www.whyville.net Apr 11, 2010 Weekly Issue

Guest Writer

Why We Conform: The Power of Groups

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Have you ever suddenly noticed when you were in a group of people where they all were doing or saying something different to you? Did you feel uncomfortable about this? Did you feel an unspoken pressure to go along with the rest of the group? If so, you were simply complying with your need to conform.

Whenever we change our behavior, views, and attitudes in response to the real or imagined presence of others, we are experiencing conformity. Why we conform is a topic of great interest to social psychologists. Research has demonstrated two main types of conformity: informal and normative.

Informative conformity often occurs in situations where there is high uncertainty. In an unfamiliar situation, we are likely to shape our behavior to match that of others. The actions of others inform us of the way to do things in a situation. The others around us inform us of what is right to do and how to behave in new situations. For example, if you walked into a school in a foreign country and saw all the students taking off their shoes, you would do the same if you hadn't been instructed.

In addition to conforming to the group when we don't know what to do, we also conform when we want to be liked by the group. The need for conformity is that desire to go along with norms of a group of people, so you will be accepted as an in-group person (and not rejected as an out-group person.) This type of conformity, called normative conformity, is the most common form of social conformity. When we are concerned about making a good impression in front of a group, we choose to fit our actions and ideas to those around us. Though we may disagree secretly with the group opinion, we may verbally adopt the stance so that we seem like a team player.

We are a tribal animal, which leads us to have a deep need to belong to a group of some sort. Conforming to group expectations is a signal to the other group members that 'I am like you. I am following our rules. I am not a threat.' This signal indicates your consistency of behavior, allowing the other people to predict what you will do. It is also a step along the way to increasing your ranking within the group.

Different groups have different norms or rules to which group members conform. These rules can be related to behavior, attitude, dress, language, etc. The degree to which other people conform to the rules provides their desire to be a group member.

In-group members who conform strongly are core members who are asserting the identity of the group. Within a group there are also the fringe members who are trying to impress the core members, perhaps to be accepted into the 'inner circle' (which is in fact another group-within-the-group.) Further out, people outside the group may similarly imitate group members either to seek admission to the group or to form an admiring group who are seeking to gain some reflected glory. An example is pop fans who dress like their idols.

The strength of desire to conform is a personality trait whereby some people will try to conform to whatever group they are in at a time, while other 'non-conformists' will go in the other direction, deliberately asserting their individuality by rejecting all but a very few sets of norms. Teenagers come to mind, as they reject their parents, being non-conformists in the family, while at the same time desperately conforming with peer-group norms as they seek acceptance by the cliques and gangs of the schoolyard.

The pressures of conformity impact us everyday, for good or for bad. A staple of a functioning society is that people follow social norms such as obeying traffic laws, respecting others' property, and calm aggression in non-violent ways. However, conformity can have negative effects if one conforms automatically without questioning the reason behind the rules.

This is zuei signing off.


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