The Dangers of Conformity

The Dangers of Conformity

Paul Sloane 24/07/2023
The Dangers of Conformity

Conformity can be defined as the act of following social norms, rules, or expectations in order to fit in or be accepted by a group.

While conformity can be beneficial in some situations, such as following traffic rules to ensure safety, there are also dangers associated with conformity, including:

  • Loss of individuality: Conformity can lead to a loss of individuality as people may suppress their own opinions and ideas in order to fit in with a group. This can result in a lack of creativity and innovation, as well as a failure to address important issues.

  • Groupthink: Conformity can lead to groupthink, which is a situation where a group of people makes decisions based on maintaining group harmony rather than objective analysis of the situation. This can lead to poor decision-making and can be particularly dangerous in situations where the stakes are high, such as in politics or business.

  • Discrimination and prejudice: Conformity can lead to discrimination and prejudice as people may conform to the beliefs and attitudes of a group, even if those beliefs and attitudes are discriminatory or prejudiced.

  • Inhibition of personal growth: Conformity can inhibit personal growth as people may avoid taking risks or pursuing their own goals in order to conform to societal norms or group expectations.

  • Failure to question authority: Conformity can result in a failure to question authority, which can lead to acceptance of unjust or unethical practices.

Henri Tajfel was born in Poland in 1919.  As a young man he left Poland because of restrictions on Jews in universities and went to France to study chemistry at the Sorbonne. At the start of World War II, he volunteered to serve in the French army and was subsequently taken prisoner by the Germans. He survived the war in prisoner-of-war camps but on his return home he found that his family and most of his friends, had died in the Nazi Holocaust. This had a deep effect on Tajfel and it led him to devote his life to the study of the psychology of prejudice and group relations.

After the war he moved to Britain and took British citizenship. He studied psychology at London University of London and in 1967 he became Chair of Social Psychology at the University of Bristol, where he carried out research into intergroup relations.

At that time, the common assumption among psychologists was that extreme prejudice was the result of extreme personality factors. Tajfel did not believe this. He had seen how large numbers of ordinary Germans, not just those with personality outliers, had supported the Nazis and their vicious policies towards Jews. Nazism had had the support of many Germans who would otherwise be considered normal. Tajfel thought that extreme prejudice might be the result of social group processes rather than extreme personality types. In a series of ground-breaking experiments in the 1970s he brought together groups of local boys. At first boys preferred to be in a group with those around them rather than those further away. Tajfel went on to show that just putting people into groups was enough to cause them to discriminate in favour of their own group and against members of other groups. He found that the very act of categorisation by itself produces conflict and discrimination.

Evolution has led us to crave groups. We were raised in tribes which supported and protected us. We want to fit in. Being part of a social group gives us a sense of belonging. There are many benefits to being in a group. The problem is that there is also a powerful force to conform to the ideas, standards and customs of the group.

We belong to groups on Twitter, Facebook, Tik-Tok and LinkedIn. The wide range of social media sites and contributors should mean that we read a wide variety of opinions, but the opposite is generally the case. People dwell in echo-chambers where they read posts which reinforce their own views, opinions and prejudices. This can lead to polarisation which can become extreme. Think of the Trump supporters who believed, in the face of all the evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Or the extreme views of the Covid anti-vaxxers.

Because we are all prey to the forces of group conformity, we need lateral thinking. We must be able to challenge the assumptions and attitudes that everyone else takes for granted. We need to be open-minded and curious. This approach can bear a cost.  The lateral thinker is often seen as a heretic, an outsider, a non-conformist.  But the benefits can be manifold in freeing our thinking and enabling us to find new, better ideas. We can escape the straitjacket of the crowd. 

The lateral thinker is aware of the dangers of obvious thinking. They are on the lookout for ways to combat the tendency to slip into conformity. They strive to sidestep the obvious and find a better and less-trodden path.

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Paul Sloane

Innovation Expert

Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.

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