Deep thoughts from the darkside: individuality vs. conformity


This is going to be a heavier post than what I normally try, but I read some really interesting psychological articles recently, and they spawned a conversation with Emerald that really stuck in my head and got my rusty wheels turning, and I suspect that the incessant squeaking they’ve been causing will continue until I textually vomit out all my inquisitive mental energy upon you kindly e-friends. And by the way, it’s a really long argument about whether human individuality is good or bad, how conformity effects society, and how the two should balance out for the survival of mankind, so if psychology doesn’t interest you, go ahead and check out the funniest site ever, but if you like deep psychological musings, read through it, cause I would love some feedback.

It all started with an article I stumbled across about five psychological experiments in history that have revealed a dark and terrible side to human kind. A side that has long interested me and driven me to explore, mostly through my own musings, what causes people to be so persistently stupid and cruel. Topics like cowardice, sadism, and blind conformity. Especially blind conformity. That topic alone has absolutely fascinated and frustrated me since I was in elementary school, and forced to attend and conform to a dogmatic church festering in the abuse of “spiritual authority” which I now realize was much more of a cult than anything else.

My bitterness towards religion aside, or rather emphasized, this article caught my eye because it addressed many of the things I experienced while attending that church as a child. Stay with me, because it’s kind of a long thought process. It starts out with something called the Asch Conformity Experiment, in which extremely simple eye tests are performed on groups, All but one of the participants are told to lie about their answers as a unanimous front, and the reaction of the one real participant is then observed. When the participants are alone and opposed by the group, despite being obviously wrong, just over thirty percent of the subjects would go along with the group.

This means that one third of mankind is so pressured to conform by a vast majority that even when they are 100%, without a doubt wrong, they will conform.

Now there are various reasons for conformity, for the sake of this particular line of thought, we’ll stick to informational influence and normative influence. With normative influence people conform to a group to be liked or accepted by the group, while with informative influence they turn to the group for information, and conform their actions or opinions because the group convinces them they are correct.

Another series of tests was conducted with an eyewitness identification task, participants were shown a suspect individually and then in a lineup of other suspects. In the tests the participant groups were shown an individual, and then had to identify him together in a lineup. One test gave the participants only one second to look at the lineup, and another made it easier. In both tests two groups were formed, and one was fed a story that would make them believe their answers were very important for the legal field, and the other knew they were merely in a clinical trial.

When the task was made easy, those who most wanted to be accurate conformed less of the time (16%) than those who didn’t feel their answers were important (33%). This would suggest that for non core beliefs, apathy promotes conformity 33% of the time. However when the task was made more difficult, Those who wanted to be most accurate conformed 51% of the time as opposed to 35% in the other group. This would suggest (to me at least, this is where I start extrapolating my own ideas) that for core beliefs, and important issues that fall somewhere in the grey zone of life, for times when an issue matters to someone, but they aren’t sure exactly what to think themselves, that 51% will go along with the public opinion in their group. It suggests that when we are confronted with complicated moral issues, we are most succeptable to informational influence.

Now a group can be any size, whether it be a particular demograph, or a culture, a country, religion, or political group. It could just be your friends, or family. Let’s use politics for an example, because it’s easy to see in society. If a political group can popularize their cause or opinions, then half of everyone who believes their cause matters will go along with whatever the majority says, and one third of everyone who doesn’t think the cause matters will go along with the majority too. You can see how this could quickly spiral out of control, with a very small minority of core believers highly influencing what soon becomes the vast majority of the whole society, turning an issue that could easily be completely incorrect (coughglobalwarmingcough) into majority supported law, merely on the basis of fancy words and the highly submissive and easily influenced subconscious mind of what (in my assessment) boils down to the majority of human kind.

The next study that fascinated me was the Milgram Experiment, where the subject was told he was a “teacher” and that his job was to give a memory test to another subject, located in another room. The whole thing was fake and the other subject was an actor. The subject was told that whenever the other guy gave an incorrect answer, he was to press a button that would give him an electric shock. A guy in a lab coat was there to make sure he did it, but of course the other subject was not really being shocked. The subject was told that the shocks started at 45 volts and would increase with every wrong answer. Each time they pushed the button, the actor on the other end would scream and beg for the subject to stop. Eventually the actor would stop his screams and only silence would come from the other room, but the test subject would be told to continue his shocks.

Between 61 and 66 percent of subjects would continue the experiment until it reached the maximum voltage of 450. (by the way, for those of you not blue collar types who may go through life without getting shocked much, that’s a fuck ton more electricity than it takes to kill someone) In another test the training procedure was repeated with a puppy, and real shocks. 20 out of 26 people took it to the highest setting.

As funny as that mental image may be, the implication of the test was that when told by a person in a position of authority, in this case the scientist in the lab coat, almost 80 percent of people would gladly kill a puppy, and 61-65 percent would kill a stranger. Let that sink in for a second, 65 percent of people are willing to kill a stranger if “the man” tells them to. For a scientific test, not even a holy war. This explains a lot of the psychology behind the third Reich, and religious extremism. Not just terrorists all you Jerry Falwell loving, rock and roll hating, gay protesting, bible thumping bitches. I mean you and your stupid ass church-state aspirations too. Your pastor could be “the man” for you, and we’ll get to you pastor with my next experiment.

The last experiment was the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this students from Standford were set up with the role of prisoners and guards. The basement of a building was built into a prison, and the guards were instructed not to use physical violence, but to make sure they kept law and order in the prison. It was supposed to last two weeks.

After the first day the prisoners, in retaliation towards the guard highly abusive behavior, staged a revolt and barricaded themselves in their cells. In the following days the guards punished the prisoners by stripping them naked, denying them access to a bathroom, waking them at all hours for forced exercise, degrading verbal abuse, and humiliating physical mockery. After four days four of the prisoners had broken down from stress and had to be released. By the sixth day everyone involved in the experiment, including the professor who ran it, had completely lost contact with reality, and had assumed the roles they were playing. Other staff objected to the point that the experiment had to be shut down.

I found a half hour documentary on the tests, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in psychology, human morality, or the prison system watch it. The three videos on YouTube are located here:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Anyway, these series of experiments into human behavior got me thinking. If a small majority can use the subconscious tendencies of the majority to gain power, (Asch conformity test) and the overwhelming majority of people will willingly obey those in power even when strongly in conflict with their own morals, (Milgram Experiment) and being in a position of power has such a corrupting and evil influence when put in the context of volatile or stressful situations, like prison, (Stanford Prison Experiment) or for the sake of argument, any similar situation where the people not in power are perceived as being dangerous, rebellious, or in some way in need of firm control, what does that say about mankind and our history, or our current social and political state of affairs? In test after test after test I ran across, most people were not only unwilling to stand up to tyranny and unethical behavior, but not even willing to help out their fellow man when it would take little or no effort. Are we inherently evil? Is all power on our planet simply decided by which extreme minority is capable of convincing the people too stupid or submissive to think for themselves? Can I even be sure that my own views are something I really believe in, or merely just me conforming to various beliefs held by other people?

Or is this dark, sometimes destructive behavior something more. What good thing could come from having a human species consisting of 90% sheep and 10% sheep dogs? After thinking this over and over, I am filled with a desire to behave out of my own individualism. I’ve always had anti establishment, and nonconformist tendencies, but at the same time I can look at my own life and observe conformity from my own beliefs in clear bold type throughout my life. I’ve worn stupid clothes to try and fit in. I’ve done things I don’t enjoy doing to make friends and impress women. I’ve even found myself occasionally swayed by clearly retarded political and religious philosophies. I won’t lie, I have been a sheep more often than I would like. And the numbers are not on my side. So what good thing could possibly come from most everyone living a life that isn’t theirs?

Well what if this conformist to individualist ratio we find in humans is part of a greater purpose? What if it is a subconscious self protection mechanism that has been instilled in mankind to benefit our species as a whole, a form of swarm intelligence that allows our species to survive?

Maybe if everyone was prone to think for themselves, and act on their own beliefs and desires all the time without a high level of conformity, then mankind would not be capable of forming functioning societies of any size. We could be thrown into anarchy, tribalism, or driven to extinction by unchecked vigilantism and violence. Perhaps the majority of people conform to other peoples values and ideas instinctively so that mankind is capable of forming cooperative groups: countries, companies, religions, maybe even ultimately a global union. Maybe on a primitive survival level it doesn’t matter if blind conformity leads to war, turmoil, and genocide. Maybe it’s better for our overall survival to have anyone in control of everyone, than to have everyone in control of no one.

So the question then comes, how important is individuality. I highly value mine, I’m assuming you value yours. Most everyone feels unique and to some degree wants to establish a firm self image and not be some worker drone. I would say that most of the really good things in history and human advancement, along with the really bad, have been born out of the individual thinkers. Those who had an idea and refused to listen to anyone else till it had become a reality. But if everyone was a free thinker, could society function? Without being a bunch of mindless followers, would we be spear chucking cave people? Screw that.

I don’t know. I have no answer for that question. I want to be individual, but at the same time I can respect some societies and organizations that are bigger than me and require my subordination to achieve something I alone could not. I don’t know if it’s better to be a follower and think you are individual, or be a freethinker and know everyone else is retarded.

I have a headache now. That was way, way, way too deep to be thinking on a Tuesday night. Now it’s your turn. If you actually made it all the way through that, what’s your take on conformity, authority, leadership, and the role we all play as an alleged individual? Does it matter? Am I completely wrong in my analysis? Are you individual despite what the numbers science has come up with say? Are you unknowingly just a tool for someone else? Hit me back, I want feedback.

Err ….. uh ….. informational influence? DAMMIT!!! Ignorance was bliss after all.

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15 responses to “Deep thoughts from the darkside: individuality vs. conformity

  1. This was an awesome conversation. Perhaps a good way of gaining inner peace on the whole topic is to think of ‘conformity’ as something more along the lines of cooperation. I conform on a daily basis to fairly strict corporate guidelines (branded pens placed on branded memo pad, logo facing up at a left-downward 45 degree angle, for one example). But I wouldn’t consider it blindly following, since I’m more than willing to do a job that I get paid for, especially one I don’t mind at all. And I hope that a lot of people go along with things because they’re willing to exchange individuality for other benefits such as security. That’d doesn’t stop a good many systems from falling to curruption, but I think there is a big difference between conforming and blindly following. After all, I follow the damn dress code and pay my taxes, but I’m still surrounded by idiots most of the time. 😉

  2. I think that if you asked a random bunch of folks if they considered themselves individuals or conformists, nearly 100% would identify as an individual. Clearly, this isn’t right, but it also isn’t surprising.
    I think that people obviously had to evolve to work as groups….lions, tigers and bears don’t go down without a fight, and babies are a helluva lot of work (takes a village and all that). We continue to need support throughout our lives, so we can’t turn our backs on conformity altogether, since we’ll inevitably need help quite often during our times.
    However, I think that most people (the sheep) are predictably unique, within their own groups. Catch that? It’s like goth kids. They’re all ‘against the man’ and don’t care for fashion and trends and don’t care if they have the latest ‘it’ haircut and don’t aspire to drive an SUV…….look at them, bucking the norm….but they all buck it in the EXACT same way. They only kind of want to be individuals, but still need that safety net, that social acceptance, that assurance that if their car breaks down, someone will come get them.
    Now, OBVIOUSLY (scoff), I’m a true individual. I really don’t care too much about others, don’t care too much about trends, don’t care too much about what people hear me muttering about them on the subway.
    But I still conform. Not much. I don’t go out, I don’t smoke weed, I don’t want kids, I don’t want the ‘burbs, I don’t talk to my parents just cuz I ‘should’….but I allow Emerald to get away with stuff. Cuz I know one day it’ll be me being the bitch and I’ll need her to tell me to smarten the hell up.
    What’s my point?
    I haven’t a fucking clue, my friend, but good post.

  3. greenmetropolis is right about cooperation vs. conformity. It is important that one asks oneself why he’s accepting the rules that are placed in front of him. That will put you at least one step ahead of oh, 75% of the population, easily. Unquestioning conformity is scary.

    OTOH, I believe that mankind is inherently bad anyway, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me.

  4. The only thing that comes to mind is that there is nothing really wrong with conformity as long as it doesn’t include outwardly judgment of others and their choices. That said there is a problem with that in that we are all opinionated, live and let live is easier said than done because there are too many of us, we are all in each others way. Conformity is inevitable in some arenas, if you can’t conform somewhat you will have a hell of a time getting by, monetarily speaking. Even if you work for yourself, someone needs to pay you for your goods or services and you need to please customers to keep your name good. I would consider myself a non-conformist for the most part, I have tattoos, I listen to “scary” music, I am atheist, I hate sports, I am vegetarian…..etc. But I get along with most anyone, even my fundamentalist neighbors. I don’t agree with their lifestyle, but I am not going to be an asshole to them because of it. if they decide to disrespect me I just wouldn’t talk to them anymore. However if someone dis-respected me in the workplace I would try to work out our differences for the sake of keeping work a tolerable place to be for me and everyone else. Tension spreads like wildfire if left unchecked and that just sucks, I conform for those reasons alone. Wow, holy ramble batman. Uh yeah, that’s my 2 cents.

  5. What a juxatposition! – one of the deepest posts ever with certainly one of the funniest? (Nastiest!) sites ever. Anyway, on the real subject at hand:

    Given the results of these studies, my faith in human nature is somewhat revived. I propose that a human beings need to be a social creature is so inherent, that the urge to conform is “hard-wired”. It is a reason for conformity that goes deeper than normative or informational and shouldn’t be overlooked. While I wouldn’t call it a “swarm mentality”, there is little doubt that the evolution of our species thus far has largely depended on our cooperation, and we probably do it without thinking, and we probably NEED to do it to some degree to survive. We aren’t the only ones. Did you ever hear that a herd of Wildabeests, driven to stampede, will all run off the same cliff if the first one does? One wildabeest says to another “I believe in safety in numbers, but this is ridiculous!”

    If most people conform so readily, and yet society isn’t largely dominated by Hitleresque maniacs, we aren’t as diabolical as one night think. I’d say it says mankind is doing pretty well standing up to tyranny despite our wiring and SOME peoples determination not too. Though Stanford students turn “Lord of the Flies” in 4 days, the US government runs thousands of prisons where the described behavior maybe occurs, but is not the everyday norm. At least here & now, Abu Ghraib is the exception, not the rule. That’s rather amazing.

    I would like to see additional testing done (in which no puppies would be harmed) that could measure the degree of the conformity, as well as the duration: would the same people test the same way after reading the results of the first test? Can we temper our sheepy nature by educating ourselves or just by being congnizent of it?

    I too enjoy being an individual, but I recognized that is OK for it to fit within the boundaries of some social norms. It’s fine to dress weird and be a vegetarian, it’s not OK to be a child molester or cannibal. You could develop and speak your own language too, but don’t expect anyone to understand you. (Unless you’re Jodie Foster).

  6. Emerald: I agree darlin, there is certainly a lot of good that can come from conformity. I was more thinking along the lines of when people get swept up in stupid causes or fad or trends or what have you, and just do it because someone else has convinced them it’s cool. Like ugs. Or Y2K. Or my personal pet peeve, shallow baseless religion. If you’re really into your religion because of a personal desire to have a personal relationship with your god figure(s) that’s ok, but when people go to church, and dress up their family, and sing and listen for an hour or two every sunday morning, then never aply a damn thing, or go around with laser pointer so God will know where to throw his hellfire. That’s what bothers me.

    Talea: or T-Rex as I have affectionately dubbed you, what you are talking about is exactly the kind of blind conformity I have identified in my own life, especially back in high school, but still some even today. It’s especially frustrating to have a dislike for conformity, make an effort to do something opposite, and then suddenly realize you are still blindly conforming without realizing it, just to a smaller, less popular group. That was part of my question, is it even possible to actually be a non conformist without then turning around and tricking yourself into thinking you aren’t conforming when you really are? Is anyone really above conformity? Is anyone original? Or are we all maybe 90% one and 10% the other? Can you increase your own individuality, and decrease the uber-subtle instincts we have to do whatever it takes to fit in somewhere?

    Carolyn J: I have a hard time believing that mankind is inherently bad. I look at children when I try and observe real human instinct. Kids are evil little bastards, and have no shame being selfish, cruel, and manipulative. But on the other hand they also genuinely display some of the truest kindness, love, and compassion that anyone will ever see. I think We’re all half shitheads and half decent folk, it’s just up to us to get coffee in our systems fast enough to not be a shithead all day.

    Ashley: You sound hot! And you can cook too? Hey if Em decides I suck one day, give me a call. (just kidding Em, I know I will never suck) See your point is very valid, and I think that is hwo it should work, but in my opinion, more often than not it works the opposite. Whoever is in control wants to force their own values and lifestyle on everyone else. That’s the opposite of freedom, and screw that. I absolutely agree that if someone wants to go to church and do their thing, more power to them. I hope they have a great time. But then when I see them on the news protesting at an abortion clinic, or protesting gays, or crying about evolution being taught in schools, well … it makes me want to go choke their babies, so we don’t end up with another generation of assholes. My first girlfriend was a wican, (who ironically I met in church, cause her parents made her go too) and she introduced me to her creed, which was “Do what you will, so long as it harms no one.” That stuck with me. I try and do that, and I would really just appreciate it if the people at the top would think about it for a minute. Thanks for your comment.

    Emily: Wow, great response Emily. I really like your idea that the social nature of human beings as a species has a degree of conformity hardwired into us that has nothing to do with any other kind of conformity. I hadn’t thought of it like that. And I also agree with your point that history hasn’t been dominated by evil tyrants, which I also had not considered. So there is definitely good in people, despite the bad that is also there. I would say one thing about prisons, and that is that a certain accountability has been developed in the system to make sure the guards don’t go off the deep end. Unfortunately, with our current prison system being the epic failure to reduce crime that it is, that Lord of the Flies reaction has just been shifted to the prisoners instead. I’ve been locked up, and am planning on being locked up again in the near future, and I’ve seen what it’s like. Despite the half assed attempts that the guards make to keep some kind of order, a gang-warlord style society has evolved inside that forces the inmates to become hard, violent people just to survive, and become cruel, sociopathic people to succeed in there. It’s a conformity of necessety rather than choice, and to me it is the clear example of why our prison system needs serious change. Like you said, there are good norms that everyone should follow, like not raping children and such, and our prison system needs to enforce a positive change in their prisoners rather than one of violence for survival. My suggestion: work programs. Intense ass work programs. My friend got locked up in prison when he was 18, got out again, and got addicted to coke withing a month. When they locked him back up again for two years, he got into a forestry work program in which he cleared trees to stop forest fires in the appalachians, and maintained the national parks. When he got out again, he stayed off coke, got a wife, a job, a place to live, and started a family as a different man.

    But I get your point, conformity can be a positive, and not always a negative. Thanks for your input Emily.

  7. Great post Josh, and I think the comments you’ve received have been great examples of different kinds of conformity in themselves. People listed the typical ‘I’m not this’ that are assumed to be things people conform to and listed the not so typical things they are/do. However, as my dear friend Talea pointed out, this is a conformity in itself. So while it’s old news now that people were going to get married, move out of the city and have kids, the new conformity is to get a cute condo downtown, not get married and not have kids. In my circle of friends, I’m the ONLY one not conforming to that norm, the ‘new norm’.

    Just like if you’re almost 30 and don’t have a tattoo, that’s seen as odd, that’s a slice of anti conformity right there. Just like not drinking, not doing drugs, not doing what is expected of you is the new conforming. And what is expected of the under 30 set? To not conform. So there are all these people out there, bucking tradition en masse, creating a new tradition, a new expectation that people will conform to.

    Because as people stumble onto studies and get to thinking about this sort of thing, and then they being to not conform on purpose they create this new conformity. Again, as Talea mentioned, the goth kids are as good an example as the yuppies downtown, as the housewives in the burbs, as the vegans in every university, as the 20 somethings questioning authority and conformity. 😉

  8. May: I couldn’t agree more. And that’s what kind of bothered me, and inspired this post. With our world and society getting smaller thanks to mass media and the internet, the lines in the sand have been washed away. What used to be a very anti establishment group has maybe become the majority, and visa versa. I guess it creates a kind of scene soup where there is no real way to be hardcore anymore without at the same time being a conformist. There’s no way to do anything anymore without being a conformist. So the only option left is to say fuck it, and just do whatever makes you feel good and stop worrying so much about trying not to be controlled. At least for me. I need to let go of bucking the norm and just do whatever I enjoy. I think I’ve found in myself that trying to be something besides the perceived norm has really just been a form of insecurity and vanity, and I need to accept that some thing I like are popular and some aren’t and be more true to the things that are going to matter to me in the long term, and forget about superficial shit. As long as I’m vigilant to make sure I’m not following mass trends just cause they are popular, as long as I’m careful to think for myself, then it’s ok if some of my life follows popular trends.

    And PS – I don’t know what people have been telling you, but being a domestic mother is hot in and of itself. I got my start blogging and met Em because I got hooked on a mommy blog. I think it reflects an underlying coolness that has then spawned success in areas such as, finding a love, getting a home, and making teh babies.

  9. Great post, great comments. Everyone wants to be a part of something. Everyone also wants to be an individual. I’m all for live and let live. I’m all for individuality. I’m also for school uniforms. I like to do for others, but ultimately I’m on a quest to please myself. Fortunately a little conformity goes a long way in this quest. Along the same lines as Talea’s emo example, I’ve sat and listened to a group of “individuals” debate what is and is not punk rock. Bottom line, keep thinking, rock the wicken way, participate in intelligent conversation (not one sided lectures), learn to enjoy less, be nice to the planet (tree hugging not necessary), or… don’t (just suggestions). 😉

  10. You may have posted this 5 days ago, but I wanted to read this when I had a real moment and make it through to the end.

    Okay, made it to the end, and damn, I almost don’t even care about weighing in with the topic, because I love the way you write and express yourself 🙂

    But moving along, this was like a super-charged refresher of my University Psych courses…I remember all those experiments, and I believe there’s actually a movie docu-drama based on that prison experiment..it’s a German flick with sub-titles, called “Das Experiment”; very chilling, you should rent it.

    Anyway based on everyone’s comments I think you’ve been offered a lot of good perspectives to chew on, but all I will add is this: being an “individual”, being a “conformist”, they’re all labels at the end of the day, and subjective labels at that, so how can we really ever establish if we’re one or the other? It makes for tantalizing discussion, but if you’re looking for an answer, I’d just tell you to live a life where you find the little joys that make your heart sing, where you put in the time for those you love, and where you generally aren’t an ass-face but help others out from time-to-time…it seems like you’re already on that path, but of course this is just my own personal preference for life, no need for you to “conform” to it 😉

  11. You have an award waiting for you over at my place if you are interested. 🙂

  12. Peter Parkour: Oh God, the classic “what is real punk” debate. That one really bugs me, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. I used to (actually, on second thought, still) hang out with a bunch of people who LOVE punk rock. And I dig it too, but not crazy. And for some reason there’s always one really really really, SERIOUS punk douche who has to be all condescending about shit I like listening to cause it’s not quite gravely or screamy or spittley to be real punk. It annoys me. I like Mozart too motherfucker, is that not punk either? Who fucking cares, go live in the movie High Fidelity you music nazi. Thanks for your point of view Pedro.

    Romi: First of all, thank you sweetie, that’s very nice of you to say. Second, I am so down for German movies with Das in the title, it sounds so Hitlery. Sounds like a good date night flick. Third, your summary of how to deal with conformity vs individuality is the best so far in my opinion. (which is almighty here on my blog, and may or may not be swayed by your compliments) I guess I should just do the best I can and stop sweating the small stuff. Too much thinking leads to too little living. I’m gonna sign out now and bake cookies for the homeless. (SIKE, I’m just gonna eat a cookie and sign back on, cause that’s what makes me happy!)

  13. Pingback: Musing to Hell: SURVIVALISM « Randomly Relevant

  14. I am researching obedience to authority and how it explains the willingness of those in society to participate in Gang Stalking and other activities.

    • Wow I have never heard of gang stalking before. It’s a very interesting idea, I just looked it up. I’ll come check out your blog for sure, thanks for stopping by.

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