In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.
This week’s term: conformity
According to Psychology Today, conformity is “the tendency to align our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours with those around us.”
From an early age, we learn to mimic the behaviours we see around us. In order to gain full acceptance into social groups, the behavioural norms of the groups are expected to be adopted to minimize the risk of social rejection. Changes in attitudes and beliefs may follow, although not necessarily. Conformity can be most damaging when adopted behaviours are not consistent with one’s own personal values.
Groupthink is a related phenomenon, which Wikipedia describes as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics, which ignores realistic appraisal of other courses of action.”
In an early experiment on conformity in the 1930’s, participants were asked to estimate the number of beans in a glass bottle. They were then asked to discuss it as a group. When interviewed again, most participants had revised their estimate to better match the group estimate. Another experiment by Solomon Asch found that people are likely to make choices based on the majority judgment, even if that majority judgment is inaccurate.
Psychologist Herbert Kelman described three types of conformity:
- Compliance: an individual conforms to gain a reward or avoid a punishment, and this may involve keeping their own beliefs to themselves
- Identification: conforming in order to support a definition of the self in relation to a person/group that are seen favourably
- Internalization: an individual adopts group behaviours and beliefs because they are congruent with the individual’s own beliefs and values
Conformity is influenced by a variety of factors, including culture, gender, and group size. Brain-based factors may be involved. Older people are less likely than younger people to conform. Initially I found this a bit surprising, since younger people have a reputation of being more rebellious, but thinking of it from a peer pressure perspective it makes more sense.
While there can be downsides to conformity, particularly when we trapped in what we think we “should” do, there are also positives. Conforming to laws is generally quite a good thing, and following norms can make things flow more smoothly. Personally I find the orderly queueing of Western countries much easier on the nerves than the chaotic free-for-all in other parts of the world.
On the other hand, people can be downright nasty to those who don’t conform, and it seems like that’s been pretty consistent throughout human history, often in rather gory fashion. It’s a primal urge that I guess we’ve never managed to outgrow. Stigma probably comes from a similar kind of place, and mental illness just doesn’t conform very well to societal norms.
One area where I have tended to push back against conformity is at work. I want to do things in a way that’s best for my patients, fair, and logical/reasonable in terms of workflow. When things have arisen over the years where staff were being expected to do things that ran contrary to that, I was not prepared to conform, and that certainly didn’t go over well.
Have you run into problems with conformity at some point?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.