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The Psychology of Conformity

Updated on June 22, 2013

Why do we have a tendency to do what everyone else is doing? Do we even realize how much we resemble sheep? We accept a lot of the things that are going on around us without really thinking about them. Christmas shopping, the laws we follow, the jobs we apply for and commit our time to are all examples of conformity. It would be hard for the United States to function without conformity.

Accepting what our teachers, family, government, the media, and religious leaders tell us is much easier than thinking for ourselves. This apathy makes compliance easier to obtain which makes us easier to manipulate. Many of us allow others to shape our thoughts and behaviors.

Our reaction to the effects of the 2009 economic collapse shows just how apathetic we really are. Why would people so readily leave their foreclosed homes that were unfairly taken from them? Why aren't college graduate angrier about the job market and underemployement? Why aren't college graduates angrier that their dedication to education is no longer valued in this country? Conformity is what makes us adapt to these lower standards of living.

Apathy is not the only negative effect of conformity. There are more devastating psychological consequences that undermine our morals and intelligence.

The Asch Experiments
The Asch Experiments

Experiments in Social Psychology

Studies on conformity have show that we are willing to hurt one another under the guidance of an authority figure and that we will even provide incorrect answers to easy questions in order to conform to a group.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment which was conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971 at Stanford University a mock prison was set up with guards and prisoners. The prisoners quickly adapted to the role of authority and were even willing to torture and humiliate their prisoners. Things escalated so quickly that the experiment was suspended before it was completed.

In the Milgram experiment conducted at Yale University in 1961 by Stanley Milgram participants were asked to apply increasing levels of electric shock to another person for wrong answers while under the supervision of the experiment conductor. The participants readily did so, even up to the most dangerous levels and even after the person being shocked started to scream in pain.

The person being shocked was actually an actor, and there were no actual shocks, but the results of the experiment are disturbing. Milgram's motivation for the experiment was to understand the Holocaust. He theorized that millions of Nazis were able to abandon their conscious and just follow orders.

In the Asch Experiments which were carried out by social psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s, participants were asked to identify which of three lines matched the length of another given line. The real participant was placed in a group of actors who at a certain point would all state the wrong answer before it was the participant's turn. Surprisingly, 30% of the time the participant conformed to the group and also stated the wrong answer.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso (1937).  Artists often rebel against conformity because they see the world more like it is and less like how the majority chooses to see it.  They try to remind us of our humanity and our basic morals when they are forgotten.
Guernica, Pablo Picasso (1937). Artists often rebel against conformity because they see the world more like it is and less like how the majority chooses to see it. They try to remind us of our humanity and our basic morals when they are forgotten.

Conformity and Culture

Many things are marketed to us today that somehow bypass our intelligence. For example the rapid spread of Facebook, which is supposed to connect people, but has been shown to make people ultimately feel less connected. We look at pictures instead of making eye contact, we go for quantity over quality of friendships, and in public we glue ourselves to the facebook app on our phones and our already established network of friends instead of making new connections.

Many prominent spokespeople have said that Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are poorly written, but they both still became extraordinarily popular because everyone wanted to see what the fuss was about. So much for Shakespeare and Emily Bronte.

Conformity and Control

Conformity is a useful tool for governments. Christianity has been used by rulers to united regions of Europe through religious beliefs. Uniting more people and territory makes a government more powerful and gives them more economic resources.

Governments use the educational system to enforce conformity. Our educational system is designed to turn students into people who can follow orders and thus become good workers who keep the economy going. Besides the actual content we're supposed to learn in school we also learn obedience. Get in line, sit down in the proper desk, write your name, answer these questions.

We also tend to receive a version of history that makes our country look like the hero and moral leader, when in actuality many things that occurred are more ambiguous.

Parson Weems' Fable, Grant Wood (1939) - Shows the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree where he admits his wrongdoing because he "cannot tell a lie."
Parson Weems' Fable, Grant Wood (1939) - Shows the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree where he admits his wrongdoing because he "cannot tell a lie."

It's time we actually started to think about what is going on around us. Are we happy with our grueling, time-consuming jobs, worshiping success and wealth, and tuning out from the real world?

Instead of apathy, we need to be thinking critically. Instead of accepting traditions, we need to be deciding what we want our country to be like.


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