8 Ways to Learn to Think for Yourself in a Conformist Society

Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

We all like to think that we are individuals, capable of free will and independent thought. However, the fact is humans inhabit groups, and there’s an evolutionary reason for this. Our early ancestors formed groups as a matter of survival. In modern society the groups we join or naturally inhabit inform others of our identity.  

However, there’s a downside to group membership. Once we join a group we are expected to behave in a certain way. Acceptance or membership into a group requires conforming to the group’s ideals. These groups form the basis of our conformist society. And there is no doubt that it is hard to think for yourself in a conformist society.  

How to Think for Yourself in a Conformist Society

Thinking for yourself takes a conscious effort. You have to be continually on guard for misinformation, hidden agendas, or even your own biases. Being mentally prepared to challenge your group’s views and your own takes strength and confidence. Here are just a few ways you can learn how to think for yourself. 

1. Be open-minded 

Being open-minded doesn’t mean accepting someone’s point of view without question. It means being open to the possibility of different ideas and views. No one is asking or telling you to change your stance on a particular subject. However, seeing the issue from someone else’s perspective sheds new light on the situation.   

2. Get information from different sources

Did you know that positive comments and likes on social media produce the same effects as opioids in our brain? When our posts or pictures are liked, dopamine lights up the reward centre in our brain. Worryingly, this rush of dopamine can become addictive and affect our decision-making processes.

Quite often we exist within an echo chamber; like-minded people feeding back what we knew all along. Not only that, but agreement and likes from our peers raise our self-esteem and sense of identity. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, be mindful that social media has this powerful effect. 

3. Identify your unconscious biases

No one wants to be thought of as racist or sexist. However, we all make judgments as we traverse through life. We have to; it is how our ancestors survived. They had to make snap decisions; who was friendly and who was not.

The oldest part of our brain, the amygdala, still functions this way. But our frontal lobe uses reason and logic to make the final determination. Don’t make instant judgments. Instead, look at your past experiences to identify blind spots.   

4. Don’t be afraid to change your mind

An ex-CIA agent once said that every terrorist, killer, or psychopath she ever met had one thing in common. They all thought they were right.

But we can’t all be right all the time. Once you are entrenched in a particular view, it is difficult to change your mind. Your beliefs are who you are. They form your identity. You may have held these views for decades, but it doesn’t mean you are right.   

5. Be wary of stereotyping other groups

What do you think when you see a homeless person or someone in a wheelchair? Is the homeless person lazy or an addict? Would you rather not speak to the person in the wheelchair because they may be mentally impaired?

Human nature forces us to categorise quickly. Our ancestors had to make snap decisions based on previous information as a matter of survival.

However, just because the media portrays a race or class in a certain way doesn’t mean we have to agree. Think for yourself; who does it benefit when swathes of people are categorised as undesirable?   

6. Use active listening skills

Often when we are arguing or trying to get our point across, we are not listening to the other person. We are formulating our response or rebuttal. It may seem counter-productive to stop thinking for yourself and listen to another point of view.

However, by actively listening, we get a more rounded and balanced idea of the situation. We might even change our minds.

Then again, you can only disagree if you have fully heard the other person’s point. Either way, listening gives us a chance to challenge or dispute their views. Stop thinking ahead and listen to the other person.   

7. Challenge outdated views

It is hard to be the one person who disagrees with the group. Sticking your head above the parapet is likely to make you a target. Studies show that even if we know the group is wrong, we follow the majority. However, it only takes one person to challenge the status quo.

I always remember the fable of The Emperor’s Clothes. The emperor’s tailor had made a costume with invisible cloth and everyone was too scared to say anything. One person in the crowd shouted, ‘He’s not wearing anything!’ and broke the spell.   

8. Use logic, not emotion when making decisions

Emotions play an important part in our decision-making process.

Research suggests that we feel more generous when we are sad, and we are more likely to make quick decisions without considering the implications when we are happy. Even tiredness can affect our judgment. Studies show that judges are more lenient early in the morning or directly after lunch.

Being aware of your emotions and trigger points leads to better judgment. It also helps you to think for yourself. When you are logical, you can see both sides of the debate.   

Why is thinking for yourself important?

There is danger in conforming

Conforming without questioning has led to some of the worse crimes in history. You only have to look at slavery, women’s oppression, wars, and cults to see that humans find it easier to conform than speak out.  

The Asch Conformity Experiment (1951) highlights how social influence affects our desire to fit in.

Participants were asked to match the length of a line to the original line. When the group gave a deliberately wrong answer, a third of the participants conformed with the majority. So, why would participants go along with a group that gave an obviously wrong answer?

There are two reasons for conforming:  

  • A desire to fit in with the group
  • A belief that the group must be better informed

Hardwired through evolution is a powerful desire to belong. It can be race, religion, political views, or our social class. We want to be liked and feel as if we belong.   

Conformity sounds boring, but it is an essential part of society. Conforming encourages us to follow the rules and ensures harmonious living for all of us. Conforming allows social cohesion. We know what is expected, we share the same views; we function as a whole unit.   

On the flip side, conforming has led to some of the worst atrocities in human nature. Conforming aided Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. In Nazi Germany, thinking for yourself could lead to the gas chambers.   

Even today, going against your group can prove detrimental. In modern society, speaking out or disagreeing with the general consensus can lead to vicious trolling.

Another reason why thinking for yourself is so important is ‘group-think’.

How ‘group-think’ leads to disaster

US psychologist Irving Janis coined the term ‘group-think’, which describes the failings of groups when making decisions. Group-think is the tendency to accept a majority group view, whilst avoiding raising controversial or alternative viewpoints.   

Two famous examples of group-think are the Watergate Scandal and the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Watergate Scandal

A meeting took place to discuss the implications of Watergate before the scandal emerged. One of Nixon’s attendees disagreed with the group’s decision to keep the situation quiet, but he was afraid to go against the group. When the scandal emerged, the repercussions were far worse than if Nixon had come clean.   

Space Shuttle Disaster

During Challenger’s pre-flight checks, one engineer raised concerns about the extremely-low temperatures on launch day and advised halting the launch. However, this was an important launch for NASA as the shuttle was carrying the first civilian. Delaying the launch was a publicity no-no. The launch went ahead, killing all the astronauts on board.   

Final thoughts

In a world where we all want to be liked, thinking for ourselves and going against mainstream views can seem daunting. However, we don’t need approval or validation from others. Live with integrity and be true to yourself.   

Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)