Dr. Rachell N. Anderson
Do you ever wonder what’s the meaning of the sagging pants, the shortest skirts imaginable, and some of the other fashions that make you want to look away? We can blame it on conformity. Bernard M. Baruch is credited with saying “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.” Thus begins the debate, to conform or to rebel.
Most of us do it, but none want to admit, even to ourselves that we are conformists. We follow the crowd. Sometimes at our own peril. Many parents worry that their teenagers will succumb to peer pressure but teens aren’t the only ones who do it. Toddlers, seniors and people of all ages and stages do what they see others do. But why do we do it? Why are people conformists? On one hand, a functioning society requires that people follow social norms such as obeying traffic laws, respecting others’ property, and diffusing aggression in non-violent ways. Following the behaviors of others provides us with a shortcut for determining how to behave. In an unfamiliar situation, we do what we see others do. The behavior of others informs us of what is right in that situation and how to behave. Also, following the crowd provides information about how to solve a problem, when we have no personal experience at doing so.
Humans live in large social groups. From infancy to their early childhood years, children are influenced primarily by their care givers. Hopefully, they are taught the difference between right and wrong. They are guided away from dangerous places. They are kept safe and happy and for the first few years. They learn, rather than question, the rules. We want to fit in and we want to belong so we comply, or suffer social disapproval. We want people to like us and we like those who show us that they do. Fitting in means shaping our actions and thoughts to mimic what we think they want from us in order to be accepted. Society restricts us and demands that as members of the community we must shape our behavior so that it’s consistent with the social norms. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
Conformity can have harmful effects if one obeys automatically without questioning the the rules. In Nazi Germany, ordinary people stood by watching while others were slaughtered. In Psychology 101, we learned of the Stanford Prison Experiment where students assigned to the roles as prison guards became cruel and demanding because they were told it was expected of them.
On the other hand, we all want to be independent. We want make our own decisions. We want to distinguish ourselves from others. We want to standout from the crowd. We want to be acknowledged for our individuality, our creativity, way of thinking and, gain respect for our uniqueness. Fitting in doesn’t guarantee belonging. Belonging means being accepted even as others know who we really are. Sometimes the two concepts come together and we can fit in nicely and have that feeling of belonging-but now always.
Like so many important aspects of life, conformity and nonconformity are both valid ways of acting and responding. It’s knowing when and how which of the two ways of being should be the dominating factor. Both are important, as together they enable us to be who we truly are as individuals as well as have friends, and live in harmony with our families.
While it is important to conform in various aspects of our lives, it’s also important to recognize that everyone is different. Difference is a valuable and necessary thing for growth, creativity and emotional well-being. We bring our differences together to make a richer, more productive whole. I doubt anyone wants to live in a world so conforming that everyone and everything is the same. The problem comes when people rebel against everything that’s forbidden just because it’s forbidden: a rebel without a cause.
What’s a Person to Do?
1. Know what you stand for. Determine what is really important in terms of where you are and where you want to go.
2. Who are you? and better still, whose are you? We all exist because someone else has made it possible. We stand on their shoulders and it is to them we owe our lives and our homage.
3. Take a future perspective and imagine what you’ll think of it (the way you wear your pants, or skirt, your hair, your performance in school) in the future.
4. With freedom comes responsibility. If people want to make their own choices, they must know that they are responsible for the consequences. There are always consequences to breaking the rules and being disrespectful to others. Parents enforce it with children. The law is likely to do it with others.
5. Take responsibility for your own behavior. If you choose to follow other’s influence, you can’t blame them for the adverse outcomes. You made the choice.
In our society, everyone matters.
Dr. Rachell Anderson is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor Emeritus and author. She taught at the University of Illinois and ran a Private Clinical in Springfield for more than 40 years. She lives and writes in Tunica, Mississippi. Check out her website at WWW.drrachellanderson.com for more articles and books.