A Perplexing Dilemma
Should I conform? Should I rebel? This has and always will be, a constant battle struggled individually, or as a society. A certain amount of conformity needs to exist in life in order to avoid disorder. This is the reason we have laws. Take those laws, rules, control, or even expectations, to an extreme, and some form of rebellion is probable. Struggle with these opposites, and you have a catalyst for war, or perhaps, being fired from a job.
The partisanship of today’s politics may be shocking, but it also reveals something significant about human behavior: the power of social influence. Personal beliefs can be strengthened when people surround themselves with those who share their views and distance themselves from the demonized other side.
But the drive to conform isn’t all we feel. We also try to be different from others, forging our identities through similarity and distinction. In reality, each of us embodies aspects of the conformist and rebel archetypes. These exist as opposing ends of a spectrum and we likely fall somewhere in between.
Recognizing the far-reaching power of social influence—and its limitations—can not only make us more self-aware, but can also help us build a better society.
Conforming has obvious advantages. We are readily liked and trusted by others, who will be ready to share with us. There’s probably no need to tell you how to conform, but Daniel Pink reminds us of how attunement helps extend our influence upon others. Attune by taking the perspective of the person you’re interacting with. Be empathetic and mimic their body and speech gestures.
But the more we accept the majority view, the less we exercise our critical thinking. Consider the “Groupthink” that kept Germans and Americans from failing to confront Jewish genocide and African slavery.
Groupthink is when members of a group go along with something even when they know it’s not right. There are lots of studies and examples, but one that startled me was Asch’s lines.
This was an experiment where they placed a test subject together with a small group of people in a classroom-like setting. The researchers would show lines of various lengths on the board, and ask everyone to say which line (A, B or C) was closer to the length of the line they showed, like this →
It’s obvious which line matches up, and most people are confident in their choice—until they hear everyone else in the group pick a different answer. Unbeknownst to them, the other group members are research assistants in disguise, and about a third of participants follow their lead and choose the wrong line.
In other words, people conform even when they know they’re wrong.
This can be really dangerous. Stanley Milgram did a famous (infamous, really) experiment as well, where he showed that people will do things they know are wrong if someone in authority tells them to. He had people use a shock generator on another person in a different room for the purposes (or so they thought) of measuring the effect of pain on memory and retention.
The majority of the subjects went on all the way to the highest (marked XXX) shock level, even though the person they thought they were shocking went silent—as far as they knew, the person could have been dead. Many of the subjects expressed discomfort with what they were doing, and said they’d like to stop, but the presence of the man in the white lab coat telling them that they must continue was enough for most to continue all the way.
Signals from other people are sometimes helpful. Social cues help us figure out where to park, for example, or whether we need to wear a heavy jacket today. But in cases like the line test or the Milgram experiment, where social influence can sometimes unhinge even our most solid convictions, it may lead us (and our institutions) astray.
The aforementioned examples of conformity show how social influence can cause individuals to change their behaviour to meet the demands of a social environment. Though social influence has potential to breed conformity and obedience, it can also have an opposite effect.
Anyone who’s ordered in a group at a restaurant has seen negative social influence at work. The first guy picks whatever he wants, but then it becomes lame to ask for the same beer or entrée—so people actually switch their choices to be different and end up less satisfied with what they ordered.
Similarly, “snob effects” are when the popularity of a band or trendy food makes certain people avoid it. It’s the “I liked them before they were popular” refrain, which can lead us to abandon things we actually enjoy because they’re no longer a symbol of uniqueness.
We all have a little nonconformist inside us, but some more than others.
Through much of my life I identified with the rebel archetype. Looking back, I realize it was the journey of an adolescent seeking to become a man—exploring the need for independence, a separate identity, testing authority, etc. I was amicable and pleasant when I agreed with rules of authority. I certainly didn’t seek out confrontation. However, if I thought a rule made no sense or if I didn’t agree with a figure of authority, I would push back. Hard. I wanted to demonstrate, even at the risk of being punished, that I was the sole ruler of my kingdom.
I would often find myself doing the opposite of what I was asked. I challenged my mother with this more than anyone (thank you for your patience and unconditional love, Mom). Despite the pitfalls, this rebellion was a step toward Truth—the growing recognition that I am a sovereign individual. However, it stops short.
Rejecting an idea just to rebel isn’t displaying true freedom of thought. By reacting merely to external phenomena, I rob myself of my innate power.
A Transcendental Path: The Way of the Revolutionary
Ultimately, the conformist and the rebel are one of the same. Both make their decision as a reactionary response—either comply with or push against someone (or something).
Is the conformist or rebel acting freely? Maybe. But the decisions we make about our lives—how we determine what is good for us and how we go about getting it—are heavily influenced by what we think others demand and expect of us.
Does this predicament resonate with you? How free do you feel?
Fortunately, there is another path. I call it the Way of the Revolutionary. The revolutionary does not base their decisions on complying with, nor rebelling against, any figure of authority. They operate outside the ideology of the current system. Rather, they settle into stillness and listen to what is True within themselves. They act from a place of personal integrity and radical self-responsibility.
Deep down, every one of us knows that we are all connected. What happens to other, to the incarcerated, to the bombed, to the trafficked, to the homeless, to the clear-cut, to the polluted, and to the extinguished is happening, in some senses, to the self as well. The African term Ubuntu comes to mind, which essentially means, “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.” The revolutionary strives to align every thought, word, and action with this inner knowing because they understand their personal choices bear unsuspected transformational power.
The revolutionary realizes every action, big or small, seen or unseen, creates a ripple in the cosmic ocean. Each moment is an opportunity to heal and grow.
Your journey is unique and nuanced—no dogma can provide the sole roadmap for your life. Stop outsourcing your Truth. Take your power back. Cut through the static and listen to the whisper within your heart. Grab your headlamp and machete and bushwhack it, baby! Do whatever the hell you’ve gotta do. Find your own path, and stay on it. Soon enough, that whisper will become a roar.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much…
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.-Rudyard Kipling (excerpt from his poem IF)