The Eternal Challenge of Conformity Pressure

The inability to resist conformity pressure can have tragic consequences.

Posted Jun 08, 2020

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Stories about conformity are all over the news these days.

Why would several police officers go along with the actions of a fellow officer who was killing a man in broad daylight while bystanders filmed the tragedy? Why do most people in some places wear face masks, while most people in other locations do not?

Conformity is a very subtle form of social influence. Usually, those around us are not giving us orders or making explicit requests that we act a certain way, but their behavior communicates a set of expectations and social norms that we find hard to resist.

Conformity: Good or Bad?

In individualistic societies like the United States, conformity is often thought of as a negative thing. As Americans, we compete to stand out in some way and to trumpet our uniqueness to the world, and in novels and movies, the conformist corporation man in the grey flannel suit is more often portrayed as an object of ridicule or pity than as a heroic figure.

In other words, we aspire to be nonconformists—just like everyone else.

Collectivistic societies, on the other hand, place a higher value on conformity and see it as a virtue rather than as a vice. And indeed, supporting shared social norms and minimizing deviation from them may help coordinate the group’s response to external threats, such as pandemics and natural disasters.

And let’s face it: We like predictability in those around us. Erratic individuals who are “loose cannons” are usually not our first choice when it comes to business partners, mates, or comrades-in-arms during times of conflict. Being accepted by your group and having a reputation as a good citizen has always been a valuable commodity, and what better way to demonstrate this than by openly embracing and conforming to the norms that the group deems important?

Research has repeatedly and convincingly confirmed that nonconformists are rejected and ostracized by groups in laboratory experiments as well as in everyday life and that this rejection is painful and aversive for the nonconformist.

Conformity Pressure Is Especially Powerful During Adolescence

Conformity pressure can be especially intense during our teen years, and evolutionary psychologists have explained why this may be the case.

As far as scientists can tell, our prehistoric forebears lived in relatively small groups where they knew everyone else in a face-to-face, long-term way. Most people would live out their entire lives in the same group, and one’s social standing within it was determined early on—during adolescence.

How much one was admired as a warrior or hunter, how desirable one was perceived to be as a mate, and how much trust and esteem was accorded to one by others—all was sorted out in young adulthood. A person deemed to be a loser at 18 was unlikely to rise to a position of prominence at 40. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, the competition of the teen years was, in fact, a life-and-death affair.

In our modern world, even though one can move off to new places and start over, the psychological buttons that get pushed in the adolescent brain make the importance of their social lives override everything else. Popularity with peer groups can become an obsession since it is the people in your own age cohort against whom you will be ranked forever. After all, your adult status primarily depends upon how you stack up compared to them, not to others.

Also, strong conformity pressures ensure that you do not stray too far from the group’s values; ostracism from the group in prehistoric times was tantamount to a death sentence. Consequently, our teenage selves labor long and hard to cement our inclusion in the group at all costs. 

The Science of Conformity

The earliest laboratory studies on conformity were conducted by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the 1930s. At that time, it was believed that we are most likely to conform in situations where it is unclear exactly what is going on, and so we follow the lead of others. Sherif used something called the autokinetic effect to demonstrate that this was true. When we view a pinpoint of light in a darkened room, the light appears to be moving, even though it is not. Sherif discovered that the judgments made by his research participants regarding how much the light was moving were swayed quite easily by the judgments made by other participants.

Yes, sometimes we conform because we think that others know something that we don’t. However, the pioneering work of social psychologist Solomon Asch showed that we frequently conform even when we know that the group is incorrect. In Asch’s studies, individuals had to make very simple judgments about the length of lines, and most people gave the wrong answer whenever all of the other participants (who were actually in cahoots with the experimenter) gave a wrong answer.

Asch’s results highlighted the difference between informational conformity (going along with the group because you think others know more than you) and normative conformity. In normative conformity, we go along with the group even when we know that the group is wrong, either because we want to be accepted by the group, or because we simply want to avoid the hassles and discomfort that come from being a deviant.

Subsequent conformity research has uncovered a wide range of factors that predict who is most likely to conform and in which situations the force of conformity pressure is strongest. A full listing of these factors is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to emphasize the fact that conformity pressure is most strongly felt when one is part of a cohesive group. The group need not be large—after a group reaches about four or five individuals, increasing the size of the group, even more, does not significantly increase conformity pressure.

Cohesiveness is often a good thing in groups, but the pressure to present a united front and to maintain harmony in the group can be disastrous, as when police officers or politicians stick together on decisions when they clearly should not. This is the psychology underlying the phenomenon of groupthink that has wreaked havoc in decision-making groups throughout human history.