Swimming With The Tide


Conformity. A strange social occurrence where we tend to go with opinions that we may not necessarily believe in ourselves when on a public platform. Whether it is a subordinate employee nodding his head in approval to a decision in a meeting that he actually thinks is preposterous, a fellow friend saying he does not mind drinking even though he believes otherwise, or a person agreeing to the majority view in a public discussion largely tipping on one side, all demonstrate a peculiar phenomenon as far as human collective behavior goes.

Why do we prefer to swim with the tide instead of against it?

The answer is simple– because it is safe. If one truly examines the dimensions of safety as far as social existence is concerned, one prime need is the need to have a social group. ‘Being safe’ in a society, in addition to physical safety, is more significantly rooted in the safety of retaining a particular social position. Conformity is often indulged in to protect this position and be accepted in the social group. Essentially then, our tendency to go with the flow is an implicit form of social influence. When we have to oppose a particular norm in a social group that largely believes in it, it means risking expulsion from the social group. Most individuals who conform to norms rather than express their true opinions is to prevent this. However, not all individuals are conformists.

Donald Campbell’s studies on conformity suggest there are two modes through which human beings gather information. First is the personal mode, that refers to information gathered by direct experience, and the second is the social mode, that refers to information we gain from others in the society. In most general situations both these modes often present the same information. For instance, if a relative informs us that a restaurant has opened on the next street, it is most likely if we go for a walk there, we will find this to be true. Conformity situations are different. Here, the information dissipated from the social mode is contradictory to the information we have acquired from our personal modes. For example, a particular social group believes normatively in preserving the caste system, but an individual finds it difficult to agree with this view because he believes all individuals are equal, and hierarchical structuring in any form is incorrect. In such a situation, he either overrides his personal belief to preserve his social stand, or he takes his stand against the social norm. The former would conform, while the latter would not.

Thus evidently, there can be people who do not conform. Is conformity’s frequency then overrated? Seems unlikely. In what was considered one of the most demonstrable experiments of conformity, Solomon Asch designed a simple test to study the effects of conformity. The test consisted of one standard line of a particular length and three comparison lines of varied lengths, out of which the subjects were asked to choose one equal to the standard line. In the controlled group scenario where people were to give answers individually, 99% people got the correct answer. However, things changed drastically in the experimental groups. Here there were 7-9 agents who gave incorrect answers, and only one subject. Invariably, 75% of the subjects in these groups conformed on at least one trial, while 50% conformed to more than half of the trials.

This test besides showing that conformity was a recognizable social influence, also displayed some parameters that influence conformity. For instance, subjects were seen to conform the most when their judgments were public. Additionally, they were most likely to conform when there was a majority of the opposing opinion- in fact, if the majority was not unanimous, conformity decreased substantially.

As fairly independent individuals, we value our own opinions and beliefs, and we seek to voice these on a general basis. However, despite this all of us have, at least a few times, went along with what As independent individuals, we value our opinions and seek to share it. However, we can all recount situations where we went along with something that was not exactly a proposition we agreed with. Social influences like conformity may become harmful if aggravated to a large degree, but there have been rare instances of such situations. Conformity is hardly as wide based and compulsive as obedience (another social influence). Even Asch’s experiment showed an overall rate of 33% of conformity. Swimming with the tide may be dangerous or may not be, but the truth is irrespective, we have knowingly or unknowingly done it to spare us too much opposition, effort, and risk.

-Contributed by Tinka Dubey

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