Conforming has its place

Fleetwood Mac said, or sang, “you can go your own way” and it’s true, you can, but do you? How often do you make decisions based on what other people do and how often do you act based purely on your own views? It’s hard to go against the crowd and researchers have come up with some theories as to why that is so.

To see whether people really do tend toward conforming the researchers set up two experiments. In both experiments subjects were asked to compare differing amounts of lines with the purpose of identifying the longest line. Again, in both experiments subjects were made aware of others choices and pay incentives based on performance were offered. The results showed that people did tend to conform towards the judgements of others. No surprises there but it becomes interesting when conformism is linked to IQ and when the researchers offer their reasons for what is happening.

For a start the researchers observed that when you conform you copy things that are popular in the world and that can be useful. For example, we don’t all know why viruses and bacteria can cause illness but we know that washing hands reduces their transmission which is a good thing, so conforming to handwashing is a productive. There are lots of things that happen in the world that may not be understood by a given individual and in those cases conforming makes evolutionary sense.

In their experiments though, the researchers found that people with higher IQs are less likely to conform; they still will conform on occasion but they will do so strategically. It seems that smarter people will take their own path most of the time, because they think they have the correct answer, but when they are unsure they are more willing than those with average IQs to follow the majority.

The other interesting observation from the research is that in any given situation the more variable options that are available, and hence the greater uncertainty that exists, the more likely people are to conform because the majority is sending an even stronger signal than normal.

So there are times when conformity is entirely appropriate but that doesn’t mean it is the best option. Conformity has its place but most of the time you will be best placed if you make up your own mind because you are an individual, so let’s chant together, “we are all individuals”.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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