Highly agreeable people want to get along with everyone, so they tend to be conformists, whether with respect to peer-group opinions, fashions, or product choices. Conversely, anti-conformity can signal dominance, assertiveness, and low agreeableness.
To test the idea that people use conformity strategically to signal agreeableness, Vladas Griskevicius and his colleagues ran another “mating prime” study. They expected a sex difference, because women have a stronger preference than men do for mates who display assertiveness, dominance, leadership, and risk taking. So, mating primed males may try to display these lower-agreeableness traits through conspicuous anti-conformity by resisting and rebelling against peer influence. On the other hand, mating-primed females may try to display their higher-agreeableness traits (kindness, empathy, social networking ability) through conspicuous conformity to peer influence.
Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three priming conditions. In the mating-prime condition, they read a romantically arousing story about being on a vacation with friends, meeting and spending the day with a highly desirable person of the opposite sex, and kissing passionately on a moonlit beach. In the “threat prime,” they read a frightening story about an intruder breaking and entering when they were home alone at night. In the “neutral prime,” they read a happy story about going to a much-anticipated live music event with a same-sex friend. After experiencing one of these primes, the subjects were shown various artistic images. They were told that all three of their peers gave either positive or negative ratings to each of the images, and then they gave their own ratings. Their level of agreement with the peers indicated their degree of conformity.
As predicted Griskevicius found that mating-primed men showed less conformity than in the threat or neutral conditions, whereas mating-primed women showed more conformity. These mating-prime effects were modulated an a fascinating way by the direction of the peer evaluations. If all the peers rated a particular artistic image positively, mating-primed men showed neither conformity nor anti-conformity; they just followed their previously measured aesthetic tastes. But if all the peers rated a particular artistic image negatively, mating-primed men showed strong anti-conformity (and thus higher openness) by rating the image much more positively. However, mating-primed women showed stronger conformity if all their female peers rated the artistic image positively, and neither conformity nor anti-conformity if their peers rated the image negatively. It looks as though each sex wants to act “positive” in their aesthetic ratings, but the males prefer to act positive most strongly when all the other males act negative, whereas the females prefer to act positive most strongly when all the other females are also positive. Conformity interacts with positivity in the strategic signaling of this personality trait. (By contrast, the threat prime concerning the home intruder led both sexes equally to show higher conformity in their ratings of the artisit images, as if a self-protection motive were favoring group-mindedness.)
In a follow-up study, Griskevicius discovered a further nuance in human self-presentation: the sex-specific effects of the mating prime on conformity are influenced by whether a person’s judgment concerns subjective taste or objective fact. Mating-primed males show especially strong nonconformity when they make subjective judgments about which consumer product they would prefer (a Mercedes or BMW luxury car, a Ferrari or Lamborghini sports car), but they switch to showing very high conformity when they are asked objective knowledge questions (is it more expensive to live in New York or San Francisco? Which airline has more on-time arrivals, Southwest or America West?). So mating-primed men want to stand out from the crown when it comes to having distinctive taste, but they rely on peer opinion to avoid factual errors. On the other hand, mating primed females show strong conformity when making the subjective judgments, but they show neither conformity nor anti-conformity when answering the objective questions.
Thus, men seem especially keen to show off their assertiveness and independence through their anti-conformity when they want to impress a woman, as long as the anti-conformity doesn’t make them look more negative and closed-minded than their rivals, and doesn’t lead them to make an embarrassing factual error. Women are keen to show off their agreeableness through conformity when they want to impress a man, especially when they’re conforming to a positive, open-minded judgment. At least in these experiments, women were less influenced than men by peer opinion when answering factual questions.