Why Do We Conform?
The Social Animal
This story begins 200 000 years ago with the birth of this little creature: a Homo Sapien or - in English - Wise Man .
For millennia, this creature was insignificant, weak and unremarkable. It had not yet been honed by time, and sat far from the top of the food chain. It survived by eating plants and the meagre scraps of more dominant animals such as lions, hyenas, and jackals .
Yet, in a curious turn of events, it came to be the last surviving human species and has catapulted to the top of the food chain. The tables had turned and, instead of running from predators, Sapiens had become big game hunters.
Thanks to natural pressures, Sapiens had evolved the capacity to cooperate in large and complex groups ; even the strongest lion was no match for a well-coordinated tribe of humans. Alone, even the smartest of their kind couldn’t get very far. But, collectively, they could soar through the skies and enter the cosmic realm of the gods.
How, exactly, did humans acquire this capacity for large and complex cooperation?
Cooperation - The Glue That Binds Us
Like all species, Sapiens had to contend with the great filter: Nature. All entered but only those with the traits best suited for survival & reproduction made it out safely. Time and time again, Nature rewarded cooperative Sapiens with survival and reproduction. As a result, their group instincts became stronger.
Cooperation can be thought of as a master ability with several subordinate abilities such as obedience and conformity. However, this ability truly is a double-edged sword. The abilities that allow Sapiens to work together to uplift one another also allow them to work together to oppress one another.
In a previous essay, we took a look at the behaviour of obedience. Now, let’s take a look at its sister behaviour: conformity.
Conformity - An Ingredient
So, what is conformity?
In essence, conformity is when an individual alters their belief or behavior to relieve internal tension caused by group pressure. To understand conformity better, let's take a look at one of the landmark studies in social psychology.
The ASCH Experiments
Let’s say I showed you these two cards and asked you to match the line on the left to the one of a similar height on the right.
It’s obvious, right? The answer is C.
In the 1950s, psychologist Soloman Asch asked individuals to solve 750 variations of this question. In total, there were only 3 incorrect answers out of 750. You’re probably not surprised because the test is actually pretty easy [4, 7, 20].
However, the problem gets a lot more interesting when you bring people together. Asch brought a group of people into a room, and got them to solve 18 of these line questions. All of the group members were actors except for a single subject. All of the actors were told to answer 12 out of the 18 questions incorrectly. [4, 7, 20]
After running this experiment several times, it was found that subjects would conform to the groups incorrect answer a third of the time. 75% of subjects conformed to the groups incorrect answer at least once. 25% of subjects never conformed.
Remember, when subjects were asked to solve this task alone, less than half a percent of people guessed incorrectly. The task was simple to do, so it was quite clear that subjects were conforming to the group.
Asch asked participants why they had conformed, and they gave various answers: some said that they didn't know if they were actually right, and some said that they didn't want to stand out from the group. This leads us to the different types of conformity: conversion vs compliance, and normative vs informational. [4, 7, 20].
Types of Conformity
Conversion vs Compliance
When an individual conforms to a belief or behavior both publicly and privately, they have undergone a conversion. Since the individual has trulyadopted the belief, this is the strongest form of conformity. [7, 22]
On the other hand, when an individual conforms to a belief or behavior publicly but not privately, they have complied.
When Asch ran a variation of the experiment that allowed the subject to write their answer down privately, conformity rates dropped. So, it's highly likely that subjects in that experiment complied but were not converted. But, why would they comply?
This brings us to normative vs informational conformity. [7, 22]
Normative vs Informational
Normative conformity occurs when an individual fears social rejection. Social rejection is a perfectly normal fear. When we look to Sapiens of the past, it's very likely that individuals who feared social rejection were more likely to be careful about going against the group. As a result, they were probably less likely to become isolated or exiled and stood a better chance of survival.
In this case, the fear serves as an evolutionary advantage and would be likely to get passed on in subsequent generations. We often want to feel accepted by the group and so we get rid of internal tension by publicly conforming. Normative conformity often goes hand in hand with compliance. [7, 22]
On the other hand, informational conformity occurs when an individual is unsure about what to believe and so they look to the group for guidance. Informational conformity often leads to conversion.
Now, let's look at the various factors that affect conformity. [7, 22]
Factors Affecting Conformity
Group size: Asch noticed that conformity was greatest when there was a group of at least three people. [4, 7, 20, 22]
Group Consensus: Conformity was more difficult to overcome when all members in a group agreed. However, individuals were much less likely to conform when there was at least one other dissenter in the group. Nonconformists and dissenters liberate others to dissent as well. [4, 7, 20, 22]
Privacy: Conformity rates were also lower when individuals got to state their answers privately as opposed to publicly [4, 7, 20].
Culture: People who come from cultures that value the individual are also less likely to conform than cultures who value the collective [4, 7, 20].
So, now you know about the different types of conformity and some of the factors affecting it. But, when and why do people diverge?
Signals and Counter-Signals
After performing a set of studies, Jonah Berger put forth a compelling theory that people often act with, or against, a group based on what that action signals about themselves .
For example, let's say that a celebrity buys a new purse from a high-end fashion line. Because the bag is new, trendy, and expensive it becomes a strong signal of status to others. Other celebrities may copy that purchase in order to send a similar signal to others: that they are fashionable and wealthy.
Now, let’s say that someone starts to make knockoff versions of this bag and sell them for cheap to less wealthy people who want to send a similar status signal to their peers. As more and more people buy knockoff bags, the original signal loses its strength and changes form; it becomes harder to distinguish authentic signals from fake ones. The people who originally bought the bag may stop using it and diverge from this group because they no longer want to be associated with its signal. While the bag used to be a strong status signal, now it signals inauthenticity.
People often purchase things because what it tells other people about themselves, especially in a domain that they care about. Likewise, people often publicly act depending on what signal that action sends to others. Let's consider another common example.
Know-it-all or Intelligent?
Imagine sitting in a high school class and the teacher asks a difficult question. Maybe you know the answer but don't want to put your hand up because you fear the signal that you might send to others: you're a know it all or a nerd.
On the other hand, someone else might look at that same scenario and see an opportunity to broadcast that they are studious and intelligent. Both people are looking to broadcast different signals to the class, and the identity they care about will decide how they act.
So, now we have seen that conformity is a subset of cooperative behavior and is actually a huge benefit to humanity. However, the degree to which people conform can be affected by altering group size, group consensus , privacy, and culture. Lastly, we went over the theory that humans are always sending signals to one another and, in large part, this decides whether they publicly conform or diverge.
Keep in mind that this is just an introduction to the complex behavior that is conformity, and not a comprehensive look. I hope that I have provided you with an insightful taster into the subject and have motivated your appetite to look deeper.