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Speak Out: Your mind – why we shouldn’t conform

Welcome to the first of our psychology column articles.

The power of a group has more influence than you might initially think. People are so keen to be liked and respected, that they often completely change their beliefs to match the group they are in. Their beliefs might change permanently, so they internalise the beliefs of others, or temporarily, where their change in behaviour is more likely to be in order to fit in. This can often be quite problematic, however almost everyone does it on a regular basis. A suggestion is people do this for two reasons- in order to fit in and avoid ridicule or because they think the others know better and have the right answer. An everyday example is being in a maths class where you are presented with a difficult question. After writing your answer on your board, you notice that everyone else in the class has a different answer. So, to avoid ridicule, you change the answer to fit the majority, because you believe they are right. A study was done in 2006 by Lucas et al, who found that when presented with difficult maths problems to solve, participants were more likely to conform to the majority rather than with an easier problem to solve. This suggests they do conform because they think that the others know better.

Another example is when you are having a group discussion. Everyone says that they dislike vegans. You are a vegan, but want to fit in with the group so you don’t tell them and pretend like it’s a bad decision. However, when you leave the group, you are openly vegan and often try to get others to be too. So, you did this to fit in with the group.

So, why is this important? Asch (1951) did an experiment looking at conformity, and under what circumstances people conform. He placed actors in a classroom with a real participant, and gave them a group of lines. The aim of the task was to match the line on the right side of the paper that was the same length as the left side of the paper. The task was purposely very easy. The actors gave obviously wrong answers, and the objective was to see if the participant would also give a wrong answer or if they would go against the group pressure and say the right answer. Most times, the participant said the obviously wrong answer to go along with the group, to fit in. This data suggests that people can go against what they know is obviously right in order to fit into a group. So, the power of group pressure is immense, and also has great consequences in real life.

In some situations, your belief may go against the majority. But just because this belief is held by the majority, does NOT mean that their belief is right and yours is wrong! The power of group pressure is immense, and also has great consequences in real life. Witten Brink and Henley did a study showing why conformity can have such detrimental effects. Participants were exposed to negative comments about African Americans and led to believe this was the majority view. When invited back after a period of time, the participants had internalised these comments – their beliefs had changed and they now thought these comments were acceptable. Of course, this harrowing example shows exactly why we should not conform. How, if there is a choice, we should continuously ask questions and challenge the beliefs of ourselves and other. That we should not throw away morals to make friends. Conformity can spread misconceptions and create harmful stereotypes towards people.

So, when you are next in a group, don’t try to hide your personality and beliefs. Asch found that if you have one person who says a different answer (also known as a dissenter), people are so much less likely to conform! Be that one person. Help stop the spread of incorrect information.

Take a look at our useful resources page for links to help with your emotional wellbeing and help lines if you need to speak to someone. 

By Amelia Wilson

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