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 favors to you.
Conformity is in our genes
The desire to fit in is so strong that when people find that their behavior conflicts with their group, their brain mechanisms motivate them to change their behavior.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, signaling the need for a behavioral adjustment such that the expected outcome is attained. This goes to show that fitting in is the natural expectation of our brains.
Conformity as an evolved psychological mechanism
The psychological mechanisms, including a predisposition to conform, that you possess were collected over eons 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 behavior in any given situation will depend on your conscious or unconscious cost/benefit analysis of the situation.
Defying social norms
You might have often observed how politicians, actors, athletes and other celebrities sometimes make headlines by displaying outrageous public behaviors that defy social norms.
Of course, making waves and getting more fame is certainly one of the main benefits that this kind of behavior generates. But there can be other subtle evolutionary advantages to these behaviors too.
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, favor the latter over the former.
The attitude that you have towards your conforming or nonconforming behavior 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 behavior?
An article published in 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 behavior as unintentional, it does not result in enhanced perceptions of status and competence.”
To cite an example, if you decide to wear a pajama 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 pajama” it will signals intention and boost your status in the eyes of your coworkers.
1. Klucharev, V., Hytönen, K., Rijpkema, M., Smidts, A., & Fernández, G. (2009). Reinforcement learning signal predicts social conformity. Neuron, 61(1), 140-151.
2. 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.