers. The type of punishment for not conforming, of course, depends on the behavior and the situation in which the deviation occurs.
Getting back to the example, whether a student chooses a plate rather than a to-go container is not a matter of life and death. The worst that could happen to the student is a friend or another student makes fun of him/her for using a plate. While this might seem substantial to the student at the time, it is not likely to result in the student’s death or decrease his/her reproductive potential in the long run. However, as I began to think in a historical context, I immediately came to an example in which not conforming to social norms would cost you your life.
From 1461-1603 the English monarchy changed rulers three times. The first ruler during this time, Edward IV, reigned over a Protestant country. When Queen Mary, a Roman Catholic, succeeded Edward IV, she converted England to a Roman Catholic state. Later, when Queen Elizabeth took over, she restored the country to Protestantism again. During these years, especially during the move to Queen Mary as monarch, loyalty to the reigning church and observation of the rules of the church was extremely important. If, for example, during the reign of Queen Mary, you were suspected of not attending mass, or not reciting prayers during mass, you were likely to be executed for heresy (as 300 well known Protestants were during the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’) (Foxe, 1540).
One of the most interesting things about both the current and historical example is that although conforming to social norms seems to be an evolutionary adaptation, the culture is what determines which behaviors must be followed. If evolutionary psychologists investigate conformity without taking into consideration the culture in which those norms are prescribed, the behavior will not be fully understood.
Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193, 31-35.
Boyd, R., & Richerson, P.J. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Foxe, J. (1540). Fox’s book of martyrs. Ch. 16. Persecutions in England during the Reign of Queen Mary. Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/fox116.htm.
Heinrich, J. & Boyd, R. (1998). The evolution of conformist transmission and the emergence of between group differences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19, 215-241.
Lachlan, Janik & Slater (2004). The evolution of conformity-enforcing behavior in cultural communications systems. Animal Behavior, 68, 561-570.
Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. New York: Harper Collins.