Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock
Source: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

Knowing when to assert your individuality and when to set it aside is an important social skill. We usually want to blend in with the wallpaper, so to speak, when we’re not quite sure how to behave or don’t feel like making our presence known because we're ill, sleepy, or bored. Unfortunately, it becomes very easy to go along with the group once you’re in conformity mode. New research led by Chinese Academy of Sciences psychologist Haiyan Wu and colleagues (2016) provides some indirect guidance on this topic by showing just how programmed we are to conform—meaning that we need to work that much harder to stand out.

According to Wu and her fellow researchers, the reward centers in the brain become activated when we’re influenced by others to conform, and these changes lead to permanent alterations in the areas of the brain involved in memory. The authors state, “These findings suggest a possibility that people internalize judgments and preferences of other people; and therefore, are thought to support the account of private acceptance” (p. 102). Try as you might to resist social pressures, it seems that once exposed to them, they become so integrated into your own memories that you forget having held disparate opinions. Your brain also starts screaming, metaphorically, when you disagree with group norms. It feels better to go along with the group than it does to express your contradictory views.

After reviewing 68 studies, which the authors narrowed down to 18 that met their inclusion criteria, the team concluded that “social conformity is driven” by brain regions that lead to negative feelings when deviating from the group which “not only influence people’s overt behaviors but also result in altered neural correlates of valuation” of the original opinion we disagreed with (p. 109). If they like it, in other words, you will like it too.

In a related vein, a study led by Carnegie Mellon’s Jeff Galak and associates (2016) showed that when women relocate from a lower to a higher status region, they change the height of the heels they prefer to wear to match those of women living in the new location. So, if a woman moves from Mobile, Alabama (a lower-status location) to New York City (higher in status), there is an 86 percent chance that she will ditch the flats for heels. On average, as reported in the Galak et al. paper, half the women moving from a low-status to high-status location will go from a one-inch to a three-inch heel. We don’t always conform, as the Galak study shows, but we will if we perceive a group to have higher value than the one from which we came.

Now that we know how strong the urge to conform can be, right down to the height of our heels, let’s look at how you can turn down the signals in your brain when you want to make your influence felt:

  1. Always keep your own ideas and preferences in mind. Because we tend to distort our memories to fit the group's, you want to be sure you can stick to your own story. You don’t have to write down your thoughts, just keep them at the forefront of your mind when you enter into discussions with people who you know will express beliefs or ideas contrary to your own.
     
  2. Recognize how much it hurts to disagree with others, especially when you are a very lonely minority of one. There’s no denying that it’s easier to go along with the group, and it can be painful—if not isolating—to do so. On the other hand, consider how much it hurts to give up your values when you’re being urged or coerced to go along with others who you think are leading you in the wrong direction.
     
  3. Be aware of the pull to look or behave like those whom you perceive to be of higher status than yourself. Those Jimmy Choos will harm your feet when worn on a regular basis, and even though you see everyone else prancing around in high heels, you can reassure yourself with the knowledge that you’ll be less likely to pay the price in terms of your long-term health.
     
  4. Find others who agree with you to help you feel better about yourself. That tendency to conform will often lead like-minded people to stick together. Although this can create rifts in society as a whole, on a smaller scale you can at least prevent yourself from feeling like a complete social isolate when you're a minority of one.
     
  5. Use your individuality judiciously. It’s probably not a great idea to voice disparate political, religious, or social values in situations where you know you’ll be shouted down or ostracized. It’s probably also not wise to state opinions that you know will offend someone. If a group is going to vote on a potentially divisive issue, such as when work-based committees must decide on hiring decisions, ask for a secret ballot.
     
  6. Determine when standing out from the crowd will be beneficial. If you know everyone in your group wears black to every single social event, and you’d like to be noticed, wear the color that you truly feel looks best on you.  

Going along with the crowd may be mentally reassuring, but it can be even more fulfilling to follow your own unique desires and modes of expression. As long as you do so carefully and consciously, it’s even possible you’ll motivate others to value their own individuality.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this post.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

References

Galak, J., Gray, K., Elbert, I., & Strohminger, N. (2016). Trickle-Down Preferences: Preferential Conformity to High Status Peers in Fashion Choices. Plos ONE, 11(5), 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153448

Wu, H., Luo, Y., & Feng, C. (2016). Neural signatures of social conformity: A coordinate-based activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis of functional brain imaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71101-111. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.08.038

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