Dr Jozelle Miller
September 8, 2020
To conform or not to conform

OFTEN TIMES we become combative at the notion that we MUST conform to the rules and dictates set out by others. Being oppositional seems to be what satisfies our independence and unwillingness to feel as one of the pack; we all as adults want to stand out as living according to our own rules, but is it really possible to exist in society without adhering to the concept of conformity?

Conformity involves changing your behaviors in order to “fit in” or “go along” with the people around you. In some cases, this social influence might involve agreeing with or acting like the majority of people in a specific group, or it might involve behaving in a particular way in order to be perceived as “normal” by the group.

There are many ways that people can influence our behavior, but perhaps one of the most important is that the presence of others seems to set up expectations; We do not expect people to behave randomly, but to behave in certain ways in particular situations.

Each social situation entails its own particular set of expectations about the “proper” way to behave. Such expectations can vary from group to group.

One way in which these expectations become apparent is when we look at the roles that people play in society.

Social roles are the part people play as members of a social group. With each social role you adopt, your behavior changes to fit the expectations both you and others have of that role.

In the words of William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage; and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits, and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”

These lines capture the essence of social roles.

Think of how many roles you play in a single day, e.g. son, daughter, sister, brother, students, worker, friend etc. Each social role carries expected behaviors called norms.

Why Do We Conform?

Researchers have found that people conform for a number of different reasons. In many cases, looking to the rest of the group for clues for how we should behave can actually be helpful.

Other people might have greater knowledge or experience than we do, so following their lead can actually be instructive.

In some instances, we conform to the expectations of the group in order to avoid looking foolish. This tendency can become particularly strong in situations where we are not quite sure how to act, or where the expectations are ambiguous.

Deutsch and Gerard (1955) identified two key reasons why people conform: informational influence and normative influence.

Informational influence happens when people change their behavior in order to be correct. In situations where we are unsure of the correct response, we often look to others who are better informed and more knowledgeable and use their lead as a guide for our own behaviors.

In a classroom setting, for example, this might involve agreeing with the judgments of another classmate who you perceive as being highly intelligent.

Normative influence stems from a desire to avoid punishments (such as going along with the rules in class even though you don’t agree with them) and gain rewards (such as behaving in a certain way in order to get people to like you).

The Pressure to Conform

We learn social skills from an early age by observing and copying the behavior of others. As we grow older, the social pressure to conform to group norms becomes stronger. Established group members may use a variety of tactics to persuade outsiders to conform to the group, including praising, criticizing, bullying, or teasing. Some people are resistant to the pressures of the group; naturally non-conformist, they value their independence and self-reliance over the approval of others. At its best, conformity offers a sense of belonging and group identity, but it can also bring out one’s worst impulses, by pitting a person against his or her core values.

Is Conformity good or bad?

So is conformity a good thing or a bad thing?

That is for us as individuals to decide, there are conflicting points which can be made for both sides. Maybe it mattered in the past but not so much in modern times?

Or maybe we need it a lot more today than we think. Conformity is a necessary element of society. In modern societies, when we stop at red lights at traffic stops, that is conformity, and it is necessary for the proper functioning of the traffic system, as well as for the safety of pedestrians who wish to cross the street with the confidence that they will not be victim to injury.

If people did not conform to red lights, chaos would be inevitable, therefore, conformity is a necessary element of functioning modern day society, in so much that the things that require conformity to function properly.