Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
Parents seldom accept the excuse from their child, “But everyone else is doing it!”. But research shows that those same parents — and everyone else — take their cues for proper behavior from the actions of others in most social contexts. This peer pressure is what ethicists call the conformity bias.
Research shows that we are more likely to judge an action as moral (or immoral) if those around us judge it to be so, than if we’re deciding on our own. And we are more likely to do a moral (or immoral) act if those around us are doing it, too.
So, for example, we are more likely to speed if drivers around us are speeding and to cheat on exams if we think that other students are cheating, too. Studies show that the more common we think immoral behavior is, the more likely we are to also engage in it.
In reviewing the research on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, behavioral scientist Max Bazerman notes “‘Everybody’s doing it,’ is a remarkably common justification for unethical behavior in sports.” Cyclist Tyler Hamilton — who doped while competing in the Tour de France — said: “We didn’t think of it as cheating. It felt fair to break the rules, because we knew others were too.”
Resisting the pressure to conform can be challenging, especially if we are new to a team or an organization. We want to establish that we belong; no one wants to be relegated to the sidelines or kicked out of the club. But being on the team comes with pressure to follow the unspoken code, where Rule #1 is – no matter what – have your teammates’ backs. This can be tricky territory. While most of us value loyalty as an important virtue, it should never override our moral sense.
Sometimes, we suffer from a collective illusion where we follow what we mistakenly believe is our group’s majority view. For example, most American student-athletes want to do well academically. But they mistakenly believe that most other athletes don’t care about academics. So, to conform to what they mistakenly think is the majority view, many student-athletes act as if school doesn’t matter. This damages their academic careers, and also reinforces this collective illusion.
So it’s up to each of us to stand up for our values, and not just “go along to get along.” It won’t necessarily be easy or always feel good. As Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
Given the nature of the conformity bias, if we can find the courage to do what is right, chances are our friends will often follow our lead.