What are the answers to the psychology of conformity? Why exactly do we do it?
In today’s crowded society, we all seek to find something about ourselves that is unique. However, by its very definition, conformity means to change behaviours in order to fit in with the people around you. We want to be unique, but we want to fit in? And, what exactly is it we are all trying to fit in to?
Conformity, by definition.
The psychology of conformity has been examined by a number of psychologists.
Breckler, Olsen and Wiggins (2006) said: “Conformity is caused by other people; it does not refer to effects of other people on internal concepts like attitudes or beliefs. Conformity encompasses compliance and obedience because it refers to any behaviour that occurs as a result of others’ influence – no matter what the nature of the influence.”
There are a number of reasons behind the psychology of conformity. In fact, sometimes we actively conform, and seek clues from a group of people as to how we are should think and react.
The psychology of conformity: why do we do it?
Many people like to recognise themselves as an individual, or unique. Whilst we all possess specific characteristics that distinguish us from the crowd, the majority of human beings comply with some set of societal rules most of the time.
Cars stop at red traffic lights; children and adults attend school and go to work. These are examples of conformity for obvious reasons. Without compliance with certain rules of society, the entire structure would break down.
However, there are other instances where we conform but for less important reasons. What is the psychology of conformity behind college students playing drinking games? Deutsch and Gerard (1955) identified two main reasons we do this: informational and normative influence.
Informational influence happens when people change their behaviour in order to be correct. In situations where we are unsure of the correct response, we often look to others who are more knowledgeable and use their lead as a guide for our own behaviours.
Normative influence stems from a desire to avoid punishments and gain rewards. For example, an individual might behave in a certain way in order to get people to like them.
There are further breakdowns within the informational and normative influences, such as:
- Identification which occurs when people conform to expectations of them in line with their social roles.
- Compliance involving changing one’s behaviour while still internally disagreeing with the group.
- Internalisation occurs when we change our behaviour because we want to be like another person.
A very promising model proposes five main motivations for conforming, outside of Deutsch and Gerard’s theory.
Nail, MacDonald, & Levy (2000) proposed the five motivations behind the psychology of conformity. These are to be correct to be socially acceptable and avoid rejection, to accomplish group goals, to establish and maintain our self-concept/social identity, and to align ourselves with similar individuals.
Conforming can make us more agreeable to live and work with – it makes us normal.
To conform is the norm
Conformity itself comes from a deep psychological need to belong, therefore, understanding the psychology of conformity can be a good thing – and very normal!
We must conform in order to survive. Conformity appeared when our ancestors were trying to survive through getting together and forming tribes. In those wild dangerous times, it was impossible to survive on one’s own, so early humans aligned with a group in order to get food and protection from the numerous threats.
Even if one person would probably be able to find some food to survive, they couldn’t fight on their own against the countless predators that attacked them. No need to say that fighting off these attacks as a group was much more effective, which ensured humans’ survival. Thus, the primary aim of conformity was the survival of our species.
However, even today, the deepest root of conformity has to do with satisfying our survival needs. Whether we are aware of it or not, we become a part of a group for the purpose of protection. We may not be threatened by wild animals anymore, but unfortunately, we are often threatened by our own species. As a result, we seek protection from our group, whether we are talking about our family or the authorities in the country we live in.
Even if you don’t like to conform, you will most certainly do it in order to survive. When an individual is under threat, they will always prefer to conform than to die or be hurt. This behavior has deep evolutionary roots and even today, when we live in a civilized society, it is natural for us to seek the support and protection of our group. This is how our early ancestors survived and for this reason, our minds are wired for conformity.
The thing is, conforming isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s natural for us to conform and we don’t even realize that some of our everyday activities are a manifestation of conformity. Some examples include wearing trendy clothes, following the rules of etiquette or driving on the right side of the road. However, these are also identifiers of our own “unique” identities.