What is the chance that you could get someone to lie for you? What about vandalizing public property at your suggestion ? Most of us assume that others would go along with such schemes only if, on some level, they felt comfortable doing so. If not, they'd simply say "no," right?
Yet research suggests that saying "no" can be more difficult than we believe — and that we have more power over others' decisions than we think.
Social psychologists have spent decades demonstrating how difficult it can be to say "no" to other people's propositions, even when they are morally questionable — consider Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments , in which participants were persuaded to administer what they believed to be dangerous electric shocks to a fellow participant.
Countless studies have subsequently shown that we find it similarly difficult to resist social pressure from peers, friends and colleagues . Our decisions regarding everything from whether to turn the lights off when we leave a room to whether to call in sick to take a day off from work are affected by the actions and opinions of our neighbors and colleagues.
But what about those times when we are the ones trying to get someone to act unethically? Do we realize how much power we wield with a simple request, suggestion or dare? New research by my students and me suggests that we don't .
We examined this question in a series of studies in which we had participants ask strangers to perform unethical acts. Before making their requests, participants predicted how many people they thought would comply. In one study, 25 college students asked 108 unfamiliar students to vandalize a library book. Targets who complied wrote the word "pickle" in pen on one of the pages.
As in the Milgram studies, many of the targets protested. They asked the instigators to take full responsibility for any repercussions. Yet, despite their hesitation, a large portion still complied. Most important for our research question, more targets complied than participants had anticipated. Our participants predicted that an average of 28.5 percent would go along. In fact, fully half of those who were approached agreed. Moreover, 87 percent of participants underestimated the number they would be able to persuade to vandalize the book.
In another study, we asked 155 participants to think about a series of ethical dilemmas — for example, calling in sick to work to attend a baseball game. One group was told to think about these misdeeds from the perspective of a person deciding whether to commit them, and to imagine receiving advice from a colleague suggesting they do it or not. Another group took the opposite side, and thought about them from the perspective of someone advising another person about whether or not to do each deed.
Those in the first group were strongly influenced by the advice they received. When they were urged to engage in the misdeed, they said they would be more comfortable doing so than when they were advised not to.
However, participants in the "advisory" role thought that their opinions would hold little sway over the other person's decision.
Taken together, our research, which was recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that we often fail to recognize the power of social pressure when we are the ones doing the pressuring.