Most people are conformists who conform to the social norms of their respective societies. After all, man is a social animal, right?
Conforming to your social group helps you stay in the good books of your group members. And when you’re in the good books of your group members, they’re likely to help you and grant favours to you.
Conformity was important for our ancestors because it enabled them to form coalitions and then stick to the standardized conduct of those coalitions. Conformity glued together ancient human tribes just as it does today.
A coalition can do things and achieve goals much more efficiently and effectively than can a single individual. This is true for many, if not all, human goals. Hence, human ancestors who had the knack for being conformists were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who did not.
The result is that most people today in any population across the world are likely to be conformists.
Conformity is in our genes
The desire to fit in is so strong that when people find that their behaviour conflicts with their group, their brain mechanisms motivate them to change their behaviour.1 These are the same mechanisms that trigger what is known as the ‘prediction error’ signal.
When there’s a difference between expected and obtained outcomes, a prediction error signal is triggered, signalling the need for a behavioural adjustment such that the expected outcome is attained. This goes to show that fitting in is the natural expectation of our brains.
If conformity is such a good trait to possess in evolutionary terms, then why are there non-conformists?
Why do people sometimes ditch their natural tendency to conform and become non-conformists?
Conformity as an evolved psychological mechanism
The psychological mechanisms, including a predisposition to conform, that you possess were collected over aeons of evolutionary time. Those mechanisms that ensured your survival and reproduction had an edge over those that didn’t and consequently got selected over time.
It’s not impossible, however, to defy your evolutionary wiring. Instead of seeing evolved psychological mechanisms as commands that one has to follow come what may think of them as nudges. Your ultimate behaviour in any given situation will depend on your conscious or unconscious cost/benefit analysis of the situation.
If a given situation leads you to think that nonconformity would be a more beneficial behavioural strategy than conformity, then you’d act as a nonconformist. The key phrase here is “leads you to think”.
Human behaviour is more about calculating perceived costs and benefits rather than actual costs and benefits. More often than not, we’re poor at calculating actual costs and benefits of a behavioural decision and a large number of these calculations happen outside of our awareness.
If the benefits of nonconformity somehow outweigh the benefits of conformity, nonconformist behaviour is likely to prevail.
Defying social norms
You might have often observed how politicians, actors, athletes and other celebrities sometimes make headlines by displaying outrageous public behaviours that defy social norms.
Of course, making waves and getting more fame is certainly one of the main benefits that this kind of behaviour generates. But there can be other subtle evolutionary advantages to these behaviours too.
Take the example of an athlete who refuses to sing his nation’s anthem during a sports event in protest of the atrocities that his country has lashed out at some members of his own race.
Now this kind of behaviour violates social norms and is not expected of someone who’s representing his country on an international level. He’s likely to draw a lot of flak from his countrymen and this behaviour could prove to be costly for him in terms of his career and reputation.
The guy’s strategy seems to make no evolutionary sense. But when you look at the other side of the picture it does.
Not only are we wired to conform to social norms, but we’re also wired to seek justice. When, in a given situation, seeking justice becomes more important (read beneficial) than conforming to social norms, then the former is chosen over the latter.
Also, just as one can see one’s countrymen as one’s tribe, one can also see one’s race as one’s tribe and, therefore, favour the latter over the former.
No matter how high the costs of risky behaviour, if its benefits have the chance of outweighing those costs, then there will always be people who’d go for it.
When our hunter ancestors formed coalitions, they rewarded and respected the bravest of their hunters. If those hunters also sought and maintained justice, they made them their leaders.
Today, a politician might instead go to jail or on a hunger strike to prove to the members of his tribe that he’s willing to take risks for the sake of justice. Consequently, the members of his tribe see him as their leader and respect him.
Similarly, an athlete who seeks justice for the members of his own race gains their respect and goodwill even though he seems to violate a major social norm.
To be- or not to be- a nonconformist
The attitude that you have towards your conforming or nonconforming behaviour has an impact on your physiology. A study showed that when people want to fit in with a group that disagrees with them, their cardiovascular responses resemble that of a ‘threat’ state.2
In contrast, when they aim to be an individual in a group that disagrees with them, their cardiovascular responses resemble a ‘challenge’ state where their bodies are invigorated.
So being a nonconformist is actually good for you if you think that standing up for what you believe in is more important than wanting to fit in.
And how would others react to your nonconformist behaviour?
An article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review states:
“Observers attribute heightened status and competence to a nonconforming individual when they believe he or she is aware of an accepted, established a norm and is able to conform to it, but instead deliberately decides not to.
In contrast, when observers perceive a nonconforming behaviour as unintentional, it does not result in enhanced perceptions of status and competence.”
To cite an example, if you decide to wear a pyjama to work, how others perceive you will depend on whether or not you’re able to convey an intention behind your dressing this way.
If you say, “I woke up late and couldn’t find my pants anywhere” then it won’t boost your status in the eyes of your coworkers. However, if you say something like, “I feel more comfortable working in a pyjama” it will signals intention and boost your status in the eyes of your coworkers.
- Klucharev, V., Hytönen, K., Rijpkema, M., Smidts, A., & Fernández, G. (2009). Reinforcement learning signal predicts social conformity. Neuron, 61(1), 140-151.
- Seery, M. D., Gabriel, S., Lupien, S. P., & Shimizu, M. (2016). Alone against the group: A unanimously disagreeing group leads to conformity, but cardiovascular threat depends on one’s goals. Psychophysiology, 53(8), 1263-1271.