18 Sep 2018
New research explains tendency to look to others for social cues
New research explains why where we grow up drives the degree to which we look to others for affiliation, self-esteem and cues about what to think, and how to feel and behave.
The research, ‘The culture of social comparison’ by Dr Matthew Baldwin, Social Cognition Center Cologne, University of Cologne, and Thomas Mussweiler, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School, is published by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) and finds that societal culture is a major factor.
People living in ‘tight’ cultures with very clear social norms and harsh punishments for deviation are more likely to compare themselves with peers as a benchmark for how they should think, feel and behave, than those living in ‘loose’ cultures where behaviour is not so tightly regulated and sanctioned.
Baldwin and Mussweiler explain: “Have you ever glanced around a new office to see how your colleagues dress? You might be inspired by expensive suits and dresses, or maybe you feel a touch of jealousy.
“The fundamental human tendency to look to others for social cues about what to think, and how to feel and behave, can give rise to a range of emotions. But it has also enabled humankind to thrive in a highly complex and increasingly interconnected, social world. We now understand much more about what drives that tendency.
“We surveyed approximately 1,000 people. The results showed that in socially tight situations like the first day in a new office or a job interview, there is a strong driver to know, and to mimic, what others do.”
The authors also used search frequency big data from Google Correlate among their methods to tap into billions of web pages, searched by hundreds of millions of individuals over a period of several years.
Taking the United States as an example, they downloaded search frequencies for a variety of emotion words that indicate social comparison such as ‘jealous’ and ‘pride’. The result? The more culturally tight the state – Mississippi and Texas are good examples – the greater the propensity to search for social comparison emotions. In comparatively ‘loose’ states like California where behaviour is less regulated, people are significantly less driven to look to their peers for social cues.
While the data does not directly address tight versus loose cultures within industry, the results suggest that the tendency toward social comparison might also be greater in companies with tight cultures and a high degree of regulation and conformity.