Recent research has concluded that the reason behind why people seem to follow the crowd is actually physiologically based. The brain sends signals that influence preference and opinion based on those of others. In fact, the MRI images have shown that when we disagree with the norm our brain actually responds as it would to a punishment. The most current study was reported in the journal Neuron and describes how our brains reward us when we conform to the group mentality.
This notion has been tested and proven over time from small independent researchers to the famous Stanley Milgram experiments which were done in the 1960s and 1970s. In these experiments individuals obeyed orders to send electric shocks to innocent people in an adjacent room because they were told to do so and reportedly because of social pressure. It was determined, prior to their actions, that this behavior was antithetical to their own person beliefs. Read more about the Milgram study
From an evolutionary standpoint it makes good sense not to venture too far from the herd. There is safety in numbers and in more primitive times we looked to others for social cues not just for acceptance but for survival. As we have evolved, the reasons seem to be more psychological and yet there is still a good argument to be made for the theory of survival in some cases, as evidenced by street gang mentality.
The implications of these findings are significant and cast a new light on everything from the process of jury deliberation to fashion trends. Have you ever seen a new style come on the market that you didn't particularly like, maybe you even found ugly? After a while, it starts to grow on you and you may even begin to like the way it looks. Most people would attribute this to exposure, which might also hold true, but these new studies offer an interesting alternative explanation. It seems there are unconscious and even chemical forces at play in our brain.
Another famous study done in the 1950s by Solomon Asch showed that people gave the wrong answers to questions about matching lines which were printed on cards in order to conform to the answers of actors that were in the room. All hope of individuality is not lost though. Asch found that when he questioned the participants of his study the idea of "independence was preferable to conformity".
It can be challenging to be different for many reasons but it can also be rewarding. This brain phenomenon actually becomes less powerful when one person in a group breaks off from the pack and the mental pull towards conformity lessons. Self-esteem and assertiveness also play a part in one's ability to stand alone. It is interesting to think about this idea in relation to many historical and current social movements.