"People Always Follow the Crowd. But Not Me!": The Introspection Illusion

Over the past 50 years studies have repeated shown that we have a tendency to believe that others more readily conform to social norms than we do. That is, under the same circumstances, people are significantly less likely to admit that they too are influenced by social norms. In other words, we tend to see others as “sheep” and ourselves as “lone wolves”.

The interesting aspect of this is that experiments have also shown that we are typically not aware of our own behavioural conformity. Studies show that, without our conscious knowledge, we tend to conform to social situations by, for instance, crossing our arms to match the posture of the person we’re with, or making food selections at a restaurant to conform to the selections made by others.

Our lack of awareness regarding our own tendencies towards conformity along with our overestimate of other peoples’ tendency to conform has been termed the “Introspection Illuision”. Psychologists believe that individuals focus on their own internal or introspective information and, at the same time, underestimate information gleened from their own behaviour. However, when we assess other peoples’ tendency to conform, the opposite is true. That is, when it comes to others, we give greater weight to their behaviour over their internal state and, as a result, decide that they are more conformist.

According to the leading researchers in the field, psychologists Pronin, Berger and Molouki from Stanford and Princeton Universities, people are “generally quick to recognize the impact of of social influence, except when that influence (is) on themselves.”

The reasons for this are twofold. First, we have greater access to our own feelings states than those of others. The opposite is also true. We have greater access to other peoples’ behaviour than we do their feeling states. Second, we give greater value to our own feeling states than those of others.

Overall, the evidence suggests that we try and fit-in more than we like to admit and that others don’t fit-in or conform as much as we tend to believe. We clearly underestimate our own behaviour as evidence. Some have called this “behavioural disregard”. Because people tend to rely on their inter-state to judge their experience, they are failing to detect aspects of themselves that most others can easily see.

At a fundamental level, the research reflects the fact that we are more in touch with our own subjective experience than we are the experience of others. It also suggests that we are blind to some of the things we do, or compromises we make, in order to fit in.

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