Why do People Conform?
What is conformity?
Conformity refers to a “change in one’s beliefs or behaviors as a result of real or imagined pressure from a group or individual.” Conformity encourages citizens to obey rules and follow orders to provide for a safe and orderly society. On the other hand, conformity also provides occasions such as soldiers following orders to shoot and kill. There exist several types of conformity including compliance, acceptance, and identification. Compliance refers to “behavior change in response to a direct request.” Acceptance refers to the internalization of social pressures while identification refers to adopting the values of others. Conformity seems to imply deliberate choice. However, recent research indicates that “social behavior can be activated automatically, seemingly with no conscious thought or meditation.” Such research raises questions around the unconscious nature of conformity and allows one to speculate on the difference between unconscious conformity and induced compliance or obedience.
All the Same . . .
Causes of Conformity
Group situations produce conformity. Most people do conform to social norms. People don’t often want to stand out from the crowd and get picked on or ostracized from their social community. Sometimes in a group situation it is just easier to “go along with the crowd” to avoid distinguishing yourself as “different.” If you have ever been in a group situation, it is easy to witness and see conformity in action. People tend to agree with one another and “go with the flow.”
There are classic studies on conformity such as Milgram’s obedience study in the 1960s. This study was an attempt to understand the behavior of Nazis during the Holocaust. He did an experiment to illustrate people’s willingness to obey authority and go against their own moral compass by showing how people would obey an authority figure’s orders to “shock” someone, even though the person being shocked was in clear pain and the shocker wanted to stop.
While this experiment illustrates an extreme situation, there are pressures to conform all over the place. We are influenced by a number of different factors such as our status within a group ~ if we don’t want to be at the bottom we conform, and the rewards we get from conformity as opposed to the punishments we receive from nonconformity, as well as the need for cohesion and consistency in our daily lives. We seek to create patterns of cognitive thoughts that impact our behaviors and provide us with indicators of what we should or should not do and create our knowledge of how we expect others to behave. Many incidents in which we find ourselves conforming may be unconscious and influenced by the indicators above. In these situations, we don't even realize we are conforming.
A Word about Nonconformity
Ironically, many leaders are nonconformists, and they stand out in a crowd, are the trendsetters and cause others to follow. Nonconformity is in part influenced by individual personality and the need for people to rectify any cognitive dissonance. Personality is powerful. Some people are very creative and move to the beat of their own drum. Strong personalities and a strong sense of individually may cause people to act in a nonconformist manner as they are pursuing their own passions and interests.
Others may engage in nonconformity in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to the need for people to reconcile their beliefs, ideas and emotions with their world. We align our thoughts with our behaviors and often change our views to suit our needs. For example, a person who engages in extramarital affairs may justify his behavior by magnifying the neglect he feels from his wife to reduce the cognitive dissonance that comes from guilt in order to continue his behavior. In the same manner, someone who has a very positive outlook on life may reconcile anything negative that happens as a minor bump in the road or abnormality in order to have that event not interfere with her rosy picture of the world, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance between a world view and what happened.
Dare to be You
There are many reasons why people behave in the ways that they do. Conformity and nonconformity are complex issues that we need to be aware of so that we may better assess our reasons for conformity and gain the courage to be different and separate from the pack to try something new, be a leader or set a new trend. Conformity can be dangerous when we bully others for not "fitting in" or go along with situations, behaviors and ideas that we find morally wrong in our hearts. Yet conformity can be good when it causes people to treat each other with dignity and respect.
Why not just be you? To be free means to be spiritually in touch with yourself. Get to know yourself and your beliefs and talents and have them guide you through life. Knowing what is right and correct for you is better than conforming just to please others.
Some resources I used in preparation for this article
Petri, Herbert J. & Govern, John M. (2004). Motivation: Theory, Research, and Applications. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Ridgeway, C. L. (1978). Conformity, Group-Oriented Motivation, and Status Attainment in Small Groups. Social Psychology, 41(3), 175-188.
Walthier, E., Bless, H., Strack, F., Rackstraw, P., Wagner, D., Werth, L. (2002). Conformity Effects in Memory as a Function of Group Size, Dissenters and Uncertainty. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 16, 793-810.
Meyer, D. & Anderson, H. (2000). Preadolescents and Apparel Purchasing: Conformity to Parents and Peers in the Consumer Socialization Process. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(2), 243-257.
Epley, N. & Gilovich, T. (1999). Just Going Along: Nonconscious Priming and Conformity to Social Pressure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 578-589.