The Unbearable Lightness of Conformity

Conformity is one of the biggest evils known to mankind. The more I study and observe human interactions, the more I feel convinced of this conclusion.

Conformity is the reason why many potential geniuses’ creativity never finds an outlet, why many “misfits,” in a constant effort to conform, end up depressed instead of proud of their uniqueness, and, most importantly, why so many social and political catastrophes with huge human costs happen over and over again.

Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram
Photo source: Furman

I am sure some of you have heard of the great 20th century social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his famous “Milgram Experiment.” In his pursuit to find an answer to why something so awful as the Holocaust could have happened, especially with the active participation of so many ordinary people who were not necessarily Nazis themselves, Milgram devised an experiment which illustrated a very convincing answer:  Most people would obey any norm and do just about anything to avoid becoming a dissident.

I won’t go into lengthy detail summarizing Milgram’s numerous work on social obedience; instead I post the original 90-minute recording of his main experiment, which took place in 1961-62 at Yale University:

Milgram’s subjects comprised ordinary people from the New Haven area, whose occupations ranged from blue-collar workers to corporate managers and academics with PhD. During the experiment, the large majority of subjects complied with the orders coming from the Professor to literally murder other random participants (in reality, confederates in disguise pretending to be killed), as long as they were reassured that they would not be held accountable for their actions later on.

Important to note that these people did not have a monetary incentive (each participant received $4 for showing up but were explicitly told they can keep it even if they decided not to continue with the experiment), did not know any other participant beforehand, and would not receive any penalty if they refused to comply. They simply did not have any motive for undertaking this act, and they still complied just to avoid having conflict with an authority figure giving orders.

– o –

I first watched the above recording as a 15-year-old teenager, and it had a profound influence on my judgments about human nature. Over time, I have had my own encounters with much less harmful examples of conformity, and eventually realized that it is not that humans are evil per se but instead they are merely acting like any other social mammal, trying to adapt to their environments for the purposes of self-preservation. Humans obey norms, follow authority figures and the wisdom of the crowd not because of an inherent sense of (im)morality but rather to avoid conflict whenever possible. (Incidentally, this just reminded me of Fight Club’s “starting a fight” scene).

Truth be told, I find very disheartening the magnitude of an ordinary man’s willingness to comply with immoral directives just to avoid conflict, even in situations when he knows he won’t be penalized for speaking out.

The famous experiment by Solomon Asch is another good example of that phenomenon. It tells me that people would even rather convince themselves that what they see right in front of their eyes is not real, than to publicly disagree with a group.

As ridiculous as all these results feel looking from outside-in, they are unfortunately extremely accurate. I wonder how many of you have been in a situation where someone makes an obscure inside joke and everyone who know what he is talking about start laughing, but then there is a guy who has no clue why the joke is funny, yet still laughs with everyone else.

Have you ever seen a group of pedestrians waiting at red light even though the street is completely empty and then jaywalk straight through them? I have done it a million times. Almost each time, I observe the same: All those people start jaywalking behind me. This used to work even when I was a kid, and nowadays my positive observation rate is close to 100%.

Each time I do it, I look for one person staying behind. Only s/he gets my respect. Because I cannot think of much creativity and brilliance coming out of an adult person who cannot even decide for him or herself whether s/he should jaywalk until s/he sees someone else (even a kid) doing it.

Unfortunate for humanity, these people are everywhere. The constantly self-doubting, sheepish, principle-less, shallow masses with questionable self-righteous morals, whose collective behavior result in things ranging from traffic jams to genocides.

It doesn’t matter if a million people are doing it:
A stupid thing is still a stupid thing.

– o –

Last spring in Cambridge, MA, one afternoon while waiting for someone I decided to do a quick experiment. I randomly started starring intently at a tree on the sidewalk. There was nothing special about the tree — just a street tree. I swear that every single person who was walking by stopped or at least slowed down, and started looking with me. They looked at the tree and then at me, then back at the tree, still not leaving after seeing that there is nothing interesting about the tree. I could see some of them struggling with themselves for not seeing whatever they were supposed to be seeing. Just like in Asch’s experiment, they weren’t sure about themselves that there is nothing special on that simple tree on the sidewalk, as if they needed my help to explain to them why the tree is interesting to look at, yet they are also too afraid to ask in order not to look stupid. If anyone did ask, I would have congratulated him/her right there. I believe curiosity is a pillar of human progress; conformity is not.

Why I did this small experiment that particular week wasn’t so random. I had just cut my then-long hair and not liked it a bit afterwards, realizing that I only did it because all my fellow male classmates had short hair. Here is my Facebook status update from April 3: “So I cave in to peer pressure at HBS and cut my hair short. Now I look like a monkey. And when I think about it, I didn’t get so much heat about long hair even when I went to school in Turkey, where it is literally illegal for schoolboys to have long hair. So, my point, conformism is more powerful than fascism. Think about it, HBS!

I stand behind my realization on that day.

– o –

So, if that is the human nature, what is the point in arguing? The fact remains that 65% of Milgram’s subjects went all the way to committing murder and me writing a blog entry about it will not change anything. Yet, I have a couple of suggestions for overcoming our suboptimal nature and improving the world we live in:

First: Education system. We need education systems that teach children to not be afraid of their differences but embrace them for the betterment of all humanity. We should allow them to express themselves (i.e., not make it illegal to have long hair). And if someone might end up looking stupid to others, so be it. It is a small price to pay and people should learn to have confidence anyway. Otherwise, we will end up with a very gray world where everyone looks and talks the same.

Second: Legal system. The leaders of our civilization should change the payoffs of the game by holding individuals more accountable for their own actions, regardless of group behavior.

If we do not want people to act the way the Nazis did, then we should get rid of all Nuremberg defenses. That is because the avoidance of responsibility makes it safer for individuals to conform rather than dissent.

In one of my business school classes, I read a case where a U.S. court rejected the Nuremberg defense for a variety of corporate offenses committed by a low-level employee. The court held both the manager and his subordinate accountable for the subordinate’s actions that were instructed by the manager. The subordinate’s defenses that a) he was merely doing his job, b) many other employees commit similar offenses were not helpful in keeping him out of jail. I believe that is the right principle. Holding people liable for their actions regardless of any hierarchy or group norms can help prevent unethical behavior.

– o –

In conclusion, my advice to all is to resist the sweet temptation of conformity and always find in you the courage to say NO!

For inspiration, see August Landmesser in Hamburg, 1936:

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3 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Conformity

  1. Your article is fine but I would like to remind you of individual psyghology along with social psychology.To my opinion,soc.psy.is a derivative of ind.psy. and ind.psy.bears a lot of conformity,as it is essential for the child to identify with the same sex parent,which,in time is transformed to identification with the society.Therefore we can easily say that at least a certain amount of conformity is inevitable for the human being.I think the important point in this issue is that people should have already educated in a way to develop a high moral standard along with conformism.I think, that learned (not inherited) standard could be the the insurance against evil behaviour against humanity.

  2. I agree with some of the things you say in this article but disagree with others. It ties in with the concept of Mass Culture Theory. A whole ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ Skinner-esque view of human beings in which they are simple-minded followers of whatever is waved under their noses. The article seems to forget that a certain degree of conformity is both necessary and positive. For example, I don’t think any of us likes to pay our taxes but we all know that if we don’t, our bins will stop being taken and our roads will no longer be both paved and cleaned. So if everyone insists upon utter and complete individuality and independence, what we might have on our hands is an anarchic system. Also, conformity in my belief, for many is an active choice for the path of least resistance. It’s not pretty buy sometimes it is smart. Calling the Emperor’s naked butt brand new clothes might look stupid but you might end up saving your head from the choppIng block by not displeasing him. And lastly, I think we need conformists, otherwise how could we distinguish the revolutionaries, the geniuses and the mavericks. Thanks for another insightful article Igal. I do so much enjoy reading them. 🙂

    • Thank you, Elizabeth. That is a compliment coming from a writer! Glad you like reading them. 🙂
      I agree with your points that we don’t want anarchy (though I would argue that we don’t have a fair system for the distribution of tax burden on citizens) and that we need conformists so that we can define and appreciate people who make a difference in the world. However, I think it would be a better world with more progress and creation if more people had the courage to say no to the evil and also felt free to express themselves in the best way that they feel is right.

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