Post No.: 0378
Conformity to social norms as a result of social pressures, or feeling embarrassed if one is not following one’s group, is largely important because humans are social animals and need to socially coexist. If people didn’t follow the social rules then there’d be chaos and civilisation wouldn’t be possible; just like driving on the roads would be chaos if people didn’t follow the rules. Everyone would find it harder to trust each other, employers couldn’t trust their employees, etc.. So some level of obedience is important.
Game theory can help highlight the optimal equilibrium between obedience and rebellion within a group, and, although it depends highly on the context, it generally finds that obedience should be broadly common and rebellion should be present in smaller amounts, otherwise the group will fall into disarray or divide through a lack of cooperation. Feeling embarrassed or awkward when requesting or doing something that’s socially unusual is important and evolved as a common emotion for a purpose.
But sometimes this instinct to obey can be exploited, and not everything that’s socially normal within a current culture may be morally right, hence both our instincts and the social norms or traditions we currently follow in society should be occasionally questioned or challenged. Indeed, when we look historically, we can identify attitudes and behaviours that were considered socially normal and acceptable at the time that we would or should find objectionable today, such as gender inequality or racial discrimination. Social norms have evolved over time, and they will continue to evolve and refine, thus it’d be conceited to think that one’s own generation has gotten everything perfect for all time (if perfect exists).
‘Conformity’ is giving in to the herd due to real or imagined social pressures. Most people feel safe within the herd and go with the crowd in fear of being isolated, thus there are both push and pull factors. Social animals are more vulnerable alone (humans aren’t like e.g. snakes). There’s a heuristic that ‘lots of people cannot be wrong’ if one is unsure of what to do. Children copy because that’s a key way to learn. We copy those who seem successful in the hope that we’ll emulate their success. And copying our peers signals our ingroup identity and affiliation against competing outgroups.
Social coercion/pressure is why it’s rare to find people standing apart from the pack. A normative influence is when a person internally maintains his/her own private view about what he/she thinks is correct but externally expresses an answer that conforms in order to avoid ridicule, social censure or ostracism from the rest of his/her group. An informational influence is when a person isn’t sure about what the correct response is so he/she looks to the rest of the group for the correct or ‘correct’ answer.
Some people succumb to conforming with the rest of the group they’re in straight away even if they think the rest of the group is wrong – even very clearly wrong (in lab experiments at least e.g. the Solomon Asch conformity experiments, where a decent percentage of people will yield to a majority opinion even with a very simple perceptual task of matching line lengths on cards) and when there’s no obvious pressure or payoff to conform. But most people begin by defying the group if they internally disagree with the group but over time find it harder and harder to resist the social pressure to conform, and eventually their resolve (and maybe even morale) crumbles and they end up also following the group in the end.
It happens all too often and easily, whether it’s something large like fashion trends or sociolinguistic accents, or something small like a standing ovation or ‘Mexican’ wave. And we all do it more often than we think we do – it’s the circumstances we’re in that affect our decisions and behaviours, not just our individual personalities or dispositions. It’s the situation that can make people say or do things that they wouldn’t have had they been in a different situation. This is hardly to say that people are infinitely gullible in following the crowd or that situational factors hold complete power to produce conformity, but situational factors and peers do have an influence on our attitudes and behaviours that we mustn’t ignore or deny. It’s one’s personality in combination with one’s environment or experiences, not just one or the other. So parents are generally right to be wary about the types of crowds their children are hanging around with (as well as wary that maybe it’s their own child who’s the bad influence on others(!))
It can take just two or three other people to elicit a group conformity effect. However, if there’s already someone else present who defies the group (i.e. there’s no longer unanimity amongst the rest of the group) then it’ll dramatically relieve the social pressure, and people with minority views will find it easier to defy the majority. There’s a greater tendency to conform with a unanimous group of three than a majority of eight with one dissenter; so there’s more chance of at least one other person dissenting in a larger group compared to a smaller group, as long as the members have been randomly or diversely selected.
So when there’s non-unanimity amongst the rest of a group, the tendency for an individual to conform to this group drops dramatically. Even if only one other person dissents and the rest of the group expresses different views – none of which the last person to express a view agrees with – this last person will find it easier to express his/her own view as long as there’s a non-unanimity of views with the rest of the group (e.g. in a group of 10 people, if 8 people express opinion A and 1 person expresses opinion B, the remaining person will find it easier to express opinion C if that’s the view he/she truly holds).
Conformity is much stronger when the majority is made up of ingroup members or peers (e.g. a teenager will find it easier to not follow a group of senior citizens but will find it harder to not follow other fellow teenagers). This is the enormous value of diversity again. Women tend to conform more than men; perhaps because they tend to prefer more harmony than confrontation, for better or worse depending on the context. Collectivist cultures achieve the greatest conformity effects.
Now is uniqueness good or selfish/deviant? And are ‘non-conformists’ really non-conforming when they ‘non-conform’ in quite conformist ways? For example, getting a tattoo to show how ‘rebellious’ and ‘individual’ one is, when really one is merely following a different crowd and trend. Would having no tattoos be more rebellious or independent, or be considered a rebellion against rebellion(?!) How can anyone do rebellion or independence in a ‘wrong’ way – as if there’s a ‘right’ way people must follow and adhere to?! Protestors who wear ‘Guy Fawkes’ masks aren’t standing individually against an establishment but signalling that they belong to an alternative group, but a group nonetheless.
Our values are shaped by social conformity, the places we like to hang out and the company we like to keep, who tend to be those who believe in similar things as we do, hence reinforcing and revalidating our ingroup biases from the narrow/non-complete set of views and information we’re being selectively exposed to (e.g. our attendances to certain places of worship, our memberships to exclusive clubs, the social media accounts we follow online or other echo chambers).
Repeated assertions by members of a group we follow is how a spurious claim can become a strong and unquestioned belief within that group; independent of the strength or weakness of empirical data (e.g. religious beliefs, prejudiced stereotypes, mythical anecdotes, urban legends, old wives’ tales and alternative medicines – which can all perpetuate from generation to generation within a culture too). Most people think they’re being independent-minded but unconsciously are and have been unavoidably socially and culturally influenced right from birth, and we don’t truly know any differently than the one life we’ve personally experienced, which will only be merely one of a vast number of all the possible lives and experiences there could be. We pride ourselves on thinking we’re independent-minded and not influenced by the herd. We consider ourselves rational and only make decisions based on reasoned assessments that we never actually undertook!
Most people can internally hold objections to the majority, but at the point of decision end up following the herd nevertheless. Some people actively try their best to conform to feel ‘normal’ because they think that being different or ‘abnormal’ is a sign of some general deficiency in themselves, which they must socially hide at all costs. Blind deference to authority and herd behaviours can also occur when we uncritically follow celebrities or brands too, as well as to regular authority figures… or even just anyone in a hi-vis jacket carrying a clipboard!
People severely underestimate how much they’ll follow authority figures. People will frequently object to the orders they’re given if they disagree with them, yet the first thing they’ll do is look towards an authority figure for guidance, and they may even laugh in disbelief of the situation or use other coping gestures, yet they’ll still ultimately follow through with the orders given to them by the authority figure – to even cause harm unto others. Most people think they’ll never ever commit heinous acts, but they’ll never truly know for sure until/unless they’ve been in particular situations. When people defer to a higher authority, such as a charismatic leader or ‘God’s will’, then they might bypass their own personal moral compass and commit heinous acts.
In the Stanley Milgram experiments on obedience to authority, factors that generated the greatest obedience in subjects to administer harm and the least compassion with their victims were the emotional distance to the victims (if a victim cannot be seen, is remote, depersonalised or dehumanised e.g. remote drone strikes versus killing face-to-face) and if complaints or dissension are blocked out (e.g. via filter bubbles). Yet there was still considerable obedience even when there was direct contact with the victims (when forcing the victims’ hands onto a shock plate).
Other key factors were the authority’s closeness and legitimacy (physical closeness increases obedience rates e.g. physically touching a person in an appropriate manner can make that person more likely to sign a petition, lend a coin or try a sample of something); especially (although not always necessarily) if the authority was considered part of a respected institution (if a proxy to the authority figure is used then obedience reduces – this is the plight of substitute teachers!) Hypnosis and suggestibility utilises some of these factors – ‘mentalist’ entertainers who look to quickly get people under a state of hypnosis tend to physically handle their subjects a lot and of course present themselves as having the skills and expertise to hypnotise.
But again, there’s the liberating effects of a disobedient fellow participant – if we spot another person disobeying orders then we’ll find it far easier to disobey too. The lesson is that we should be brave and heroic enough to be the first to stand apart in any situation that we internally disagree with. This might bring personal costs such as social ostracism from a group, but we might eventually find that others see things from our view too. Woof!
To recap, it’s not to say that conformity is always bad – indeed, most people freely choose to conform even without coercion, and from an evolutionary biology perspective, when we see that most people prefer to conform then it suggests that it is, or at least was, a generally successful instinct. Without any conformity there’d be social chaos, but instincts can sometimes fail or be exploited. It’s also very easy as observers to say, “I would’ve risked my own life and my family to resist.”