As insightful and fun as it is to learn about ourselves and how we function in a social context, it is equally disturbing and frightening when we realize that we (aka supposedly normal and healthy individuals) are capable of committing actions we never imagined ourselves doing just because we succumbed a little too much to the forces of social influence.
Conformity is one of those words that freak us out, right? Whenever we hear this word, we think of Milgrim’s study, the Holocaust, tortures at Abu Gharib’s prison, and many other incidents that make us wonder how such normal people can commit such hideous crimes. Conformity happens when we change our behavior to accommodate the real or imagined influence of people. Yes, that is how much we are affected by the people around us, even if they were strangers such as the Asch line experiment.
Then why do we conform? Why would we agree to do an action we don’t want to do when we should be independent individuals who can think for themselves? There are two reasons. The first is informational social influence, which means that we conform because we are in an ambiguous situation and we believe that other people’s interpretation is more accurate than ours. This also happens when the situation is a crisis or the other person is an authority figure. The second is normative social influence, which is when we conform to be liked and accepted in a group. Social norms, which are implicit or explicit rules for acceptable behavior within a group, are what dictate our behavior in the group we belong to. And since we cannot isolate ourselves from other people, conformity is sometimes inevitable.
Do we always believe what we conform to even if we were not convinced with it in the beginning? Sometimes we do. Then it is called private acceptance,which is when we conform to other people’s behavior and we believe it is the right thing to do. Sometimes we don’t. Then it is called public compliance, which is when we conform to others but we don’t believe in what they are doing or saying.
After reading this chapter, I cannot deny that I was somehow scared, scared that under powerful social influences, I might do something that it totally against my ideals or what I believe in. Right then and there, I decided to do a little research to find out how can someone resist the power of conformity. I remembered a book I had read before for a JRMC course called ” Weapons of Influence” by psychologist Robert Cialdini.
First, I highly recommend everyone to read this book, you’ll never look at yourself and other people the same way again! Second, it had a chapter about “Commitment & Consistency” and he tackled the issue of conformity. He talked about how can we not conform in cases when conformity can be dangerous or even foolish. He said that the most important aspect is awareness. Knowing about how a concept works and fully understanding its possible consequences is a strong pillar in how to secure ourselves against it.
Second, he tells us to listen to stomach signs. Don’t act so surprised, just think about it! Whenever we are put in a situation where we are not feeling comfortable or not liking where it is going, we get that feeling in our guts. Cialdini advises us to train ourselves to stop for a moment, listen to these signs, and acknowledge them. Giving ourselves the chance to consider the situation at hand will turn our thinking from automatic to controlled. Then we can make a rational decision because we have weighed the consequences well.
Third and most importantly (and the most difficult to do) is the hearts-of-hearts. It is, as Cialdini puts it, “the one place where we cannot fool ourselves. It is the place where none of our justifications , none of our rationalizations penetrate” (Cialdini 91). He is basically saying that we experience things with our emotions first (in a split second actually) before our mind begins to intellectualize them. In that split second, the most honest message is delivered, that what we are doing is not okay/cool/safe…etc. It’s where we realize that our justifications don’t make sense. What Cialdini wants us to do is train ourselves to listen to this little voice inside us so we are more able to judge our behaviors in a reasonable way. Happy conformity!
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