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CONFORMITY: A SOCIO/PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE

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The individual images used in this composite are in the public domain, and/or determined to be within the “FAIR USE” doctrine of Section 107 of the Copyright Act.

“If there is anything the nonconformist hates worse than a conformist, it’s another nonconformist who doesn’t conform to the prevailing standard of nonconformity.”                                              –American columnist Bill Vaughn

The corridor between conformity and nonconformity is an ill-defined two-way street. These two seemingly antithetical concepts are far from mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they must struggle to coexist in civilized society.

Conformity represents the tendency to “go with the flow,” and not “rock the boat.” Perceived as the path of least resistance, it refers to our inclination to adjust our behavior to satisfy the expectations of others. This quality stems from a desire for acceptance, fear of rejection, and a belief that others possess superior knowledge. While conformity can breed stagnation, it also serves to provide individual comfort and is a stabilizing tenet of society.

 “United we stand and divided we fall.”  Patrick Henry

Nonconformity can cause societal friction and personal rejection while simultaneously serving to encourage progress and shape the future of society. Being a nonconformist is not about fighting for the sake of fighting. Nonconformists do not seek to burn things down and watch the smoke settle. They desire to create transformation and positive change. Examples include medical breakthroughs, social justice initiatives, and cultural enlightenment.

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”     John F. Kennedy

Psychologically, in addition to the altruistic angle, nonconformists achieve a feeling of accomplishment by the realization of their potential. These factors are represented at the apex of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of needs 1.” Nonconformity encourages one’s personal search for individual authenticity and serves as a pathway to achieving personal fulfillment. Nonconformists display a deep-seated commitment to their moral compass and ethical standards.

Being a nonconformist is not about fighting for the sake of fighting. Nonconformists do not seek to burn things down and watch the smoke settle. They desire to create transformation and positive change.

“A time to be silent, and a time to speak.”  –Ecclesiastes 3:7

Throughout history, nonconformists have been those not intimidated into silence. They have been among those who we admire the most. Many have been castigated for their viewpoints, regardless of how significant their contributions were. A self-defining moment for a nonconformist is the selfless bravery required to speak up, while being aware of the potential consequences.

“No good deed goes unpunished.” 

Throughtout history, nonconformists have been those not intimidated into silence.

In 1633, Galileo was rewarded for his monumental discoveries by being convicted of heresy. He remained under house arrest until his death in 1642. His contributions included pioneering the use of the night telescope, observing the stars of the Milky Way, and demonstrating that the world does not revolve around the earth.

Marie Curie, the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, as well as the first individual to be awarded twice, was prevented from attending a traditional university by the restrictive policies of the Russian Empire. She risked her life by enrolling in Warsaw’s (illegal) Flying University. She went on to discover radium and invented the term “radioactivity.”

Individuals like Socrates, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Picasso, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. have demonstrated the immense power of nonconformity.

Conformity vs. nonconformity when applied to religion.

Those who subscribe to religious customs and dogma have been described as both conformists and nonconformists, depending on the prevailing reality at the time.

When Jesus was crucified, his followers, anxiously awaiting his return, were nonconformists. They remained nonconformists until three hundred years later when Emperor Constantine granted legal status to Christianity.

In England in 1662, The Act of Uniformity defined Nonconformists as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Calvinists. By 1851, these nonconformists became the conformists by outnumbering adherents of the Church of England.

As Jews, nonconformity defines us.

“Outliers are those that have been given opportunities – and who  have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”                      Malcolm Gladwell

ABRAHAM THE IDOL SMASHER (From, “Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends” by Sol Aronson,1919. This media file is in the public domain in the United States.)
 

Our patriarch Abraham was born and raised in a climate of idolatry. Religious sects from India to China to the Aegean Sea and throughout Mesopotamia subscribed to the global practice of idolism.

Abraham’s father, Terah, ran a successful business dedicated to the manufacturing and marketing of these fallacious figurines. All was well in Terah’s One-Stop Trinket Shop… until one day when this trusting but naive father left his impulsive son in charge.

Abraham, with a flash of genius and chutzpah, grabbed a stick and smashed all but the largest idol. He then placed the stick in the mighty mitt of the intact icon.

Upon Terah’s return, he looked around, glared at Abraham, and yelled “What the f…?”

Abraham responded with confidence.

“A woman came in to make a religious offering. She placed a plate of yogurt and veal on the table. The idols began to squabble over who gets to eat first. A brawl broke out and this fellow (pointing to the well-armed idol) smashed all the others and enjoyed a delicious lunch.”

Terah, forced to come to his senses, said to Abraham in his stern fatherly voice,

“They are only statues. They have no hunger or knowledge.”

To which his wise son responded,

“Then why do you worship them?”

And so, our long tradition as outliers was born. Even amongst ourselves, rather than conform to a united Jewish community defined by consensus, we take pride in the plurality of Jewish identities, experiences, customs, and cuisines.

Conformity/Nonconformity in the age of cyberspace.

In 1956, long before the introduction of the Internet, American psychologist Solomon Asch led a group of investigators to study the effects of peer pressure on college students in regard to the qualities of independence and lack thereof. The study revealed a lack of independent thought and the dominance of conformity in the face of group pressure (2.)

In another study, investigators studied three individual determinants of conformity:

  1. The extent of initial disagreement between the individual’s and the group’s opinion.
  2. The number of occasions the individual was exposed to the group norm.
  3. The size of the group.

Conformity to the group norm occurred within the first few exposures to the group3.

A third study documented the linear relationship observed between the size of a majority group and individual conformity among 154 high school students. The investigators studied two parameters.

  1. Perceived contingency of others’ choices (“following the leader”).
  2. Perceived independence from others’ choices.

In both groups, conformity increased based on the size of the group up until a group size of three was reached (4.)

When these and other historical studies were published, a lively debate ensued regarding the influence that the size a group plays on conformity. Startling conclusions demonstrated that the majority’s size did not have much effect beyond a minimal number. These findings are now being challenged (5).

These pre-Internet researchers could not have fathomed the magnitude of the “group size,” which exists in cyberspace. They also could not have imagined the speed and ease of information dissemination, retrieval, and subsequent comments, reactions, and discussion.

Normative social influence

“Normative social influence” is defined in social psychology as “the influence of other people that leads us to conform in order to be liked and accepted by them”( 6.) The power of normative social influence stems from the human identity as a social being, with a need for companionship and association (7.)

This concept has taken on new meaning with the advent of social media.

Internet-based social influence involves going along with the masses in order to be “liked” or “shared,” with the potential reward of “going viral.” Social media encourages individuals to conform to peers as well as to complete strangers. In this context, conformity is defined as someone changing their personal values, beliefs, or behaviors to match, imitate, or coincide with those of real or imagined third parties or groups.

Why do highly intelligent individuals in the social media arena frequently make bad decisions?

The widely accepted theory of “Groupthink” developed by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 provides insight to this troubling phenomenon (8).

Symptoms of groupthink include:

  1. an illusion of invulnerability or of the inability to be wrong.
  2. the collective rationalization of the group’s decisions.
  3. an unquestioned belief in the morality of the group and its choices.
  4. stereotyping of the relevant opponents or out-group members.
  5. the presence of “mindguards” who function as barriers to alternative or negative information.
  6. self-censorship.
  7. an illusion of unanimity.

The prevention of groupthink necessitates an unpunished ability to criticize group decisions, as well as a focus on group leadership, which permits dissent. Social media groups tend to avoid these groupthink safeguards.

Influencer: one who exerts influence: a person who inspires or guides the actions of others: a person who is able to generate interest in something by posting about it on social media (9).

“Influencers,” often with no credentials or qualifications other than popularity and visual appeal, are viewed as authorities by their followers. Problematically, they have an unparalleled ability to reach young, malleable, manipulatable minds. Their followers are triggered by a psychological need to assimilate this new information into their own preferences and choices and have a desire to follow influencers for guidance on social expectations. “Informational social influence is the change in opinions or behavior that occurs when we conform to people who we believe have accurate information (10.)”

When an influencer voices a controversial political opinion with the voice of authority, their followers, with faith in its source and trust its validity will recklessly circulate cyberspace mythology as factual. If the message is later proven heavily biased, completely fictitious, or based on malicious gossip, it is too late. Of course, the story of the Rabbi and the feather pillow comes to mind (11).

The widespread dissemination of Holocaust denial, junk science, “health secrets,” clandestine government plots, the assertion that a secret of great importance is being kept from the public, and false narratives promoting bigotry, hatred, and racism can appear on our social media pages, in our mailboxes, and on our message boards with immediacy never before imagined.

The effects of sharing our content on social media leads to acts of conformity based on others’ feedback, both positive and negative. Individuals tend to conform to group norms. The social pressures that stem from social media have increased over time due to constant repetitive exposure (12). The desire to feel socially connected to others is in our nature as humans. When participants were faced with opposition, they were more likely to conform to the group (13). According to Craig A. Hill, Senior Vice President of RTI International’s Social, Statistical, and Environmental Sciences, there exists a positive correlation between social media usage and conformity. It is human nature to want a connection with others (14.).

The Good News: Optimism

The rapidly expanding cyberspace universe was invented by nonconformists like Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and so many more.

Early in the Zuckerberg success story, he turned nonconformity into an art. As Facebook’s founder and CEO, he strolled into his roadshow IPO meetings filled with professionally dressed bankers and investors wearing the finest suits and accessories.

Mark Zuckerberg
(Image used for information purpose only. Picture Credit: https://wallpapercave.com)

Zuckerberg, being the nonconforming type, clad in understated leisure wear, hoodie and all, was asking them for billions of dollars. His controversial risky attire was perceived as disrespectful by some, but to others it signaled confidence, conviction, and esteem. The rest is history.

The future depends on our children and our children depend on us.

A mother and her somewhat reluctant 12- year-old son strolled through the Museum of Modern Art. When Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 was in view, the child commented:

“I could have done that.”

The mother responded, “Perhaps, but you didn’t!”

As parents, grandparents, mentors, and role models, we must encourage our children and their children to be creative and emphasize individuality.

We owe it to our children to provide honesty, integrity, trust, and compassion during the tumultuous vicissitudes they encounter on their journey to adulthood and beyond. The complexity of their world dwarfs that of our youth.

Mahatma Gandhi’s statue of the three monkeys
Author: Kalyan Shah
(Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license)

In the overwhelming realm of cyberspace, sensory overload reigns and multi-tasking is the rule. Regardless of its complexities, our failsafe should be the ancient adage of the Three Wise Monkeys. Embrace wisdom, practice ethical consciousness, and encourage our youth to use reasoning when they speak, to question what they see, and to interpret what they hear.

The world has enough followers. What they need is better quality leaders.

As the famed prophetic philosopher and philosemitic mensh Dr. Seuss (15) reminded us in his final publication, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”(16)

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You’re on your own, and you know what you know.
And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.


REFERENCES

    1. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50 (4):370-396.
    2. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1–70. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0093718
    3. Goldberg, S. C. (1954). Three situational determinants of conformity to social norms. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49(3), 325–329.)
    4. Gerard, H. B., Wilhelmy, R. A., & Conolley, E. S. (1968). Conformity and group size. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(1, Pt.1), 79–82.)
    5. https://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html
    6. Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2005). Social Psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
    7. Aronson, Eliot; Timothy Wilson; Robin Akert. “Conformity: Influencing Behavior”. Social Psychology. Pearson. Retrieved 15 November 2013.
    8. Schmidt, Anna. “groupthink”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Jan. 2024, https://www.britannica.com/science/groupthink. Accessed 11 March 2024.
    9. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/influencer
    10. Cialdini, Robert & Goldstein, Noah. (2004). Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity. Annual review of psychology. 55. 591-621. 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015.
    11. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/812861/jewish/A-Pillow-Full-of-Feathers.htm
    12. https://medium.com/@vidalvelez93/social-media-affects-go-beyond-what-we-see-conformity-211cb259368a
    13. https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/chapter/the-many-varieties-of-conformity/
    14. Hill, C. A. (1987). Affiliation motivation: People who need people… but in different ways. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(5), 1008–1018. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.52.5.1008
    15. https://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/dr-seuss-and-the-jews-2/2021/03/03/
    16. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh,_the_Places_You%27ll_Go!
About the Author
Gary Branfman, MD is co-founder of Israelnow.ca, past president of Congregation B’nai Israel in Victoria, Texas and singlehandedly had the IHRA definition of Antisemitism endorsed by the City. Dr. Branfman has lectured internationally on Racism and has written for several publications. He has appeared on CBS evening news with David Begnaud and Al Jazeera.
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