Cows ©  Katy Walker / wikimedia commons

I confess I'm biased. I get very irritated by mindless conformity, even about silly, inconsequential things. I find it exasperating, for instance, when people can’t decide for themselves if a song is beautiful or a person attractive.

But perhaps I’m affected more than I know. There’s reason to think that we are designed to conform, that our ancestors evolved a sensitivity to social cues and a tendency to adopt group norms.

Sometimes the majority’s got practical information to share – information that is objectively helpful, like how to catch a fish or prevent infection.

In other cases, group norms are arbitrary, but useful when everyone agrees on them. It doesn’t matter which side of the street we drive on, as long as we all conform to the same rule.

There is also the sort of conformity that exists for purely social reasons. We conform to avoid ostracism or to court social approval. We conform to signal our affiliation with an in-group. To distinguish ourselves from members of an out-group.

I understand why such social conformity is important. If you want to get along in society, it pays to fit in. And nobody wants to rock the boat about stuff that doesn’t matter very much anyway. Presumably, that’s why people conform so blatantly when they participate in certain psychology experiments.

Sample stimulus from Asch experiment

In a famous experimental paradigm created by Solomon Asch, people are asked to judge which among a series of lines are the same length. The task is straightforward, but many people have given answers that were clearly wrong, simply because they believed that the majority endorsed the incorrect answer.

The result has been replicated over and over again, in a variety of cultures. As Daniel Haun and Michael Tomasello have demonstrated, this sort of conformity can be found even among very young children.

What does it mean? In many cases, the conformists are probably biting their tongues. Though they say they agree with the majority, in the privacy of their own minds they know better. But what if people are doing more than paying lip service to a few groupthink mistakes? What if they are actively revising their own, private views, realigning their perceptions and preferences to jibe with popular opinion? And what if they are intolerant of dissent?  Ready to punish people for thinking original thoughts?

These aren’t science fiction scenarios. The world is full of examples of arbitrary social pressure and authoritarianism. And as for the idea that people actually change their minds – internalize popular attitudes – that seems pretty obvious too. How else can we explain all those accidents – that the majority in high school thinks the current mode of dress is cool, and that all others are geeky? That the most important determinant of your religious affiliation is cultural geography – the religion adopted by whatever in-group you happened to be born into?

But if you want more evidence, consider this experiment by Jamil Zaki and his colleagues (2011). The researchers asked young men to rate the attractiveness of different female faces, and then told the men that their ratings disagreed with the results of a popular poll. Thirty minutes later, the young men were asked to rate the faces again, and their new responses tended to agree with what they believed to be majority opinion.  Moreover, the men who revised their judgments showed increased activity in brain regions linked with the coding of subjective values. It seems these men were truly changing their minds.

Something analogous might happen when people conform about their music preferences (Berns et al 2005), or when they make perceptual judgments about complex, three-dimensional shapes (Berns et al 2010). And other experiments show that adults conform to in-group attitudes about race, aesthetic judgments about geometric shapes, and even answers to logic problems (Sechrist and Young 2011; Stallen et al 2012; Rosenham et al 1963). How deep does this conformity run? How much trouble might it cause?

It’s disturbing, and it should concern everyone. Yes, social conformity serves some helpful functions, and many people believe in the rights of various groups to enforce their own cultural norms. If a community wants to reject science in favor of folk remedies, or to punish people for teaching evolution, isn’t that their prerogative? But unless this group is composed solely of adult volunteers, there is problem. Children don’t volunteer. They don’t choose their birthplace. They don’t choose their parents or the cultural setting in which they grow up.

A child can’t give his informed consent to reject evidence-based medicine or forgo a scientific education. He can’t be said to have free choice in the matter, not until he has attained the age of reason and has been given the opportunity to weigh the evidence and consider alternatives. Even then, a child’s decision will have been made under duress if he believes that opting out of the social norms will lose him the love or support of others. We can’t even say that his parents have given their informed consent. Not if they’ve grown up in a society where people are strongly discouraged from questioning and challenging the status quo. Recognizing a group’s right to self-determination sounds good. But it’s not straightforward. Not if we also recognize the rights of the individual and the peculiar, thorny problem of children’s rights.

Many people grant that it’s wrong to underfeed a child, or to deny him water. It’s wrong to take him away from the family he loves, or conscript him as a prostitute, soldier, or sweatshop worker. Such acts cause pain and damage. They prevent him from pursuing happiness and achieving a sense of well-being. In other words, they infringe on his human rights.

Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking? Our need to question and tinker may be as primitive as our need for food and love. As Jaak Panksepp notes (1998), exploration is intrinsically compelling, so much so that if you give a rat the ability to self-stimulate the brain circuits associated with exploration, he will do so compulsively. The act of seeking –of attempting to discover and understand – seems to be like a basic drive. For people strongly motivated to understand, it’s the only route to a certain kind of pleasure, a pleasure experienced by children and scientists alike. When people suffer from brain disorders that disrupt that drive, life may lose its meaning.

So I believe children have a right to ask questions and think for themselves. And I believe that kids should be taught principles of logic and rational inquiry. Our urge to explore and question will inevitably lead to errors and conflicts between partisans. How are we to identify the mistakes? Decide which policies to adopt? Important as it is, the mere act of seeking isn’t guaranteed to lead to enlightenment. It may also lead to delusions, including harmful delusions. By teaching critical thinking, we help people distinguish between better and worse solutions. We help people battle social pressure, the pressure to accept an idea because it is popular, traditional, or the pet of a charismatic advocate.

And that doesn’t just benefit the individual. It benefits us all when people are free to think for themselves and test their ideas against the evidence and principles of logic. Chances are you owe something – your life, your education, your standard of living, the state of your health – to the innovative thinking of other people.  

Maybe this seems like a no-brainer. I hope it does. But I am struck by how many people seem content to impose unreflective, conformist thinking on children – if not on their own children, then on other people’s children. It’s very easy to say “live and let live.” The motto might even mean something when we are talking about fully competent adults. But making it into a consistent, coherent moral principle requires a lot of work. We need to acknowledge the pressure to conform – the curse of the herd – and what it means to grow up in a society that permits no strays.


More reading

For more discussion of critical thinking, see my posts, “Can we raise a new generation of critical thinkers?” and "Peer pressure in preschool: What kids will do to conform," as well as these Parenting Science articles on the subject.



Berns GS, Chappelow J, Zink CF, Pagnoni G, Martin-Skurski ME, and Richards J. 2005. Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation. Biol Psychiatry. 58(3):245-53.

Berns GS, Capra CM, Moore S, and Noussair C. 2010. Neural mechanisms of the influence of popularity on adolescent ratings of music. Neuroimage. 49(3):2687-96.

Haun DBM and Tomasello M. 2011. Conformity to Peer Pressure in Preschool Children. Child Development. Child Dev. 82(6):1759-67.

Panksepp J. 1998. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosenham D, De Wilde D and MacDougal S. 1963. Pressure to conform and logical problem-solving. Psychological Reports 13: 227-230.

Sechrist GB and Young AF. 2011. The influence of social consensus information on intergroup attitudes: the moderating effects of ingroup identification. J Soc Psychol. 151(6):674-95.

Stallen M, De Dreu CK, Shalvi S, Smidts A, and Sanfey AG. 2012. The herding hormone: oxytocin stimulates in-group conformity. Psychol Sci. 23(11):1288-92.

Zaki J, Schirmer J, and Mitchell JP. 2011. Social influence modulates the neural computation of value. Psychol Sci. 22(7):894-900.

Portions of this essay are derived from my book-in-progress, Making Humans.

Text copyright © 2013 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.

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