That we are social animals is not up for question. In order to survive, we must stick together, form communities, and work with each other. Without teamwork, without cooperation, without a common goal, and without a mold to which we shape ourselves, civilization would not be possible, seeing as we rely on our peers to overcome obstacles and create laws, which we obey. Put simply, it is within our nature to conform–to shape together. Trends, norms, and values would not be possible were conformity to disappear from our nature. We must, however, begin to ask ourselves: just how much should we conform? How much of our individuality ought we give up to the group? Postbellum research and recent studies are beginning to show exactly how much freedom we are giving up.
In the early 20th century, psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the first experiments in social psychology. In his experiment, Sherif had three individuals in a pitch black room, with only a single light, an optical illusion known as autokinesis, which made the subjects misleadingly believe there was movement, where there was none. Sherif would then ask the subjects to conjecture how far the light moved. One by one the participants gave their own guess, each time adjusting their number according to the previous estimate. As Sherif carried this out several times, he noticed that the guess would change, yet the subjects would nevertheless change their opinion to fit in with the others. Because there was no real answer, and because they were unsure, the participants, Sherif concluded, would always look to their peers for guidance. When he did the same experiment in private, the individuals would still give the collective opinion, the group’s effect still fresh in their minds, making a permanent impression. Whenever we are approached with an abstract problem, we are disposed to conforming with the popular opinion, so as to derive confidence. A score later, Solomon Asch, skeptical of Sherif’s theoretical testing, carried out his famous Paradigm Test. With a sample of 123 participants, Asch took groups of eight, seven of them confederates, peers of Solomon with knowledge of the experiment, and one subject, who had no knowledge of what the experiment entailed. Every experiment comprised 18 tests wherein the subjects were presented with two cards, a single line on one, a set of three of different lengths on the other, but one of three matched the one on the other card. The eight participants were seated at a table, and the subject was always seated either second-to-last or last, so they could hear the confederates first. On six out of the 18 tests, the confederates were instructed to give the correct answer, and the subject did as well; however, on the final 12, the confederates purposely gave incorrect answers. Come the subject’s turn, they would surrender to peer pressure, selecting the wrong line 37% of the time, even when it was obvious. Though two-fifths does not seem substantial, it is a shockingly clear demonstration of how much we conform. Later, Asch did the same test with the same participants, this time in private. Without the confederates, the subjects answered correctly, admitting that they would have felt embarrassed had they not said what the majority had. When asked how they felt, those who answered correctly–even with the confederates–said they felt nervous and not entirely sure. “Living in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight,”¹ wrote Asch after publishing his studies.
Anyone who plays sports knows how it feels to have family and friends cheer them on in the audience. For some, they find it supportive, and it helps them focus; for others, they find it distracting, and it disrupts their performance. Psychologically, it is much more fascinating, much more complex, its effects dependent upon the circumstances. Personally, as a runner, having run in numerous competitions, I have had my fair share of passionate spectators, yelling my name, screaming words of encouragement. In sprinting, however, the moment is gone in seconds, so I never have a chance to register them. When someone’s performance is enhanced due to an audience, the psychological phenomenon is called social facilitation, a finding from experimentation done by Lee E. Travis (1925), which saw 80% of participants improve. J. Pessin, Richard W. Husband, and Robert Zajonc, in the 1930’s and mid 1960’s, respectively, found that social facilitation occurs only when an individual has mastered a specific skill, meaning it is harder to learn or practice a new skill in front of an audience than it is a learned one. In accord with the latter of the three, Edward E. Jones and H.B. Gerard (1967) believed this was a result of arousal, stating that an audience acts as a stimulus, but that it also places more stress on the performer, greatly distracting them from their task at hand. Nickolas B. Cottrell, Dennis L. Wack, Gary J. Selerack, Robert H. Rittle, Thomas Henchy, and David C. Glass (1968) conducted their own tests, claiming instead that this phenomenon occurred as a result of apprehension regarding evaluation. They found that not only did subjects who were blindfolded do worse but that those who were told an audience would not be evaluating them did worse as well; contrariwise, if they were told they would be evaluated afterward, they did better. Further research from Alan E. Gross, B.S. Riemer, and Barry E. Collins (1973) supported this, adding that the audience’s perception, positive or negative, affected their confidence, too. Were the audience to provide encouraging feedback, all the while watching, the performer felt more confident, more optimistic, whereas those given discouraging feedback exhibited lower confidence. What all of these studies show is that the individual is driven by two factors: the need to be evaluated and watched and the need for a positive self-image. In other words, we care a lot about how we are perceived by others.
Conformity is a “change in behavior or belief toward a group as a result of real or imagined group pressure,”² wrote Charles and Sara Kiesler (1969). While it is helpful to know what conformity is and how it occurs, it is important to know why it occurs, why we conform. David P. Crutchfield (1955) stated that when confronted with conformity, an individual can choose to conform, individuate, or anti-conform. The first option, of course, means doing whatever the group is doing, joining in; the second allows the individual to be himself, to do whatever he wants, regardless of the group’s desires; the third and final option is dissent, an act of rebellion, where the individual does the opposite of what the group does. Interestingly, this can be a paradox: are anti-conformists being true individuals, or are they simply conforming to non-conforming? A triangle is used to represent the three choices, with independence at a different point, as it is on a different plane than the others. Richard H. Willis (1965), on the other hand, thought there were four choices: independence, variability, conformity, and anti-conformity. Using a diamond, Willis suggested measuring an individual’s decisions by moving along the axis, vertically and horizontally, accordingly. Now that we have a solid layout of how we may choose what to do, the question of why we may decide to join a group still remains. Once again there are three core ideas: attractiveness, competence, and status. When speaking of attractiveness, psychologists refer not to the physical attraction we desire but to the power of something to attract, namely the group in question. A group’s attractiveness can be calculated by how cohesive it is, how united its members are, how it functions as a team. Obviously a unanimous vote correlates to a stronger attractiveness, as in Sherif’s autokinetic experiment, when participants would go with the collective answer. In Asch’s experiment, if six of the confederates gave a wrong answer and the last one gave a completely different one, then the subject would be more willing to give their own answer, the reason being that the group’s coherence was not as powerful. Thus, the bigger the group and the more cogent it is, the higher the probability of conforming. The second and third factors, competence and status, deal with how experienced a group or its members are and where they are placed, socially. Those with lower confidence are more likely to conform, for they rely on more intelligent, more skilled individuals whom they look up to as a leader. Usually a single person will be considered the leader by the rest of the group, a strong-willed person, one with experience, one with knowledge, one considered “higher” in ranking. It is easy to understand, evidently, why minorities are easily exploited, especially by demagogues, who will take up the guise of a leader, who will take advantage of the masses, moving them with their words, molding them–and the people almost always willingly listen to them, so they conform. One needs not look farther than Hitler or Stalin, who used their enticing, volatile propaganda to convince an entire people to conform, to not ask questions, to listen to the majority opinion. Occasionally the leader will be put under pressure, inasmuch as they are forced to make all the decisions. With the people’s faith, it is incumbent upon the leader to do the right thing, and everyone will follow. Conformists seek approval; they seek acceptance. Adolescents are predisposed toward conformity, since it is at that time that they begin to find who they are they are, so they seek identity in others. Teenagers will go out of their ways to be someone they are not so as to elicit their approval, to feel like “one of the cool kids.”
In conclusion, conformity is natural, an inherent tendency at birth, a need to feel belonging, to feel like a part of something greater than oneself, to be a community. Not a day goes by that we must choose to conform, to be independent, or to anti-conform. Every day bears a new choice, a new opportunity to choose whom you will follow, whom you will lead, whom you will become. The bottom line is, you have to conform in one way or another, but just how much you conform is up to you.
¹Pickren, The Psychology Book, p. 320
²Tedeschi, Social Psychology, p. 547
For further reading: 1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
The Psychology Book by Catherine Collin (2012)
The Psychology Book by Wade Pickren (2014)
Social Psychology by James Tedeschi (1976)