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BBC – Future – How your friends change your habits

We often believe that self-control comes from within, but many of our actions depend as much on our friends and family as ourselves. Those we surround ourselves with have the power to make us fatter, drink more alcohol, care less about the environment and be more risky with sun protection, among many things.

This is not just peer pressure where you consciously act a certain way to fit into the group. Instead, it is largely unconscious. During your consciousness, your brain constantly takes up clues from the people around you to inform your behavior. And the consequences can be serious.

It is now well accepted that our personal sense of self is derived from other people. "The more of your identity you pull from a group, even when you're not in that group, the more likely you are to keep those values," said Amber Gaffney, social psychologist from Humboldt State University. "If a great deal of how you identify is as a student from a particular university, or as a graduate, then that is what you take with you in most interactions with others. I see things first through my lens as an academic." For example, it has a stronger attitude to things like legalizing drugs or supporting environmental sustainability than the rest of the population.

These are called social norms. And while these standards are usually stable, some interesting things occur if only one person in the associated group appears to be character.

Consider the following study, which showed that people would probably change their opinion on green travel if they found out their peers acted hypocritically.

The students from Humboldt State University live in a small socially liberal city in northern California that prides itself on its environmental tasks. The pupils there are to a great extent very environmentally conscious as well. You would expect a colleague's ignorance of carbon dioxide emissions to go well.

After listening to an interview with a student at the university who emphasized the importance of walking or cycling short distances instead of taking a car and then later admitting to driving to the interview, the participants were asked about their own environmental views. They did this while they were sitting next to an actor. The actor took the role of either a third student who had a university jersey or a professional dress. When the interviewed hypocrisy was revealed, the actor either made a negative note about his behavior or stayed silent.

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How the participants judged the importance of walking or cycling short distances depended on who they listened to the interview with, and how that person reacted. When they sat with someone they thought they were another student, and who shared their environmental values, the participants repeated the importance of cycling. When sitting with an outsider, it was not so clear to cut.

An outsider who commented on the hypocrisy of the interviewee triggered the strongest environmental feelings of the participants. By defending the interviewer from criticism, they reinforced their view that cycling was important. This may be because they felt that the interviewee would normally be more environmentally responsible. Conversely, if outsiders were silent, the participants assessed the importance of cycling the lowest. So, how an outsider judges our peers has a big impact on whether or not we make them back.

"This was an interesting study," adds Gaffney, "because we could make some people care less about the environment. Normally, it is not something we want to actively do, but understand where these opinions come from we can help us to tie people in the other direction. "

In criticism of a stranger, we can come to the aid of our peers. But if we leave to form our own opinions, we interpret the hypocritical behavior as a sign that we can relax our own opinions. This is called vicarious dissonance.

"Vicarish dissonance is when you see someone acting in a way that doesn't match your attitudes, so you change your attitudes," Gaffney says. "I should be embarrassed by seeing that you act in an environmentally friendly way, but it doesn't always happen. I won't necessarily start copying you, but I will change my attitudes to reflect your behavior because I feel like you and I see you as an extension of myself. "

This study was inspired by several workpieces in Australia on vicarious dissonance around sun protection use. Again, someone who acts hypocritically would relax people's attitudes to applying protection, where the norm should be extremely vigilant.

How we talk about our health choices with friends can also have a significant impact on our decisions, both positively and negatively. Talking about an anti-smoking campaign with friends reduced people's cigarette intake, perhaps because these conversations gave smokers the opportunity to find out what information was most relevant to their lifestyle ̵

1; and then act on it. This is supported by a meta-analysis of 28 studies involving a total of 139,000 participants.

"The main cause of death is preventable health behavior such as smoking and obesity and we have access to a large amount of information online but we still smoke and we still do not train," says Christin Scholz at the University of Amsterdam. affects us in ways we are aware of or not. Their presence can determine whether we act on that health information or ignore it. "

Scholz asked university students in the United States if they had talked to someone about a new experience of alcohol and whether these conversations were positive or negative. If they had talked positively about alcohol consumption, they were more likely to drink more the next day and vice versa. However, these patterns are strongly influenced by the social circumstances in which we find ourselves.

When we make decisions, we take a continuous review of the value we can get from each choice – a process called value maximization. Our decision to take the stairs instead of An elevator depends on how much we ate for lunch, if we have already been to our daily driving and if we went into the building with our triathlete colleague. No effect of a conversation with friends can ever be seen in isolation. And that is why our will power

"Say I have a conversation with a friend the day before about some of the negative sides of alcohol but the next day I am in a bar with other people – I say He still argues that the conversation has some kind of influence on me, ”Scholz says. "However, it is quite a simple representation of human decision making. We are not always rational – we make these decisions fairly quickly. The importance of certain types of information changes throughout the day."

Our choices are influenced by who we are with When asked the question, how did these people react, what conversations we might have before and our basic understanding of what is normal for that group of friends. But if we are still in doubt, it is easiest to look at what others do and copy them. We do it all the time, and we may not realize the impact it has.

When we eat with people who eat a lot we eat more

"When we eat with others, we have a natural tendency to use their behavior as a guide," said Suzanne Higgs, studying the appetite psychobiology at the University of Birmingham. "Many studies have shown that when we eat with people who eat a lot we eat more. People are not often aware that they are affected that way. They can say that it was the taste or price or the hunger levels rather than the people around them." 19659002]

The phenomenon is first described based on an analysis of food diaries by John de Castro in the 1980s. These detailed diaries noted what people ate, but also were, when and who with. He could then check for the effects of the feast, if alcohol is consumed, if the meal took place during the weekend and other factors that may have affected the amount of food eaten.

These effects have since been repeated in laboratories. Higgs asked students to have lunch either with a friend or isolated in a lab. It seems to happen even when you eat with another friend in a very controlled environment. But this effect only occurs in people you know well.

The presence of another person obscures our ability to pick up signals from our bodies that we are happy to

Higgs suggests that the presence of another person obscures our ability to pick up signals from our bodies with which we are satisfied. The normal process of feeling full is disturbed by the feeling stimulated by our friends. Other distractions, such as watching TV, have been shown to increase food consumption.

Higgs then took his research in the field to see if eating behaviors could be affected by other social signals. She wanted to encourage people to choose vegetable dishes by providing information on selecting other diners with posters. "Of course, we know that it explicitly says" Vegetables are good for you "doesn't work," says Higgs. Instead, the posters showed manufactured data about which side rights most customers bought. Higgs puts a vegetable stove at the top.

"These posters only describe the behavior of others – and that is enough for some," says Higgs. "When we enter a new environment, we search for clues about how to behave. So, to see that a particular choice is the most popular, we really help."

The effect was seen even after the posters had been taken down. Higgs had created a new norm.

"It is good to think that when we use normative behavior we get to feel good because we join a social group," says Higgs. "If you're with a new social group, you're more likely to imitate behaviors."

Our decisions may not always be in our hands. But it also means that we can use our influence for good. "Similarly, a negative behavior can spread through a network of people, a positive one can spread through a network," says Scholz. "We have been developed to live in a group to spread positive measures and to seek approval from others

William Park is @williamhpark on Twitter Javier Hirschfeld created the artwork for this article

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