Herd Mentality: How Easily Can Your Friends Sabotage Your Fitness Plan?

Imagine that I sit you in a room with a small group of your peers. On one wall there is projector that clearly displays a red rectangle. It’s obviously red, not one of those blue dress-white dress illusions.  

You are given a simple task: Indicate the color of the rectangle being projected onto the wall. (This is an example of a similar psychology study conducted by Solomon Asch in 1958.) Seems simple enough. It’s clearly red, even a small child could get this question right. 

How easily do you think you could be brought to doubt whether the color on the wall is, in fact, red? Doesn’t seem possible, right? 

This very same question was given to a group of students as part of a research experiment studying group conformity, and the results might surprise you. In both versions of this study, the participant was put in a classroom with a handful of peers, all of whom were paid research assistants—except the participant. Everyone in the room was asked to share what they thought the color was, one by one in front of the group. 

In the first version of the study, the unknowing participant answered first. In the second version the participant answered last. Here’s the kicker: All of the other group members (research assistants) were instructed to answer the question wrong, indicating that the color was orange instead of red.

Want to guess what happened to the response of the unwitting participant? 

When the participant answered first they chose the correct answer 100% of the time. Even when the other group members answered with a different color, they stuck to their guns that the rectangle was clearly red. However, when the participant was the last person to give an answer, after hearing the answers of all the other group members, 75% of participants went along with the group—questioning their own eyes and changing their answer to orange. They knew the color was red when they first entered the room, so what happened?

The herd mentality is a phenomenon where individuals have the tendency to follow the consensus of the group they’re in—even if the group might be wrong

There are a number of possible explanations for this effect. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to follow the group consensus. The group has a larger body of information, and when they fall into agreement it’s natural for us to think we’re missing a key piece of information. If that missing information were the presence of a predator, well, that’d be pretty important to pick up on.

Think back to a time when you made a stupid decision. Maybe you did something risky or participated in an activity that was completely abnormal from what you’d normally have done. How many other people were there? Chances are, you decided to go against your better judgment because you were influenced by the group of people you were with. (Remember all those “above the influence” peer pressure commercials?) 

Asch found that this herd mentality could take effect in large groups of fifteen or more people, but also in groups of as few as three or four people.

While the understanding of this effect is important for general life decisions you might make in a group setting, we’re really focused on how this can affect choices relevant to your eating and exercise habits.  

Imagine you’re out to eat with friends. You know you need to make a healthy choice, but everyone else at the table is indulging in their favorite dishes. This is exactly the type of scenario where you’re more likely to throw your plan away and indulge unexpectedly. If the influence of your group can wreck your plan to choose a healthier alternative from the menu, are you doomed for failure at every social gathering?

Not quite. In his research, Asch described two scenarios in which the herd mentality loses its affect: 

1) The participant voiced his/her opinion before the rest of the group 

2) The participant had an ally in the group, even just one other person who agreed with their original answer. 

Remember, in the first version of the study, the participant answered red before they had the chance to hear the opinions of the group. In this scenario, they stuck to their original response despite the group consensus against their response.  It seems that ordering your healthy entrée before you hear the choices of the rest of the group can help you stick to your healthier plan. 

This happened to me when visiting a breakfast spot for a nice weekend meal with a group of close friends. I had planned a nice healthy breakfast at this particular restaurant; an egg-white omelet packed with veggies, a little extra protein, and a side of fresh tomatoes instead of toast or hash browns. As soon as our waitress arrived to take our order, I jumped at the opportunity to go first. Good thing too, considering the others in my group ordered decadent red velvet pancakes, fried chicken and waffles, and stuffed French toast as their breakfast choice. 

All that went through my mind was how badly I wanted all of those entrees except the one I ordered, how delicious they all sounded. Fortunately, because my order was already in, changing it would have required me stopping the waitress and undoing what was already done—requiring more effort than the new default choice to stick with my original plan. Ordering first also afforded me freedom from having to fight my inner demons while ordering my healthy meal. 

When eating out with a group, be the first person to order your entrée. 

Additionally, Asch found that having just one ally in the group (someone who agrees with you) is enough to shake the inclination to question your response and fall into the group consensus.  Having just one other health-conscious friend can be enough to help you avoid unplanned indulgences at social gatherings. 

While on a long weekend getaway trip with a group of friends, I was deliberating between getting a burger or a salad for lunch at the pool restaurant. I knew the salad was a lighter, healthier option (and would afford me more calories to spend on dinner), but the burger also sounded amazing. It soon became clear that many of my other friends were content on getting the specialty burger that this restaurant was known for. 

All except for one individual who, like me, was thinking about the calorie balance for the day. They too agreed that a salad now would afford them the ability to indulge at dinner—when the food was likely to be even better. Simply knowing that they were also planning to get a salad immediately made it easier for me to order a salad too, avoiding a potential caloric catastrophe for the day. 

Having just one other person go against the group drastically increases your chances of sticking to your guns. 

The herd mentality became a strategy for individuals to survive and be quickly accepted into larger social groups. Furthermore, we will believe the consensus of the group even at the expense of contradicting what we believe to be true. This phenomenon can occur in groups as small as three or four individuals, encompassing even the most tight-knit of friend groups. In the context of fitness, this can lead us to stray from our desired healthy choices by giving into the influence of the group. However, we can combat this influence by voicing our opinions first, and by recruiting an ally who agrees with us. Armed with these two strategies, you now have a chance to stand your ground against the influencing force of the herd mentality—enabling you to see more progress and lose more weight. 

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