My thoughts on social conformity: do you agree?

http://xkcd.com/1170/

I love reason. (from http://xkcd.com/1170/)

Some people like to follow trends. Scratch that. I think most people follow some trends whether they consciously realize it or not. No, not that either. People do what other people do, or in other words, people in a society are like a school of fish collectively turning this way and that. Without fail there are always going to be a few fish that don’t turn on schedule with the rest. Being fish there is no way to know their reasons. But when making the comparison to people I think the reasons are either that they simply miss the turn and eventually catch up or they decide that they do not want to follow the group. For those who decide they don’t want to follow the group it is likely because they personally don’t see the value in following the group or they need more attention than conformity allows for. Conformity is an interesting topic.

I remember hanging around Montpelier (Vermont) after high school. I worked at the Subway restaurant and played in a punk influenced rock band called Ready or Not. There was a small contingency of punk rockers still attending high school that would show up to all of the little shows that would be put on. One of the crew had recently moved with his family from Massachusetts. He was punk rock through and through; from his attitude and attention span to his legit mo-hawk and studded leather. He was a lot of fun and became a sort of leader or model for the local scene. Everyone knew him and it seemed to be a measure of your punk rock-ness how you compared to him. At least in my budding social scientist perspective that’s how it seemed. Punk rock, a trend about being yourself and bucking traditional roles and boundaries, is all about how you compare to the scene leader. The leader chose the bands and the fashions, either you conformed or you didn’t have credibility. If you didn’t conform to the mainstream you always had a home with the punk scene, as long as you conformed to the punk scene. Conformity is a vital part of society, even in the sub-cultures.

Conformity as a social influence is pretty mild. It represents the freedom of choice between following or not following others. Compliance and command are each a few steps up the ladder from conformity. To conform is more independent than to comply which is more independent than obeying a command. So what is wrong with conformity? Well, nothing objectively. Conformity is the exercise of rational thought and independent will. It should be anyway. Refer to the cartoon posted above. The stickman uses rational thinking to decide whether he will follow the group or not, and he makes a strong argument. Of course, from the point of view of his conversation companion we see that conforming to the group behavior isn’t perceived as being the right thing to do. Conformity takes on a subjective value of good or bad. Conformity itself is not bad, but it is important to be fully aware of what the target consists of.

During the recent presidential election there were some comedian types who made videos of talking to people on the street about the candidates. I don’t know if selective editing was used, but some of these videos make people look like complete morons. Let’s hope for the sake of the people in the videos they were just victims of selective editing. In one video the interviewer lists off some campaign promises of one candidate and asks what the respondent thinks about it. The respondents shown were all rooting for the other guy. They all thought the campaign promises were awful and couldn’t believe how someone could want that. They were then given the switcheroo and told that the campaign promises of the enemy were actually things their guy had already voted for and supported in previous government positions. Some dismissed it and maintained support of their guy, others said maybe they needed to do some research on it. I wonder if they were just conforming without giving the matter any rational thought to begin with. If all of your friends vote for this guy would you do it, too?

We are social; relationships are part of what we are as people. Even those with introvert trait preferences like me still like socializing. I prefer it on my terms and I keep a very tight circle. Obviously the internet isn’t reality so introversion and extroversion don’t apply to the so-called “social” websites. In real life though most people want to be accepted by other people and behave in whatever way they perceive will help them to do so. Whether that is making a video of your chess club lip syncing to “Call Me Maybe” or picking a side in the gun control issue or whatever. Social conformity occurs whether we like it or not, whether we intend it or not. I know I am likely to conform, so I try to immerse myself with examples of what I would like to be like. I don’t always do it well, but that is my hope. For me the ultimate target I would like to conform to is Jesus Christ. If I have to conform to anyone or any style, I don’t think I could do better than him.

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About paulbrodie

I am a writer and a musician. My education is in psychology with emphasis in industrial/organizational psychology. My work experience has been primarily with electronic document management. Academically and intellectually I am interested in criminology and sociology. I am married to my favorite person in the world and we have one daughter.
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One Response to My thoughts on social conformity: do you agree?

  1. Pingback: Tried and true | Paul Brodie

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