Individualistic Conformity

Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age.  I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immortality.

– Oscar Wilde[1]

Conformity
Photo credit to Studiousguy.com

It’s 1:26pm on a rainy Friday afternoon.  It has been a long, busy, productive, and tiring week.  I consider that I might stop for the day, binging on a book of historical fiction that has caught my fancy, taking a run through the misty streets with one of the dogs, or, perhaps the wisest of all courses – stopping cold, and allowing my busy mind to slow.  

But after five minutes of staring in a sort of mindless stupor at the world around me, that pang of guilt sprung up in my stomach and I jumped back into work.  You know the feeling?  The one that says to work hard is morally superior to taking it easy.  The one that says hard work is worthwhile, above and beyond any actual gains from that work.  While I, for one, subscribe to a 40+ hour work week, inwardly I kick myself for rarely retaining my weekend work schedule that got me through – or detracted from – my 20’s.  

And why 40 or more hours per week, but not 30 – as is the norm in many European countries?  Simple. The guilt accompanying a 30 hour work week would surpass the benefits gained. Indeed, on the rare occasions that my schedule is not full enough for a 40 hour week, I find no more than a few days pass before I start inventing new projects that will fill up my time – most of which are promptly forgotten about as soon as time again grows lean, revealing those projects for the unproductive distractions that they were.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that so many of us feel the need to work so hard, so often?  Why, if you are anything like me, you feel a twinge of guilt if you take an hour or a day away from work?  These emotions are often attributed to a “Protestant Work Ethic” or to “Protestant Guilt”, but in fact these emotions reach beyond any one religion, ethnicity, or even society.  In fact, this need for achievement is but one manifestation of highly individualistic and highly competitive cultures like the United States.[2]  My gnawing unease on this Friday afternoon illustrates the extent to which we tend to internalize our societal values, and of our deep-seeded desire to conform to the norms of our cultures – in my case, a gravitational pull even when halfway around the world.

Conformity, when we act differently from how we might act if alone, is a well-documented and powerful phenomenon.[3]  Consider the famous Milgram experiment of 1974, better known to some as the “Shock Experiment”.  In this study, participants complied with the directions of an apparent authority figure dressed in a lab coat, and willingly unleashed one electric shock after another on their fellow research subjects.  Unbeknownst to the test subjects, the shocks were fake and the targets actors feigning pain, but the vast majority of subjects proved ready to obey the exhortations of this man because society had taught them that men in lab coats are important figures not to be questioned.  Milgram, the lead author, used this study to help explain the conformity that fueled the diabolical barbarism of so many seemingly ordinary Nazi Concentration camp guards.[4]

Nearly two decades before Milgram, a social scientist by the name of Solomon Asch revealed the role of social pressure in conformity.  In this classic study, participants were asked to compare the lengths of different lines on a screen.  Unbeknownst to the study participants, several other individuals participating were in fact actors, and on cue they offered responses that were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, incorrect. And yet, around three-quarters of the participants bowed to social norms and agreed with their peers rather than express disagreement. By contrast, less than 1% answered incorrectly in the absence of pressure to conform.[5]

A considerably less well-known study took place in the Central African highlands of Rwanda.  Rwanda is a place associated in the minds of many Americans with genocide.  Memorialized by Hollywood in the film Hotel Rwanda, the year 1994 was the bloody culmination of decades – if not centuries – of disharmony, distrust and low-grade genocide between the country’s ethnic Hutu majority and its powerful Tutsi minority.  In that year, the Hutu majority, fearing the pending incursion by Tutsi forces from nearby Uganda, engaged in a systematic campaign of genocide against the Tutsi people.  In a matter of months, nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were dead – representing the majority of the Tutsis then residing in the country.  After Tutsi military forces gained control over the country, retributive campaigns on Hutu refugee camps in Congo and elsewhere resulted in several hundred thousand additional murders.[6]

This occurred within many of our lifetimes.  Perhaps you even recall reading about these events in the international section of your newspaper or seeing the occasional press conference by Western leaders – who mostly stood by and watched the horror unfold.  Today, however, Rwanda is in many ways a country reborn.  It is not perfect, and its government is occasionally criticized for behavior that falls short of liberal democratic standards.  From absolute levels of violence, however, Rwanda is ranked as one of Africa’s safest countries.[7]  Physically decimated in 1994, the country is renowned for its strong and growing infrastructure, for its nearly universal education and healthcare programs.  It’s economy grows year after year, and it serves as something of an oasis in the region – a place where aid workers position their headquarters so that they may access the troubled countries all around, while enjoying the pleasant cafes, restaurants, and year round spring weather that leaves trees and plants in a perpetual, colorful bloom.

Moreover, the animosity between Hutus and Tutsis has declined from view.  It is in fact now illegal to claim membership in either ethnic group. It is also taboo to do so, indicative of a cultural as well as legal shift. Today, rather, all are Rwandan.

A 2020 episode on National Public Radio’s Hidden Brain shed some light on the psychological mechanisms underpinning this transformation.  Shankar Vedantam tells the story of a nationally popular radio soap opera, Musekeweya.  The writers and producers worked with Holocaust surviving psychologist Ervin Staub to develop the show and to incorporate three core themes into the show: 1) that genocide accumulates slowly as individuals are devaluated, 2) that innocent bystanders have an obligation to stand up to wrongdoing, and, 3) that intermarriage between ethnic groups helps reduce intergroup tension.[8]

The NPR episode tracks down Princeton psychologist Dr. Betsy Paluck, then a Yale graduate student that studied the effectiveness of the Musekewaya’s message in shaping minds.  She found that most people did not buy into the messages of the show.  Though historians trace the multinational tit for tats preceding the genocidal eruption, the lived experience of many survivors was that the genocide erupted “like a sudden rain”.  Locals also reported that contrary to Musekewaya’s message, bystanders were in reality helpless in the face of the genocidal flood. Finally, many claimed to know first-hand of Hutu husbands that had turned against their Tutsi wives or other family members, and they dismissed the claims that intermarriage reduced ethnic tensions.[9]

In a twist on the expected causal direction, however, Paluck found that behaviors, if not attitudes, had changed.  She reported on peacemakers in villages standing up to those calling for violence, and of increased acceptance of intermarriage.  She noted that in many cases, people still believed that intermarriage was wrong, but as it became the norm, they conformed and publicly claimed to agree to that norm – just as had Asch’s participants all those decades ago.[10]

In fact, the consequences of Musekeweya were likely somewhat more complex than that reported by NPR.  In all likelihood the radio program had changed the attitudes of at least some listeners.  For others, it offered the imprimatur of legitimacy for attitudes that they had already held.  These people were in the minority – minds, after all, are hard to change – but these first-movers managed to alter what the more stubborn majority viewed as acceptable norms of behavior.  Once norms changed, the conformist majority adapted.  As the law of cognitive dissonance holds, the mind abhors a vacuum, and so soon adjusted to fit the behaviors of its bodily host.

Asch had illustrated this process nearly half a century earlier.  In a variant on his study, he inserted a “confederate”, an actor like the others but one that accurately reported the results.  Even though the number of actors answering incorrectly far outnumbered the single confederate answering correctly, the percentage of study participants (incorrectly) conforming to the majority view dropped by about 80%.[11]

Together, the Asch experiment and the Rwandan Radio program suggest the power of conformity.  It does not take all of society believing something is right, it only takes a minority, and, often, the rest will follow. In Rwanda, both the virtues and the vices of this instinct have been seen within the same one or two generations. In the United States, we suggest, the vices are already well on display, but the virtuous potential is largely untapped, awaiting those of us willing to act as first movers in establishing an alternative norm. 

It is true that the collectivism of the Rwandan people may have increased rates of conformity, a point raised in the NPR episode.[12]  But the Asch experiment and the Milgram experiment were conducted on American participants, and there too conformity occurred.  Indeed, all human societies are “groupish” in the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and as a result seek acceptance within their communities.[13]

While we often try to boost our status above others, we also compare ourselves with others to assess whether we are fitting in.  If we see women carry purses, wear earrings and dresses, and men typically not, then we tend to accept that as “normal”, although objectively speaking it is an arbitrary cultural norm – in some societies, for instance, ear stretching is common for both men and women, while in others nose piercings are the style par excellence.  

Arbitrary affectations though they may be, societies have very real ways of sanctioning those that act outside of the accepted norms.  When a man carries a bag, for instance, it may mockingly be referred to as a “man-purse”, and so not so subtly discouraged. Social sanctions of this sort encourage conformity.  

Criminal laws may signal behaviors that are seen as so far beyond the pail that they are punished with imprisonment or fines.  Other non-conformist behaviors may be prohibited, as was the case with same-sex marriage throughout most of American history.  Communities instill compliance to norms, as well, through social ostracism or stigmatization, or as was the case in ancient Greece, through exile.[14] In addition, nearly all religious communities throughout the world impose the threat of supernatural punishments during life or after death for acts of non-conformity.[15] Christians, for instance, stress the day of judgment that one will face on death,[16] while Hindu karma suggests that one’s behavior in this life – including conformity to a rigid caste system – impacts the desirability of one’s reincarnated corpus.[17]

Social scientists have documented our desire for conformity through something known as the “door in the face technique”.  This theory – tested and replicated in multiple studies – finds that compliance to a request is increased “by preceding the request for a truly desired action with a more extreme request that is likely to get rejected”.[18]  After rejecting the first, unrealistic request, in other words, conformity studies show that we are more likely to accept the next request in order to maintain harmony.

In a similar study, researchers conducted a field experiment in hopes of encouraging hotel guests to re-use their towels as part of an environmentally friendly agenda.  The researchers left one set of hotel guests a note that read in part: “the majority of hotel guests reuse their towels”, but the note did not mention environmental or any other benefits of reuse.  Another set of guests were informed of the environmental benefits to reusing their towels, but the note did not mention the behavior of other guests.  Consistent with this theme of semi-mindless conformity, guests were more likely to reuse their towel when told that others had done the same than when told that doing so would benefit the environment.[19]  

This pressure to conform dates to the earliest days of humanity. Conformity overtime gave human societies – particularly complex societies – an advantage over more free-wheeling societies.  Consequently, we are biologically programmed to care, sometimes quite deeply, how others see us.  Indeed, generation after generation of evolutionary pressure brought biological consequences that reward conformity and punish non-compliance.  For instance, conformity makes us more likeable and trustworthy and thus helps us to fit in. Gaining acceptance within a group, in turn, brings increased self-esteem and self-worth.[20] Research also suggests that being respected by others improves our emotions by around 9%.  Conversely, when we feel disrespected, the quality of our emotions decline by about 3%.[21]  

This gets us back to my Friday afternoon need for achievement. The standards to which we conform in the United States include extreme individualism, and extreme competitiveness.  One byproduct of a highly competitive society is to hold the act of achievement in particularly high regard as a signal of “victory” over others.  I, perhaps like you, am conditioned to work at least within the long ago established norms of the work week.  When I do not, I experience guilt, my mind flashing across friends and family that I assume are themselves hard at work. And, perhaps, my subconscious mind suggests, getting ahead of me? Perhaps this is why the Protestant work ethic has another name: it is Protestant guilt. 

Similarly, Americans (among others) value work as an end in and of itself.  Consider the many that brag about the long hours they work – though thankfully something of a countermovement seems to be rising against this norm.  Social scientists have shown that employed Americans have higher self-esteem than unemployed workers, not just because of their financial well-being but because of their higher status within society. For instance, the well-being of low income but employed workers is higher than their economic positions alone would predict.  Conversely, unemployed people are substantially less happy than their economic positions alone would predict.[22]  The implication is that we work, at least in part, because we are expected to. This all begs the question whether more Americans would take time off work, perhaps even an occasional sabbatical to travel or master a new hobby, if not for the expectation that we work virtually without cease from 20 to 65.  For instance, designer Steven Sagmeister gave a Ted Talk about his decision to devote one year out of every seven to world travel. Naturally for an achievement-oriented society, his Talk and accompanying media coverage focus little on lifestyle benefits, but “more importantly”[23] on how this has made him a “more creative and successful artist.”[24] It is indeed only at the age of retirement that relaxing into the sunset is socially acceptable, with older people seeing minimal declines in well-being upon retirement, probably because most societies accept retirement as the natural reward of a life of hard work.[25]   

To go against the group may subject the individual to criticism and anxiety.  When we conform to the norms of our societies, by contrast, we gain acceptance.[26]  So valuable is conformity that our minds deceive us, convincing us to defer to the wisdom of the masses and assume that if everyone is doing this or believing that, then it must be right.[27]  In the Asch experiments, for instance, we might assume that study subjects conformed to the group even while knowing that the majority assessment was wrong. After all, the correct answer was obvious 99% of the time to subjects that were not burdened with norms of conformity.  However, the conforming respondents did not just pretend to agree with their objectively wrong peers.  Many decided that they could not trust the evidence of their own eyes and convinced themselves that their peers were in fact right.[28]  

We conform because we believe others are right, not simply because we recognize the social value of conformity or fear sanctions for non-compliance. In return, we are rewarded both socially and biologically, and those positive emotions may reinforce our belief in the moral correctness of the norm.  Consequently, whatever society it is that you were born into, it is likely that you have absorbed – often without critical question – many of those lessons.  This is one explanation for ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s own society is superior to other.  The scholar James Hollis writes, “All generations are seduced into [ethnocentrism], tending to defend their vision of the world as superior to that of others. So, too, we succumb to the belief that the way we have grown to see the world is the only way to see it, the right way to see it, and we seldom suspect the conditioned nature of our perception.”[29] 

Conformity to group norms may seem antithetical to an individualistic culture.  But consider how strongly Americans as a whole subscribe to beliefs about freedom from government and others, or in their beliefs about the importance of personal responsibility and self-reliance.  In fact, and yes somewhat paradoxically, Americans conform to individualism. To do otherwise is to risk association with the foreign “other”: socialist, un-patriotic, un-American.  In the United States, therefore, it is competitive individualism which is the dominant norm, animating vast swathes of American life.[30]  

Societal norms are often tried and true methods that have given society a greater chance of survival over time.  They are in this way a form of evolution, a survival of the fittest adaptation. From this perspective, there is good reason to demand compliance, and good reason for our biology – which after all wants us to survive and reproduce – to reward us for doing so.

And yet, there is a dark side to conformity.  Societal norms to which we conform may be abused by those in power[31] – such as occurred in 1990’s Rwanda. Leaders there took to those same radio ways on which Musekeweya would later advocate peace, and used it to demand that the general population participate in the extermination of the “cockroaches”, meaning the minority ethnic Tutsi men, women, and children.[32]  A “Ten Commandments” was also published, demanding that the Hutu majority “stop having mercy on the Tutsi”.[33]

The original purpose of norms may also, over time, grow irrelevant or outdated, even as conformity leads to a continuation of the status quo.[34] Consider for instance the ongoing commitment to distinct gender roles – men at work and women in the house. While a logical division of labor in the days when hunting or farming were the norm, the physical advantages of men are decidedly less useful when coding software or designing a high-rise apartment. And yet, no society on Earth yet exemplifies gender egalitarianism, with movement towards gender equality instead, at best, incremental.[35]  Thus, cultural conformity is seen throughout the world, and on the whole this is probably quite useful, but at the margins it can lead to inequities and downright disasters.  

Ask yourself this: Are the norms of America’s competitive, individualistic society leading us in the right direction? Is it possible that some of the norms have outlived their utility? 

I spoke with Neurosurgeon and Stanford professor Dr. James Doty about all of this.  

And if you would like to learn what he had to say, then stay tuned for the published version of this material  🙂 🙂


[1] The Picture of Dorian Gray

[2] Scott, Ciarrochi, & Deane (2004).

[3] Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969; Myers, 1996

[4] Milgram 1974

[5] Asch 1956

[6] Van Reybrouck, D. (2014). Congo: The Epic History of a People, trans. Sam Garrett. New York: Ecco [an imprint of HarperCollins], 131-39.

[7] https://reports.weforum.org/travel-and-tourism-competitiveness-report-2017/sub-saharan-africa-results/

[8] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[9] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[10] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[11] Asch, 1956.

[12] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[13] Haidt, The Righteous Mind

[14] https://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-2603

[15] Johnson, D., & Bering, J. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary psychology4(1), 147470490600400119

[16] Johnson, D., & Bering, J. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary psychology4(1), 147470490600400119

[17] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste.

[18] Cialdini, et al., 1975.

[19] Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008)

[20] Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004); Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R., 1998

[21] Needs and Subjective Well Being Around the World

[22] Clark, Diener, and Georgellis, 2000; Clark & Oswald, 1994; Frey & Stutzer, 2000

[23] https://matadornetwork.com/life/every-seven-years-man-takes-year-off-travel-heres-made-successful/

[24] https://matadornetwork.com/life/every-seven-years-man-takes-year-off-travel-heres-made-successful/

[25] Diener & Diener, Will Money Increase Subjective Well-Being?

[26] Kasser et al., 2004

[27] Imhoff, R., & Erb, H. P. (2009), citing to Deutsch & Gerard, 1955 and Cialdini, 1993, respectively

[28] Asch, 1956

[29] The Middle Passage

[30] Singelis, et al., 1995.

[31] Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance

[32] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/602872309

[33] Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains

[34] Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance

[35] GLOBE.

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