Marriage and Family Therapist
Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross is a licensed psychotherapist with almost twenty years of clinical experience in the fields of clinical psychology and organizational management. She has worked extensively with a wide variety of…
Why We Have a Tendency To Conform
Posted in ADHD / ADD by Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross on Jan 23, 2009


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.



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Yes our tendency to conform is basically the influence of other people , these are things that we usually do, thats why were getting use to it. In politics we also have to conform to policy of a President, his policy are ought to be followed by the civilian people just like the online town hall which is basically designed as a means of conveying the demand of people. Obama has pledged to listen to a broader swath of the public than previously ever done before. You can expect more">online town hall meetings in the future.
By NicolasL  Mar 31, 2009
It's usually good to discern the truth of things before deciding whether or not to go along. Sometimes the crowd is right, sometimes not; but we are individually accountable for our own decisions.
By diaraptor  Jan 27, 2009
It's usually good to discern the truth of things before deciding whether or not to go along. Sometimes the crowd is right, sometimes not; but we are individually accountable for our own decisions.
By diaraptor  Jan 27, 2009
Well, I must be outside the norm as I tend to be a nonconformist. Unless it means my job or some kind of unpleasant event for me. Thankfully, with more education I think many people tend to formulate their own opinions or have their own life experiences to guide them throughout life. It seems that the less educated you are, the more unknowledgeable and superstitious you tend to be about everyday events and occurences. This is one of the reasons that higher education is paramount to living a better, more informed lifestyle.
By Cybercatxq  Jan 26, 2009
Cyndi, Your "tendency to conform" article hits the nail on the head even in the professional world. We are all human no matter what position we have in life.

In the medical world, I have observed this tendency to conform among practitioners. Time and time again I have witnessed physicians conforming to the system and the patient gets the short end of the stick.

A classic example is this: A 62 year old female visits her GP and Labs show a total cholesterol level of 247. Labs also show a TSH of 6.2. The physician follows the crowd and prescribes Lipitor. The patient is never told about the hypothyroidism or the relationship between low thyroid hormone and elevated lipids.

Furthermore, the patient is never told that the Absolute Risk Reduction (ARR) for females with Lipitor is zero. But the patient is taking the drug with the belief that it is preventing a heart attack ot stroke. All this because a professional is conforming to a system that says "prescibe a statin if cholesterol is above 200."

6 weeks later the patient complains of muscle aches and difficulty walking. Since she was never told or treated for the hypothyroidism, she was also not informed of the high risk to her muscles from the lipitor due to the underlying metabolic problem.

The patient suffers because the doctor was just conforming to the medical crowd by prescribing a statin. The Peer pressure we all experienced in high school continues into our professional lives.

It takes courage and guts to stand up and speak the truth. Sometimes that means going against the system and finding yourself having to practice independently because the group didn't want you anymore.

I guess some things left over from high school never change.

By MedLab1  Jan 26, 2009
All my life, I've had the ability to conform to whatever crowd I was in or whomever I spent time with. I have recently begun to believe that this tendency is due to my diagnosis of Borderline Personality. No matter the cause, we can all benefit from this tendency. If you can decide in your owm mind what you believe is important in life, then you can choose to spend time with the people who believe the same way. Instead of accepting this as a sentence to conform to misery and injustice, you can use that tendency for good. Find the people who believe in what you do, and stand together. *HUGS* -Debbie
By dpeete  Jan 25, 2009
It is what it is. Or is it?
By marymargaret  Jan 25, 2009
This is why high school is NOT the best time of your life, because for most people it is the time when those who do not get in line and march off the cliff are inculcated with the false assertion that the only thing that matters in life is POPULARITY. I helped my kids through this by comparing it to prison, where you get time off for good behaviour if you keep a low profile and slog your way through. Unless you are campaigning for public office or Miss Universe, Popularity is far less important than individuality. When you go back to your 40th high school reunion, generally you discover that the Popular Kids have not been successful and the ones who were jeered and reviled are CEOs, doctors, lawyers, IT geeks and generally successful.
By Appleby  Jan 25, 2009
I too find this to be incredibly interesting.
My daughter is currently receiving a lot of name-calling at school. She stands out in the way that she dresses and so gets this negative attention. It doesn't make her want to change the way she looks to conform, which I view as a good thing. I feel she is demonstrating strength in choosing this path. I think people can have a much easier life if they do conform to pack mentality, but my respect goes out to those who make a commitment to be who they really want to be (If that is possible with all this conformity going on)
By kinders  Jan 25, 2009
I stayed drunk and high...because I followed the herd, trying to fit in and belong. Now I could give a shit less how other people live. I've sober almost 13 yrs now not following the herd!
A flock of sheep if confronted with a cliff, will follow one another to their death.
By davesworld  Jan 25, 2009
very interesting i beleive that even though you think you act as an individual you are ultimately conforming even doing that
By queenslander97  Jan 25, 2009
Thus the reason why we just elected a non qualified person to the office of President. No one wanted to appear racist or non conformist. Someone said what people wanted to hear and the band wagon loaded up.
By purplekitty  Jan 24, 2009
This explains why I never liked crowds. LOL

In America we tend to view conformity in a negative way, it's part of our country's mythology--rugged individualism. If you were to go to Japan, it would be viewed entirely differently.

Conformity is not in and of itself --bad. It leads to cooperation and social harmony. We all agree to stop for red lights for instance. Refusing to conform would not be wise. All societies rely on some conformity and indoctrination. How non conformists are treated says a lot about the society in question IMHO.

Obviously, in the case of mob rule or oppression by a govt, it's a negative. Nazi Germany and the Halocaust being the prime example of conformity gone horribly wrong.
By wannabewell  Jan 24, 2009
I agree interesting. However I've never been a conformist. I'm still not a conformist, in spite of the problems it's caused me. I can't do it if I tried. I also don't really like people who simply go along with whatever everyone else is doing. As my mother used to say; if everyone were jumping off a bridge would you do it too?
Kind of like in high school where teens show their 'individuality' by dressing alike.
My favorite was a cartoon showing lemmings stampeding over a cliff and one sitting on a rock watching them go saying 'Bye, have a nice trip...'. There are advantages and disadvantages to rampant conformity. For example Nazi Germany where conformity to the Party line was brutally enforced. If you did not conform you were an enemy and either shot outright or sent to a concentration camp. Soviet Russia wasn't much different.
So what place does conformity have in modern society? I don't know...
By ALC67  Jan 24, 2009
I think nuture also plays a role. I was never one to conform or follow the crowd. This was reinforced by my family and teachers.
By andromeda7  Jan 24, 2009
Really interesting, makes sense why some of us are born followers and others are leaders. There isn't anything wrong with you, its just nature's mechanism
By StrangeButFriendly  Jan 24, 2009
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