The Irresistible Urge to Conform

Illustration by Josephine Trilling

Josephine Trilling

Contributing Writer

Do we conform? Revolutionary thinkers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Karl Marx are revered by scholars and activists for their controversial ideas and powerful nonconformist aspirations. Beginning with the renaissance, liberalism swept through Europe. Unlike communism, which emphasized one governing body of the proletariat, or authoritarianism, which emphasized one governing party or individual; liberalism celebrated critical thinking, challenged existing strict religious standards, and ordered its members to question authority. The nature of liberalism necessitated diverse individual thinkers.

Despite these independent thinkers, it is arguable that when human individuality is tested on a larger scale, it tends to fail. In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted an experiment where a group of confederates knowingly chose the wrong answer when comparing the length of two lines to conform to the majority opinion. Although clearly wrong, results show that the test subjects repeatedly warped their visual perception of the lines in order to convince themselves the group was right. 

Offering a historical example, about a hundred years ago, Hitler instigated a fascist revolution where millions of people willingly conformed to the new norm, consequently becoming bystanders to a genocide, often doing so to fit in with their friends, family and the state. In the 1930s, Arthur Jenness conducted a study where participants guessed the number of beans in a jar. First, they did so alone; then, with a group. Portraying similar results to Asch’s experiment, subjects altered their previous individualistic intuition to reflect the group consensus. 

Lastly, in the 1970s, Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment that placed ordinary people in the roles of prisoners and guards. He found that people readily and easily conform to the expectation of social power dynamics. Extrapolating from the experiments within the past century and the examples of political revolution throughout history, we clearly conform. What is it about human nature that causes us to do so? 

Today, people — especially in Western countries — often pride themselves on their individualism, and some identify so strongly with their own individualism that they reject mainstream media and gravitate towards those who defy the norms. On the other hand, others spend their time scrolling through the latest trends on TikTok and shop for clothes they know are in-style, gravitating toward those who look similar. Although the second group openly seeks to conform, while the first does not, in both examples the same result is sought: community, belonging, and purpose. Both groups, whether outwardly seeking sameness or not, look for those similar to them.  

If our undefiable need to conform were put in an evolutionary context, it could be argued the reason why we conform is simple. Thousands of years ago, those who were flexible and adaptive enough to remain in a tribe, group, or large family, had much higher rates of survival, thus their offspring reproduced more. The tendency to conform is embedded in human nature because we survive better when protected by others in a group. 

They would act in accordance with others, often compromising instant gratification for an overall sense of security. Although it could be argued there were individuals who lacked the tendency to conform that would stray from the group, their DNA was often eliminated as they had much lower rates of survival. We are descended from those who chose to conform rather than the remaining individuals. 

Oftentimes group projects are more gratifying than individual ones. In Plato’s Ancient Greece, questions such as the meaning of life or the definition of justice were answered by asking other questions. It could be argued, in a philosophical context, that the answer to the question of why we conform can be answered by another question: what is appealing today about being in a group? Contentment and satisfaction that comes with contributing to a greater whole? Belonging to something that is larger than oneself? If you can think of any reason why you want to be part of a group, it is likely that you are a conformist. 

We achieve community, belonging, and purpose by living in families, traveling in friend groups, identifying with sports teams, choosing favorite celebrities, and voting for political parties. At UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), students seek community, belonging, and purpose through following popular trends, while others do so through being different from one another. 

Undoubtedly there are good reasons to conform. Learning how to conform is often regarded as an undesirable trait for those who lack a unique identity; however, it could be argued that it is a valuable trait. In other parts of the world conforming is not seen as inherently negative but, instead, as a way to foster community. So, the answer to whether we conform or not, is yes, absolutely. The answer to whether or not we should, controversially, is yes as well.