Sometimes conformity isn't such a Bad Thing. Especially when it comes to trivial matters.

Thanks to conformity, I can usually walk down the street without jostling or being jostled by other people. Most of us know the rules and adhere to them, and that frees us to think about more interesting things or simply enjoy the walk.

A psychologist named Kelman identified three types of conformity, back in 1958:
compliance: conforming to other's views, beliefs or behaviour in public, but in private maintaining your own.
Identification: actually adopting the views, beliefs, or behaviour of a group, but only when the group is there, with you. The new attitude usually dissolves when you leave the group.
Internalization: a true conversion to a different set of beliefs, views, or behaviour. The new attitude is truly valued, even when the group is not present. The values stay with you even when you leave the group.

Claiming to have certain views to avoid an arguement does not really apply to conformity, as long as it is personally acknowledged.

Conforming individuality

Yes, this is an oxymoron, but it's an oxymoron that plays a key role in your social life.

Conforming individuality is when a person is put into a subcategory no matter what they do. It's classification of groups of people and putting one person into that group because of what the masses say you are.

Example: You try to be your own self. You dress individually, you act individually, you even walk individually, but no matter which way you dress, act or walk, someone has already done it and you are then classified into THEIR sub-group. Goth, preppie, computer-nerd, grunge, red-neck, hick, etc.

Individuality, according to society, is just an illusion. Here is some text I found off of Hypertext Psychology:
Conformity involves the changing of one's attitudes, opinions, or behaviors to match the attitudes, opinions, or behaviors of other people. This pressure to act like other people, sometimes despite our true feelings and desires, is a common everyday occurrance. This is do to the implied and spoken rules of the situation.

These "norms" tell us what we should or ought to be thinking, feeling, or doing if we want to fit in with a particular group. Most people conform to norms without much thinking about it. For example, most people tip in restaraunts, raise their hand when wishing to speak in a group setting, or sit down when they eat. While none of these incidences involve formal rules, most people comply with them. However, there are certain times when people are more or less likely to conform to the existing norms. Several factors affect the degree to which conformity will occur.

Standing out as an individual has become a conformity in its own right. Commercials tell us to "Do our own thing" and "be ourselves" and we can do so by drinking their soda or driving their cars. Pop culture has made it so inescapable to be a conformist that no matter how hard one tries not to be part of the crowd, one still becomes part of the crowd. Even punk rock which was a staple of non-conformity has become a conformity.

Some people try to prove they're an individual by doing something stupid that nobody else has done, like jumping off of buildings while naked with a cape or riding on top of cars at speeds of 100 MPH. Even when someone tries to do something nobody else has done, somebody else starts doing it with you. These people are called "posers", but even with posers you have lost your individuality.

Now, you could constantly change your style, so that nobody would be able to pin conformity upon you, but then you would be labeled insane, and that's still a conformity.

Some say having a belief system is conformity; sheep to the slaughter you might say. The truth would be then that we are all sheep going to the slaughterhouse. We all hold some sort of belief system and with well over 6 billion people in the world, someone is likely to share that with you. Conformity in your own belief can become so through blindly following steps. Buddha said it best: Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true. (paraphrased)

The only one can truly show themselves as an individual in a society that puts us all into groups, is to be active in what you believe. My friend e-hadj mentioned to me that conforming individuality = reactive: defined by what one is against. True individuality = active: defined by what one is for.

So basically, there is no way to escape social conformity, EXCEPT by just being who you are and not letting a "label" get to you. Labels are society's way of putting someone into a box. It is inherent in us humans to put people in boxes, just because they "look" different on the outside. If we all could immediately see what is inside when we looked at somebody, there might not be any boxes.

Archibald Macleish: The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.

Conformity: an angst-free write-up

The only thing worse than a conformist, as Jhonen Vasquez loves to remind people, is a trendy non-conformist. Thousands upon thousands of blogs, LiveJournals, user homepages and bulletin board discussions proclaim loudly the individuality and non-conformity of the author, usually with a healthy heap of haughty headshaking at anyone who's ever worn a denim jacket, or bought a Blink-182 album, or plays team sports, or whatever the author just happens not to like but lots of people do.

To most people, conformity and non-conformity are about being trendy. They're about wearing the 'right' labels, listening to the 'right' music, having the 'right' haircut. They're about consuming the right identity.

In this context, conforming is considered almost definitionally bad. It is associated with vapidity, shallowness, all the social and hormonal pitfalls of the teenage popularity game. But the binary concept of conformity and independence (as opposed to individuality) is a crucial aspect of the human condition. To see it just as a conceptual weapon on the battleground of youth culture is to fail to understand one of the most important forces of social life.

The study of conformity is primarily conducted in the fields of Psychology, Sociology, and Social Psychology, though it is extremely important in Anthropology, Gender Studies, and virtually any humanity or 'liberal' subject. The way in which conformity is treated in an academic or professional context is totally different to the popular usage.

What is conformity?

In order to conform, a person must be conforming to something. Obviously, you can't just "conform," the way you can "wave" or "see".

The thing to which one conforms is a norm. Definition of what actually constitutes a norm can be very difficult — people often define them tautologically as 'things we conform to'. A good working definition, though, is that a norm is an attitudinal or behavioural uniformity among a set of people.

As that definition reveals, norms are a property of groups, not of individuals. One person on their own cannot form a norm. However, if a person is a member of a group, even when alone, they might conform to those norms. When there's nobody else home, for example, most people still wear clothes.

Conformity and Obedience

Conformity is not be confused with obedience. While they both shape an individuals actions because of membership of a group, there are many important differences.

  • Equality: Obedience occurs between unequal levels in some hierarchy. Conformity, on the other hand, occurs between equals.
  • Imitation: Conformity usually involves some kind of imitation between group members. Obedience is not based on imitation, it is based on direction.
  • Implicit vs Explicit: The norms of obedience, generally speaking, are explicit norms — you are informed of what is expected of you. Conformity, on the other hand, is typically based on implicit norms, though when you are joining a group with established norms, you may need to be told what those norms are (particularly if you have already committed a faux pas).
  • Admissibility: Nobody likes to admit to conforming. "Just following orders", on the other hand, can't be said frequently or loudly enough.
  • Negotiation: Obedience is typically imposed. Conformity requires that the norms have been negotiated by group members (more in this later).

Reference and membership

This is an important aspect of conformity that is often ignored. Individuals can belong to two distinct kinds of groups: reference groups and membership groups.

A membership group is a group to which one belongs because of some external criterion — for example, the groups "redheads" or "living on Vulture Street". A reference group, on the other hand, is any group that is psychologically significant for one's behaviour or attitudes. This might include the groups "police officers", "star trek fans", or simply a group of friends.

Some groups fall in a bit of a grey area. Take, for example, the people living in a prestigious suburb. One might assume this is a membership group, since a person is counted in the group for no other reason than where they live. If, however, living in that place somehow affects their attitudes or behaviours — say, makes them talk derisively of people from another neighbourhood, or makes them trade their Jag for a Beamer — then one must assume that it is a reference group. What is a membership group for one person might be a reference group for another. Groups based on ethnicity are a common (and treacherous) example of this.

Experiments in conformity

There have been countless experiments into the phenomenon of conformity. Some of the original experiments are very famous, and I'll focus on them.

Sherif and the negotiation of arbitrary norms

Perhaps the single most important experiment in the study of the creation of arbitrary norms and individual conformity to those norms is Muzafer Sherif's famous Autokinetic effect experiment, conducted in the mid 1930s.

Sherif believed that social norms emerge in order to guide behaviour under conditions of uncertainty. To investigate this idea, he took advantage of a perceptual illusion. Autokinesis is an optical illusion in which a fixed bright point of light in a dark room appears to move — it's caused by eye movements that occur without any visual frame of reference. People asked to estimate how much the light moves find the task very difficult, and generally feel uncertain about their estimates.

Sherif presented the point of light to test subjects several times, and had participants, who were unaware that the movement was an illusion, estimate the amount the light moved on each trial. He discovered that, when asked alone, each person used their own estimates as a frame of reference: over a series of 100 trials they gradually focussed in on a narrow range of estimates, with different people adopting different ranges.

However, Sherif also ran the experiment with participants in groups of three or four taking it in turn to call out their estimates. Under these circumstances, participants used others' estimates as the frame of reference, and converged very quickly indeed on the group average, so that after a few trials they gave virtually identical estimates. This norm seems to have become internalised, because when subsequently making autokinetic estimates on their own, participants remained strongly influenced by the norm that was negotiated in the group.

Asch: conformity, cognition, and decision-making

Another important set of experiments was conducted by Solomon Asch in the early 1950s. Although highly controversial in their interpretation and implications, they are an essential part of understanding the role that conformity plays in decision-making.

Asch designed an experiment that put a test subject into the position of having their own senses contradicted by a unanimous group of people. He presented a series of three lines of unequal length and one "comparison line" to a group of 7 participants. Six of these participants were co-operating in the experiment, however. Only one was unaware of what was going on.

Example of Asch's comparison lines:
+-----------+ +-----+
|           | |     |
|     |     | |     |
|  |  |     | |  |  |
|  |  |  |  | |  |  |
|  |  |  |  | |  |  |
|  |  |  |  | |  |  |
|  A  B  C  | |  X  |
+-----------+ +-----+

Asch showed 18 different sets of comparison lines to each group, asking each participant in the order of their seating at the table which of lines A, B or C was the same length as line X. On twelve of those eighteen trials, however, he would have everyone except for the naive participant (seated 6th at the table) give the same wrong answer.

When faced with a situation where every other member of the group gave the same answer, people whose judgement and motivation the participant had no reason to doubt, 75% of participants allowed the influence of the group to change their answer at least once. Over all, though, this situation only caused a 37% error rate — in other words, 37% of the time, Asch's participants conformed to the norm of the group, and 63% of the time they said what they could see was correct.

Conformity and life

Face it. We all conform.

Why do we do this? So that, as Deborah909 says, we don't get jostled so much in the streets, so that we can walk up the right hand side of an escalator.

We conform to norms so that we can hold conversations with people: I say a sentence or two, my turn's up, you say a sentence or two, my turn again. We conform to norms to reduce uncertainty: I'm not quite sure how to behave with this group, so I'll follow other people's lead.

Waiting in line is conforming to a norm. Saying 'please' and 'thank you' is conforming to a norm. The way you talk to and touch your friends are norms that you conform to. Not nodevertising is definitely conforming to a norm. Some norms are arbitrary — like fashion, or telephone greetings — but they still play a role in identity formation, social distinction, and group cohesion.

So, no matter how much of an individualist you think you are, no matter how different you want to be, remember this: you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, and almost every group that you identify with forces you to conform, or lose your membership.

Con*form"i*ty (?), n.; pl. Conformities (#). [Cf. F. conformité.]


Correspondence in form, manner, or character; resemblance; agreement; congruity; -- followed by to, with, or between.

By our conformity to God.

The end of all religion is but to draw us to a conformity with God.
Dr. H.More.

A conformity between the mental taste and the sensitive taste.

2. (Eng. Eccl. Hist.)

Compliance with the usages of the Established Church.

The king [James I.] soon afterward put forth a proclamation requiring all ecclesiastical and civil officers to do their duty by enforcing conformity.


© Webster 1913.

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