What is conformity?
To understand the value of conformity, we must first define what we mean by it. Here is a definition of the word "conformity":
"Conformity is a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behaviour in order to fit in with a group."
To make more sense of this definition, here is an example:
Imagine you and a group of strangers are told to go into a room and wait until further instructions are given. A few people decide to sit in seats that are in the room. Slowly, more and more people also decide to take a seat. What do you do?
More than likely you would also take a seat, not because you thought it was a great idea as you walked in, but because everyone else is doing it and you don't want to feel like the outcast that decided to stand instead of sitting like a "normal" person.
In this situation, you have conformed to social pressure as you performed an act to feel accepted by the group that you are in, not because it was your own idea to begin with.
This leads nicely into what we call "group norms".
Group Norms simply put, are the social rules made clear to each individual who is part of the group. Violation of these group norms can result in issues between people in the group and/or expulsion from said group.
There are 2 main types of groups when it comes to how group norms are formed, Formal Groups and Informal Groups.
These are groups that are formed to perform and/or work towards a specific goal and are often found in workplaces and schools. They are usually made up of individuals who did not know each other on an informal level before the group formed.
The rules or group norms are usually explicitly stated so that everyone knows what is acceptable and what is not.
An example of this would be a group of individuals with different skills assembled into a formal group. They may decide that they want meetings to be on a professional basis, meaning no cursing or slang during meetings. This becomes a social norm of the group.
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These groups are common to all of us as this is the category in which our friendship groups lie. There is no real goal in mind when interacting with a group of friends, we as social creatures just have a want to interact with other human beings, however, that doesn't mean that we don't gain anything from this interaction, quite the contrary.
What is interesting about informal groups is that we tend to make up group norms implicitly, meaning no one has to outright say that something is allowed or not, everyone is aware of the group norms being constructed as time goes on.
A simple and funny example is that you don't punch your friends in the face and they don't punch you in the face. It is an established social norm not to punch each other in the face, so no one does it, but usually no one has to let the group know that punching is wrong, everyone knows implicitly.
These examples may seem to make conformity seem fine or advantageous, however, further in the article I will explore the pros and cons of conformity.
Asch's Conformity Experiment (1951)
In 1951, a psychologist prominent is Gestalt & social psychology named Solomon Asch conducted an experiment on conformity which is still looked up to today.
It aimed to see how often people conformed to social pressure when given a question with an obvious answer.
A participant was put into a room full of confederates of Asch (people the participant thought were also participants when actually they were in on the experiment from the very beginning).
They were all shown 2 images, one with a single line on it and the other with 3 lines on it labelled "A", "B" & "C". (Fig. 1).
The correct answer was obviously "C", but when asked to say their answer out loud, all the confederates said "A", an obviously wrong answer. The actual participant was to answer out loud last, and this was where it got interesting.
Would the participant conform to social pressure to appear correct and answer "A"? Or stick to their guns and answer "C"?
It was found that 75% of participants conformed and answered wrongly at least once.
25% of participants did not conform even once.
On average, about a third of participants conformed on the majority of trials.
So, Is Conformity Good or Bad?
Now that you have an understanding of what conformity is, how common it is and how it has been tested, we can move onto the debate as to whether it is of survival value or use in today's society, or simply an act for the non-independent.
In the days of the caveperson, conformity may have been of survival value when interacting with other tribes of cavemen. By acting as the group did, the individual may be seen in a better light and therefore be accepted by the group, bringing benefits such as protection, food, and companionship. It is seen even in today's world that we generally get along better with people similar to ourselves, conformity can give this illusion that we are more like others as we do as they do and reap the benefits.
It is most likely group norms which have formed the laws we abide by today in fact. Back to thousands of years again where the cavemen congregated in their groups, they would have had group norms similar to some of the laws we have today such as not to kill someone else and not to steal. Therefore, conformity may have contributed to the law and order we have in the world today.
Conformity can come in useful when we are in unfamiliar surroundings or activities. I'm sure you can think of an example when you have taken part in an activity such as dancing and you didn't know what kind of dancing to do, so what did you do? You mimicked the people around you and danced like them to avoid embarrassment. Everyone has done it in some way or another throughout their life but it really is handy in the right situations.
These are some good arguments in favour of conformity, but it can be a double-edged sword.
In modern times many people tend to conform to fads for a time, then they completely forget about it and move on to another fad. This is seen on the internet constantly. An example of this would be the Harlem Shake video crazy circa 2013.
Fads like this tend to be really popular simply because they're popular which seems paradoxical. The easy way to put this is that because one person likes something, another person starts liking it, and so on and so forth. This is obvious, but this isn't the point I'm trying to make. The point is that many people tend to start "liking" these things not because they genuinely LIKE the fad, but because of the illusion of everybody liking the fad, thus it builds up rapidly.
This is often seen in music also. Nowadays music has a lot more to do with image than the actual songs. Therefore, much music today seems more manufactured with shallow lyrics and soft-core pornography for music videos. This is because the media are making less independent people conform to what the media decides is "cool" and thus the norm. This is an example of conformity dumbing down an art form.
I wrote another article titled "What Is Wrong With Much of Today's Music" which goes into more detail, you can find it by visiting my Hubpages profile.
Finally, another example I want to look at is soldiers in World War II, particularly the Nazis. I think it goes without saying that most of the Germans in the S.S. and S.A. did not actually want to commit most of the atrocities they committed and were just following orders out of fear. However, this is conformity that has been used to cause the most horrific genocide the planet has ever seen!
It became the norm for the German soldiers to "Just follow orders", they conformed to the pressure of doing what they were told to do -which may be more obedience than conformity.
However, the interesting thing is, though, that a lot of these soldiers survived by following these orders as they would be executed if they resisted. So conformity actually saved their lives.
So is conformity a good thing or a bad thing? That is for us as individuals to decide, there are conflicting points that can be made for both sides. Maybe it mattered in the past but not so much in modern times? Or maybe we need it a lot more today than we think.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
© 2013 Jamie Peutherer
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Johnuary on February 24, 2017:
Conformity is necessary in the society we have today. If one person starts to be themselves, wouldn't others do the same?