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Under the Influence

When conformity works for good

This week, I’ve asked my friend Jamil Zaki to share his tip of the week.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, my three-year-old really lays it on thick for her big sister. She wears the same clothes, reads the same books, sings the same songs, and even tries to finish her sister’s sentences. I often try to convince my younger kid to think for herself—and she often does—but recently, I stopped myself, realizing how lucky she is to have a kind, compassionate, creative big sibling to walk alongside.

Conformity gets a bad rap. It conjures up images of peer pressure and bullying, driven by our unscratchable itch to fit in. Yet there’s almost nothing more human. We are a herd species, and throughout our history, societies have succeeded by cooperating and coordinating. As such, one of our most powerful instincts is to be part of something greater than ourselves—to find where others are and join in.

Luckily, social influence can be a potent force for positive behaviors. People are more likely to vote and conserve energy when they see others around them do the same. Kindness and empathy are contagious as well. In one set of studies, my colleagues and I found that people who witnessed others donating to charity and expressing concern for others tended to follow suit. And a recent meta-study found that prosocial acts like helping and generosity spread across people.

What can you do with this information? First, remember that the people around you are part of your environment. Like the air you breathe and the food you eat, their opinions, attitudes, and actions work their way into you—so try to keep the healthiest company you can. Second, you should remember that you are someone else’s environment, and might have more power to affect them than you realize.

Don’t listen to voices just because they’re the loudest. Explain to the young people in your life that bullies and extremists take up more than their fair share of airtime, and they try to convince people that if they want to fit in, they must fall in line.

Do make kindness loud. When you elevate, celebrate, and highlight positive behaviors—in yourself and others—you also make those actions more likely to spread.

With kindness and gratitude,

Jamil Zaki, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, is the author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.