A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good just because it’s accepted by a majority. – Rick Warren
Are you afraid to express yourself when your thoughts and opinions differ from those of your family, friends, and colleagues?
Do you conform (or pretend to) with the beliefs of others in your circles in order to keep the peace and not ruffle any feathers?
Sure, sometimes it is easier to go with the flow rather than share a dissenting opinion.
But, often the right thing to do and the hard thing to do are the same thing.
What conformity is and how it can be detrimental
Conformity is a process by which your attitudes and beliefs become influenced by other people. It can be obvious (as in peer pressure), or it can be a more subtle influence that develops over many years…or even a lifetime.
The result is that you end up thinking and behaving like everyone else.
While that might feel comfortable for you, it can have negative effects on your health and happiness. In extreme cases, confirming with the crowd (herd mentality) can be damaging to society.
Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.
– Bertrand Russell
A new study from the University at Buffalo found that standing up for your beliefs, expressing your opinions, and demonstrating your core values can be a positive psychological experience.
Mark Seery, an associate professor in UB’s Department of Psychology, said there can be a clear divergence between what people do and say and how they feel:
People can show conformity, but going along with the group doesn’t mean they’re going along happily. The external behavior isn’t necessarily a good indication of their internal experience.
The findings, published in the journal Psychophysiology, provide new insights into what it’s like to be the outlier. The researchers investigated participant experiences as they happened.
Studying what it is like to be the lone dissenter is tricky. Seery said that methodologically, it is a hard thing to capture. Most research to date has focused on behavior and self-reported attitudes. It is uncomfortable being the outlier, and people are typically motivated to conform because it relieves that discomfort – or so it has been assumed.
Questioning study subjects during the experience can be disruptive, while waiting to interview them later demands that they recall feelings that aren’t always accurately reported.
That’s why Seery and his team of researchers – UB colleague Shira Gabriel, Daemen College’s Shannon Lupien and Southern Illinois University’s Mitsuru Shimizu – tried a different technique.
But we can tap into the experience using psychophysiological measures, which is what we did in this case by assessing cardiovascular responses. That’s where this study started. To try to understand what that momentary experience of conformity pressure is like.
By measuring cardiovascular responses, the researchers got a sense of how study participants were evaluating personal resources versus the demands of the situation while in the act of potentially conforming.
When trying to reach a goal, evaluating high resources and low demands leads to a mostly positive, invigorating experience called challenge, which corresponds with feeling confident. Low resources and high demands lead to a much less confident state called threat, which may produce feelings of anxiety.
Participants were placed into one of four experimental conditions, each with a goal to either fit in with a group’s political opinion or assert their individuality, and with a group that either agreed or disagreed with participants’ opinions on the issues.
Seery describes the findings:
When participants’ goal was to fit in with a group of people who disagreed with them, their cardiovascular responses were consistent with a psychological threat state. In contrast, when the goal was to be an individual among a group of people who disagreed with them, their cardiovascular responses were consistent with challenge.
You may have to work to reach a goal, but when you experience challenge, it is more like feeling invigorated than overwhelmed. It is consistent with seeing something to gain rather than focusing on what can be lost.
These results have interesting implications. They are especially relevant in an election year, when someone can be surrounded by family members, coworkers, or even neighborhood lawn signs that run contrary to their personal opinions.
But Seery concludes with an important reminder:
It could easily be overwhelming to face a group on the other side of an issue or candidate, but this study suggests that reminding yourself of wanting to be an individual can make it a better experience, challenging instead of threatening, invigorating instead of overwhelming.
Are you with us or against us?
Are there risks to openly disagreeing with the crowd?
Sure. Social ostracism is a big one.
Being stereotyped, avoided, and scorned are also possible.
Sometimes, even stating just ONE opinion that differs from that of the group may result in your being labeled as “strange,” “difficult,” or “stubborn.”
Black-and-white thinking can lead people to believe that if you are not with them, you are against them. This can shut down communication and harm relationships.
I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself. – Rita Mae Brown
To reduce the risk of being disliked or ostracized, offer alternatives and solutions rather than just disagreeing to disagree. Being a nonconformist simply to be different can backfire: people may stop listening to you or refuse to take anything you say seriously.
When to conform, when to rebel
Conformity is not always a bad thing. After all, there’s no harm in conforming to a positive, harmless standard. Imagine what would happen if a few nonconformists decided to drive on the wrong side of the road, for example.
This is where critical thinking comes into play.
Do you conduct an objective analysis before you form an opinion about an issue? What is your decision-making process like? Do you simply watch to see what others are doing and follow their lead, or do you use logical thought and come to your own conclusions?
When you DO evaluate facts and explore your own thoughts and feelings about an issue, there’s another psychological trap you may fall into: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to search for and favor information that confirms our beliefs while simultaneously ignoring or devaluing information that contradicts our beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance is yet another mental obstacle that may influence your thinking and decision-making process. Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental stress or discomfort experienced when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, perform an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or are confronted by new information that conflicts with our existing beliefs, ideas, or values. When we come to the realization that we have made a mistake, or that a belief we hold may be incorrect, we resort to mental gymnastics to avoid accepting that our logic – or our belief system itself – is flawed.
A bad conscience is easier to cope with than a bad reputation. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Do you think for yourself?
Think about your life. How much time have you spent conforming to an idea that, deep down, you aren’t truly comfortable with?
Who – or what – has influenced you? Often, we blindly conform to societal and familial traditions and beliefs. We choose friends, partners, careers, religions, political affiliations, and even hobbies based on what perceived leaders or authorities have told us is right.
In the thought-provoking article What You Can’t Say, Paul Graham offers The Conformist Test, and it begins with a deceptively simple question:
Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?
If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told.
The other alternative would be that you independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are now considered acceptable. That seems unlikely, because you’d also have to make the same mistakes. Mapmakers deliberately put slight mistakes in their maps so they can tell when someone copies them. If another map has the same mistake, that’s very convincing evidence.
Like every other era in history, our moral map almost certainly contains a few mistakes. And anyone who makes the same mistakes probably didn’t do it by accident. It would be like someone claiming they had independently decided in 1972 that bell-bottom jeans were a good idea.
The value of nonconformists
As pointed out in the article Non-Conformists as Leaders, the true value in discussing conformity vs. nonconformity may be the realization that we spend too much time worrying about “being the same” or “being different” when our attentions would better be served with doing good:
The nonprofit sector is filled with stories of non-conformists who accomplished good for the world. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Real change occurs when we resist negative, potentially detrimental standards.
Think about society. Do you notice things about it that are that unjust, unethical, and unfair?
Imagine if everyone conformed to an unjust society and didn’t question the rules.
How would change ever occur?
If you believe everything you’re supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn’t also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s—or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter? Odds are you would have.
Back in the era of terms like “well-adjusted,” the idea seemed to be that there was something wrong with you if you thought things you didn’t dare say out loud. This seems backward. Almost certainly, there is something wrong with you if you don’t think things you don’t dare say out loud.
Without people who are courageous enough to speak up, nothing would improve, and things would likely get worse.
Conforming without questioning gives those who believe they have authority over the masses more power.
The difference between someone guided by principle and someone driven by bias:
A person who is guided by principle will stand up to his allies and side with his opponents if truth and morality dictate it.
A person who is driven by bias will go to war against reality in order to defend the identity of the herd.
Nonconformists are the people who change society for the better.
And, there’s something else to consider. There may be others in your group who don’t agree with the status quo, but are hesitant to speak up. If you take a chance and are courageous enough to be the first to express dissent, you may find that others follow your lead.
Whenever one person stands up and says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people do the same. – Gloria Steinem