Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Cost of Conformity

A few days ago I was reminded of how uncomfortable practicing nonconformity can be. In a professional group of adults that I attended, participants were asked to share very personal information with the group. As I did not feel like sharing anything personal, nor did I know the group members very well, I decided to go rogue and announced I won’t be participating in this activity. I was surprised to find out that I was the only person who went against the expectation of the group, even though I would not be surprised if many of the people wanted to do the same. I have to admit that being the only person in the group who did not conform was anxiety provoking and I did not like the feeling of being singled out. This situation triggered some thoughts about conformity and its function in our lives and evoked some questions that I am trying to answer in this post. Why do we avoid standing out even at the cost of compromising our own values and beliefs? Why do we fear being different? And why is the fear of being different so often greater than the need to speak one’s truth or stand up for what one believes is right?

Conformity- The Default Mode

As social creatures, to a large degree, we are socialized to become conformists. Harmony and peace in social groups are invaluable and we are taught (women probably even more so than men) to keep the status quo and not to stand out. Each culture has its own expectations and obligations and conformity ensures we obey by them. Conformity comes easy and it does not require much energy or effort to practice (unlike nonconformity and going against the flow). Conformity, in a sense, is our default mode, while nonconformity requires critical thinking. That doesn’t mean that all nonconformistic behaviors are an outcome of critical thinking. To me, rejecting all the rules for the sake of being different and original does not have much value either. Standing up against the status quo only makes sense if it is purposeful and meaningful and if it involves standing up for oneself, others, or a value(s). I think the author Steven Brust hits the quintessence of what thoughtful nonconformity looks like: “To seek understanding before taking action, yet to trust my instincts when action is called for. Never to avoid danger from fear, never to seek out danger for its own sake. Never to conform to fashion from fear of eccentricity, never to be eccentric from fear of conformity.” Great philosophy to live by, isn’t it? Meaningful nonconformity does not come easily and requires effort. It also comes with a price: sometimes it’s a price of losing a friend or becoming a social outcast, in some extreme situations it may cost a person their life. But it also initiates positive change - whether it’s a change in your own life, the life of the community or the society - these changes are worth the risks.


Conformity and Good Manners

As mentioned above, living in a society requires a high level of conformity that we are all socialized to. Most of us follow multiple sets of rules that we don’t necessarily agree with or feel enthusiastic about (e.g. following traffic signs, waiting in line, paying parking tickets, or paying the bills). There are also multiple social rules that we follow that allow us to function fairly harmoniously in the community and broader society. We try not to talk when our interlocutor is speaking, we give people compliments (even though they are not always sincere), we laugh at people’s jokes (even if we don’t always find them funny), and we try to be polite to others even if we don’t like them. There is some overlap between conformity and good manners. Both conformity and good manners may serve the same purpose: to stay connected with others - a goal that evolutionarily speaking is one of the top ones on a human’s list of priorities. Sometimes in the name of good manners we are willing to ignore little frustrating things and keep smiling even though inside we’re furious. But in general, good manners are there to avoid offending or hurting others which in of itself is a positive goal to strive for. 

Conformity, on the other hand, can be much more dangerous. Conformity can prevent us from critical thinking and make us compromise our values. Solomon Asch’s simple and elegant experiment on conformity from the 1950's demonstrates very well the degree to which people’s opinions are influenced by those of the majority. It was a simple study in which participants were asked to visually evaluate and match lines of the same length. Even though the task was very easy, most participants decided to go against their opinion when the majority of people were consistently giving the same wrong answers. (To learn more go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asch_conformity_experiments). One of the participants who decided not to go with the flow remarked, “Damn it, why do I always have to go against the flow?!” Do you know this feeling? This is exactly how I felt when I was going against the group, even though I knew I had to do it in order to respect my own needs. Asch discovered that people who face strong group consensus on something, even if they disagree with the bias, often decide to conform to the majority.

The Price of Conformity

Conformity in many cases is fear-based. It is hard to go against the tide. It is hard to speak up against the majority. It is hard to be different. It may be difficult enough to speak up against a professor’s opinion in front of the class, not to mention speaking up against racism or homophobia or other discriminative and hateful comments and attitudes in one’s group of friends or family members. However, it is important to create a balance of costs and benefits of conforming to the majority. By conforming to the “norms” we gain people’s acceptance and possibly a superficial peace, but at the same time, we may be jeopardizing our integrity, peace of conscience, and values. This sounds like an incredibly high price to pay. According to feminist Rita Mae Brown, “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.” 

I remember many of the moments in my life when I decided to conform; they all stick with me as a painful reminder that compromising one’s integrity has too high of price to pay for a moment of peace. The closing quote is from a man who was not afraid to go against the tide. “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted (…) but there are some things in our world to which men of goodwill must be maladjusted.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.



Note: I purposely avoided using the term “conformist” in regards to people who behave in a conformistic way. As mentioned earlier, we all conform to certain rules as part of society (there are very few people who don’t conform to any social rules and we usually refer to them as “psychopaths”), so we all can be called conformists to a degree. I don’t like to think of conformity as a trait, but rather as a choice that we are asked to make multiple times in our lives.


What do you think about conformity?  Please post your thoughts in the comment section below.

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