The philosopher Hannah Arendt famously argued that the atrocities of the Holocaust were not caused by psychopaths but by ordinary people placed under extraordinary pressure to conform. Since then we have learned that the pressure need not be extraordinary at all. In fact, it may not be experienced as pressure, but as relief. Human beings are herd animals. We survive only in highly coordinated groups. Individually, we are designed to pick up social cues, coordinate and align our behavior with those around us. Recent research has shown that social disapproval provokes the brain's danger circuits. Conformity soothes.
In my class I sometimes do the following demonstration: I ask two student volunteers to step outside. I tell the remaining students in the class that their task is to avoid all contact and interaction with the volunteers. I promise them points on the next test if they succeed. I then instruct the two waiting outside that their task is to do all they can to engage the class members in any sort of interaction. I then usher them back inside. After they spend several painful minutes failing to elicit any response from their peers, I declare the demonstration over. I ask the two volunteers how they felt. Terrible, they say. Embarrassed, rejected. Then I ask the remaining students to guess the demonstration's purpose. They usually guess it was designed to show the difficulties of being an outsider, a social reject. But the point is actually the opposite: to show how easy and automatic it is to conform.
"None of you refused to follow my instructions," I say. "You just spent 10 minutes treating two innocent fellow students miserably and none of you stood up and said: ‘Shove your quiz points. I'm not going to treat my peers badly for no reason.'"
We are often not even aware when we are conforming. It is our home base, our default mode.
To keep ourselves in the warm confines of conformity, we rely on two independent yet related types of social cues. First, we look to others for information about what's going on (informational cues). Second, we look for others to see what to do about it (normative cues). We start to seek out these cues early. As the notion of self crystallizes in the second year of life, the child begins the effort to align the self socially. An infant who falls down looks up to the parents to gauge whether to cry. If mom reacts in fear, tears will follow. If the mother laughs and reassures--no tears. This early attentiveness to informational cues is called ‘social referencing.' Shortly after, the child also begins to align their behavior with those of the group by conforming to expectations to share, wait, or not hit (picking up on normative cues).
A classic study from the 30s by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif illustrated the dynamics of informational influence. Taking advantage of the autokinetic effect--the fact that a dot of light in a dark room appears to the eye to be moving--Sherif placed subjects in a dark room and told them to watch a tiny dot of light and report how far it moved. People who watched the dot alone made their own judgment--usually between 2 and 6 inches. Asked to repeat the task in groups and consult amongst themselves, they compromised. People who made individual judgments between 2 and 6 inches as a group compromised at around 4 inches. When Sherif asked subjects directly if they were influenced by others' judgments, most denied it. Later, when subjects were tested one at a time, most now conformed to the group judgment they had recently made. Informational cues are internalized as private acceptance.
So we use others to figure out what's going on. This can be a very good thing. Consultation, compromise, education, and information exchange are the levers of civilization. Cumulative data from the many can solve bigger problems, just like the cumulative physical effort can move heavier obstacles.
Informational cues, however, can also mislead us. Two quite random examples will illustrate: The 1938 Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast about an alien invasion led to panic because many people who missed the beginning of the broadcast turned to each other to find out what was going on, misinforming each other. A recent stampede on a bridge in Cambodia that resulted in more than 350 deaths was blamed on the fact that many of the rural people present did not know it is normal for a hanging bridge to sway slightly. Throughout history, bad information gleaned from ill informed, deluded, or malevolent others has been responsible for many a military, financial and personal calamity.
Normative influences work because we depend on social acceptance to survive and thrive. In a classic 50s study, psychologist Solomon Asch told student participants they were to take a vision test. Participants in small groups were required to compare the length of lines. All the participants except one, however, were confederates who at some point began giving wrong answers. Overall, roughly 3/4 of the naïve subjects complied, adjusting their public judgment to conform to the group even though in their individual notes they indicated the right answer consistently. We use normative cues, in other words, to help us gain public acceptance.
Asch's work showed that people are reluctant to break with group norm even if the group is small, ad hoc, and made of complete strangers. But normative cues tend to be even more potent when they come from people whose friendship, love, and esteem we value. Looking inward, such tightly bonded groups exert a more powerful influence. Thus, if you want to know whether your child smokes pot, ask yourself whether her friends do. If they do, she does too, regardless of the values you've taught her. Looking outward, tight groups of friends will often make a decision that is bad for addressing the external situation because they seek to maintain internal cohesion.
So conformity is a part of our hardware, facilitating our survival and bringing us comfort. On the other hand, as Hannah Arendt recognized, the tendency has been responsible for much human misery. One could argue, particularly if one is steeped in the American ethos of ‘rugged individualism,' that the answer to group conformity gone awry is found in acts of individual nonconformity. But that is incorrect.
For humans, both the problem and the solution are group-based. The group is the source of both conformity and rebellion. The dual system of informational and normative cues explains how social conformity spreads as the two types of cues converge (informational cues relay the messages and normative cues insure compliance). But that dual system also explains social change over time as the cues diverge. Normative cues keep the majority opinion in power through public acceptance, while contradictory, informational cues, affecting private acceptance, may spread stealthily in the cultural underground until they gather sufficient momentum to rise and upend the old order.
In fact, effective nonconformity is in itself a group phenomenon. Psychological research from Asch's to Milgram's has shown time and again that, quite ironically, the presence of allies is the best predictor of nonconformist behavior. Our individual courage is a manifestation of group convictions and affiliations. The visible courageous individual is but the tip of a social iceberg. When you go against the group, you do it not on your own, but in the name--and with the backing--of another group. In other words, we can't avoid conformity. What we can do is raise our own consciousness and become more aware of conformity cues. Then we can try to find good information and the right allies who will help protect us from ourselves.