The Power of Conformity

“What is dangerous is not the belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us” (Lessing 724). Western society prides itself on individualism. Our choices and thoughts are our own, free from outside influence. Or are they really? Social norms govern our daily lives more than we would like to believe. As Lessing said in her quote, the problem isn’t the want or need to belong, but the ignorance surrounding what comes along with this need to belong. Conformity is a powerful thing that rules lives on a conscious and subconscious level. Parents and teachers educate us on how to follow society’s rules, how to think about certain subjects. Religion dictates how we should act around others and what principles to abide by. Media teaches us what to look like, what products to buy, and what is considered normal and abnormal. We all conform to these societal standards in one form or another. Denying the fact we conform does us more harm than good, since we become blind to the ways we do not maintain our individualism inside of groups and how we can avoid saying black is white because everyone else is saying so. This type of ignorance to the powers of social influence can have disastrous effects, from something as small as lowering a person’s self-esteem to aiding in the Holocaust.

The definition of conformity is simple; changing one’s behavior due to the real or imagined influence of other people (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 214). We conform for a variety of reasons. If we are unsure of a situation, we tend to look to others on how to react. If we see someone as a good and reliable source of information, we will conform to their beliefs. This is called informational social influence, since we are basing our information on a given situation based on others. When it comes to informational social influence, we tend to truly believe these people are correct (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 215). We also conform out of our need to be accepted and liked. We conform to a group’s social norms which is their rules (both implicit and explicit) on how to behave. We don’t necessarily have to believe in these rules of the group, however we conform so that we will be liked (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 221). Normative social influence dictates how we look, behave, what we enjoy, how we see other groups, and how we see ourselves, and thus affects us the most.

We conform when we want to be accepted and when we feel another person holds more accurate information than us. What happens when we try to go against the grain? Science has shown that people experience large amounts of discomfort and displeasure when they go against a group, even if they truly believe the group is in the wrong. Through the use of fMRIs, studies have shown that when a person dissents against a group the emotionally salient parts of their brain light up, the amygdala and the right nucleus regions. Going against the group creates an emotional burden that is rooted deeply in our very biological function (Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect 265). Not only does it create emotional turmoil, it can create problems within the group.  A study by Stanely Schacter demonstrated how a group reacts to a person who refuses to conform to the group’s ideas. When the deviant member of the group refused to conform even after the group members tried to convince them to agree, they ignored them. When asked to nominate someone to be eliminated from the group after the study, they group members elected the deviant member. In another experiment, they were asked to give members of the group tasks to accomplish. The deviant member of the group was given the unimportant and boring jobs (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 226). So, not only does going against the group create mental anguish, it also comes with punishments inside the group itself.

On a small scale, social norms affect a person’s daily life. For example, society’s depiction of women and what a woman is supposed to look to be considered attractive. There is no universal norm for what body type a woman needs to have to be attractive. In fact, in cultures where food sources are scarce or unreliable, heavy set women are preferred over skinny or moderately sized women. In societies where food is abundant, the opposite is true (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 228). The current standard of beauty for a woman is slender, as shown in all facets of Western culture. Main characters on TV are skinny women (often white), models and product spokeswomen are thin women. Women on the more moderate or heavy side are rarely portrayed as being attractive, pretty or desirable. This has detrimental effects on a woman’s self-image. The American Anorexia Bulimia Association has released statistics indicating that one-third of 12- to 13-year-old girls are actively trying to lose weight through diets, vomiting, laxatives, or taking diet pills. Girls as young as 7 are also reporting being dissatisfied with their bodies. These beliefs are heightened after these children and young women are exposed to media portrayals of thin women (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 230). Women are not the only ones affected by societal norms of how one should look, men are also exposed to how they should appear on a daily basis. Today’s depiction of men have them as hypermuscular in the media. Just as in women, these depictions of the male body lead to men having negative feelings with their own bodies. Another finding is when men are exposed to male-oriented media as well as movies, they value thinness in women more (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 231). Social norms surrounding a person’s body is a two way street that is upheld not only by the target audience, but those who also experience the media.

Conformity, especially the need to obey authority, can lead to much larger scale disasters as well. The Holocaust, one of the most horrific events of recent history, can be partially attributed to conformity. Prejudice is a negative or hostile attitude toward an entire group of people. The beliefs and actions carried out against the Jews during World War II were severe forms of prejudice. Since people feel the need to be accepted and liked in their group and will often conform to the group norms even if they do not fundamentally believe in them. By living in a society that unabashedly promotes prejudice, such as Nazi Germany, people are more likely to hold prejudices against certain groups (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 414). Society believed Jews were inferior and horrible people and thus, people were more likely to hold this behavior. Another factor that contributes to this is the need to obey authority. We are taught from a young age that we need to obey people who hold authority over us such as parents, teachers, police, and the government. This is a universal norm that isn’t in just Western cultures. Philip Zimbaro’s Stanford Prison Experiment is a great example of how ordinary people can carry out heinous actions that are seen as outside of their character. In an experiment that only lasted six days, despite being planned for two weeks, ordinary college students turned into horrific prison guards towards fellow students who were supposed to be prisoners (Zimbardo, “Stanford Prison” 742). These guards subjected the prisoners to pointless and menial labor, subjected them to name calling and encouraged the other prisoner’s to do the same, and punished for failing to abide by arbitrary rules. The prisoners were subjected to public humiliation and torment (Zimbardo, “Stanford Prison” 737). This experiment into how ordinary people can turn from good to evil in a matter of few days, sheds light onto how people during the Holocaust could turn a blind eye or even become part of the atrocities. These people fell into their roles of guards and conformed to the identity of what society dictated a guard should be; brutal, ruthless, uncaring, and authoritarian. However, Zimbardo’s experiments are one facet of how conformity can lead to terrible occurrences like the Holocaust and only lightly touches on the power of conforming to authority.

Milgram’s research into the power of authority sheds more light onto this issue. In his study, people were told that the researcher was studying the effects of punishment on learning. The student was in another room with electrodes connected to them. The teacher (the person participating in the study) was to give the student an electric shock with each wrong answer, increasing the intensity each time. In reality, the test was to see how far people would go hurting a person under the command of an authority figure (Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect 270). Under the command of this authority figure, 65% of the volunteer teachers went to the full voltage (450 volts), despite the desperate pleas for them to stop the experiment from the student. When the teacher experienced doubts or became nervous about the experiment, the authority figure reassured them that everything was fine, and the teacher continued (Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect 271). Apply this to the soldiers of Nazi Germany in World War II. Their commanders told them what they were doing was ok and right, including the highest authority figure in the country. While they may not have completely agreed with their orders, they still obeyed the authority figure like they were taught to. They conformed to the social norm of obeying authority figures and conformed to the idea of what a good soldier and a good German was at the time.

Conformity can be extremely dangerous as shown by example. However, it does not always have to be. Understanding what conformity is and how we are affected by it is the greatest weapon against the damages of conformity. By acknowledging that humans are programmed to conform in some way, that we all conform in one way or another, we can begin to look at things objectively (Lessing 725). Simply being aware of the nature of human interaction is the greatest way to overcome our conformist tendencies. We must realize our mistakes, take responsibility for our actions, assert our unique identities and pay attention to our surroundings (Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect 452). We cannot underestimate our power to go against the grain when actions and beliefs are unjust. We must be forever vigilant of the forces at work against us that threaten to undermine our individuality as well as accept human nature for what it is.

Works Cited (MLA)

Aronson, E., T. Wilson, and R. Akert. Social psychology. 7th. Upper Saddle Rive, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.

Lessing, Doris. “Group Minds.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J. Rosen. 11. New York: Longman, 2010. 301-03. Print.

Zimbardo, Philip G. “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J. Rosen. 11. New York: Longman, 2010. 301-03. Print.

Zimbardo, Philip. The lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House Inc, 2007. Print.


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