The thing about people is that we tend to surround ourselves by others like us. We form an opinion about something and then we rely on our social circle to either confirm or dispute our new ideas and what do you think typically happens? They agree with us. We are then further confirmed in our new opinion. In studies, people who verbalized an inclination towards something were more strong in their faith after having had discussed it with a group. There is a phenomenon that occurs when we have to argue a point that makes us more passionate and invested in our cause. This leads to the sad realization that maybe the convictions we have are nothing more than stubborn moments that we wove into something more important.
The idea that we keep like-minded company means that the way those around us think shapes the way we think as well. This is called group polarization. Consider someone you were once intimately close with- as a friend. Typically someone from high school or college with whom you were inseparable and you imagined you would be life long partners in crime. Eventually, you grow to have different social circles. The most common would be meeting someone you would like to commit your life to. Over the years you find that opinions you use to share with your bff on very important issues vary significantly. Suddenly you can't imagine how on Earth they could have voted for the president or for the law that wants to make vaccines mandatory or the one about the 10mil for the new high school stadium. Have you always been so fundamentally different? No. Group polarization has occurred and slowly our perceptions and opinions have been shaped.
Ironically, we do not exhibit the same changes on lifestyle choices or habits. In fact, studies as recently as 2016 have shown that we are not attracted to opposites, as the phrase goes, but instead opt to decide to pursue further self-disclosure only where there is a comfortable level of similarity. We also have a tendency to become more explorative during the initial interaction with a new friend or potential partner, leading to some of the best (and possibly most reckless) events of our lives. When you enter the experimentation phase of a relationship, the word doesn't refer to just the other person- your mind opens up. The rush of dopamine and endorphins tell your mind that you are safe and you are powerful: of course we should go sky diving or attempt to eat that fish that has a 10% chance of killing you or try some sort of exhibitionist sex! That sounds like what I've been missing my whole life! This is actually why being a teenager can get tricky... so many new friendships, the culprit might not be the others being a "bad influence" after all. Regardless, your new boyfriend is more likely to try to learn tango in the first few months of dating you than he is of quitting smoking when you want to move in together. Know your dealbreakers and move along, or change your expectations (no shame in that).
So yes, conformity shapes our behaviors and drives our own opinions over time... but so does obedience. We want to please people who we perceive as superior to us. In the early 1960s this guy named Stanley Milgram held experiments to see how far he could push people to be obedient, and surprised everyone with his findings. The experiment was simple really: a person came into a room that had a switchboard and a speaker. He or she was told that in the other room, a different test subject (who was actually an actor) would receive an electric shock every time they answered a question wrong, in incremental increases. The questions would start and the wrong answers followed. Starting with low amounts of electricity, the operator could hear grimaces of pain with each shock. The sounds became more agonizing, later became pleas for help and, eventually, dead silence. How many people do you think continued delivering the shock until the end? Over 60% of them administered every single shock they were told to, including 6 after the complete silence. This was in response to the scientist standing over them and directing them to carry out the experiment as planned. Many interesting things were discovered in this highly controversial study. In fact, probably too many to trust other people with.
Most of all it taught us that there are a several ways that our natural inclination towards obedience can be used to manipulate us. The first and most basic (and a major motivator for the Milgram "victims") is called the foot-in-the-door effect. This is based on the fact that strive for consistency. We are more likely to comply with a request if a smaller request has already been accepted. Think of this as a staircase of favors: can I come in for a glass of wine? Come sit closer to me? Can I kiss you? Let me take your shoes off... shirt off...kiss your neck... you get the idea. If you would have asked to come inside and have sex would it have gone so well? This doesn't apply just to sex and relationships. A sales person from a kiosk at the mall wants you to take a sample because if you agree you are automatically more likely to let him give you his sales pitch and eventually make a purchase. Tricky tricky.
Ready for another one? The door-in-the-face technique states that we are more likely to accept a request if we have just turned down a bigger request. We do this because we naturally want reciprocity (we want to be fair and reciprocal). This looks like your teenager asking to go to Galveston for the weekend after prom, you saying no way in hell and then agreeing to get a hotel room at the prom site. What just happened? Baby do you mind if I go to Las Vegas with the girls for the weekend? Not comfortable with that... okay... how about we just spend the night downtown so we can bar hop? So so simple.
The last one I'm going to give you is the low-ball technique. Because we are drawn to commitment, we are more likely to agree to something that we have agreed to before but with better terms. This means that when the sales man goes to "check with his manager" to see if the sales price on the car is the same from the weekend sale, he really is just going to give you a higher price because he knows you are more likely to say yes. You are committed. In the original experiment that explored this one, a professor asked his students to participate in a study that started at 7 am. Most people declined. He asked a second group of students to participate in a study without mentioning a start time. Once he mentioned 7 am, 95% stayed committed (Cialdini, 1978).
The reality is, we are driven so much by our instinctive needs for connection, that we use our skills (consistency, reciprocity, commitment) to decide everything in our lives- or have it decided for us. With so many of our needs obtained through making and maintaining relationships, it's no wonder the softest parts of us can easily be turned against us. Is it worth it, anyways?