Conformity behavior during a fire disaster
Qi Duo and Huizhang Shen (Shanghai Jiao Tong University), Jidi Zhao (East China Normal University), Xiaomin Gong (Shanghai Jiao Tong University), 2016, 44(2), 313–324.

The bushfires raging through a significant portion of our neighboring country, Australia, in summer of 2019/2020 received heavy media coverage in New Zealand, especially the heroic actions of firefighting crews. Seeing the footage of them working together to contain the fires reminded me of an article we had published a few years ago about how people react to a fire incident. In this article Duo, Shen, Zhao, and Gong examined which actions people choose to take when confronted by a fire, and what circumstances promote conformity behavior in this type of emergency situation.

The participants watched one of two videos, the first of which showed a fire emergency situation, and the second a nonemergency situation. After viewing the video, participants chose from a series of response options to show how they thought they would react if they were in the viewed situation. Some were given two and others four response options. When the participants had made their choice, conformity behavior was manipulated by telling the participants “The option you chose has been selected by zero other participants and the option you did not choose has been selected by five other participants.” They could then choose to maintain their original response (nonconformity) or to change to a different response (conformity).

As the authors had predicted, participants in the fire emergency group were more likely than those in the nonemergency group to change their mind about their initial response, thus displaying conformity behavior. However, the likelihood of conformity differed between the groups who were given two versus four response options: those with fewer options were more likely to change their minds and conform to the action chosen by the fictitious rest of the group. Duo et al. interpreted these results as indicating that having more options (i.e., more information about the situation) may lead people to rely on their own instincts, rather than following the group’s lead.

Following the group’s lead can be an adaptive behavior that increases the chances of individuals’ survival in emergency situations. However, it is not always the best decision to disregard your instincts and follow the group’s lead. Results such as those presented in this study may assist with understanding the conditions that promote optimal individual decision making in group contexts.

Sarah Krivan | Copyeditor
Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal