Monday, September 9, 2013

Conformity and the Herd

Earlier this week I posted a video on my Titan Training facebook page (go like us to stay in the loop and to check out the video!) that got me thinking.  It was an old candid camera video that was based on some conformity experiments that Solomon Asch had run.  In the video, someone enters an elevator and, as we all do, faces the front.  However, all additional people entering the elevator (all confederates in the experiment) face the back.  It's not long before the poor innocent person conforms and faces the back also.  The confederates then shift position in unison, facing sideways and, you guessed it, the person also shifts to stand sideways.  

Much of Asch's work demonstrated how quickly and readily we conform to the majority of action and of opinion.  In one famous experiment he showed participants the diagram above, asking them to select which of the three lines was the same length as the single line.  Although seemingly a straightforward and relatively obvious choice, many people deliberately gave the 'wrong' answer simply because they believed that the majority of other people had chosen what they viewed to be an 'incorrect' choice.  

This result has been replicated over and over, using different experiments, different target groups of participants and different environments.  You could say that those that conformed were fully aware of their choice, that they went along with the choice of the majority though they 'knew' better, but what if in choosing outwardly to go along with group-think they inwardly and unconsciously began to revise their own perceptions?  Studies have shown that once we make a choice and make it public, we are more prone to then make decisions and take actions that are in support of that view.  

Certainly social conformity serves some helpful and useful functions, but it can be much more insidious than we may be consciously aware, skewing our views of right and wrong, of what is and is not.  In my work with organizations, I get the opportunity to see this in action.  Most organizations have their own culture.  Typically, new employees struggle to 'fit in' to this culture, feeling on the outside of everything until they finally begin to understand how things get done within this new company, and they follow those processes.  Generally, we think of these as simply being basic process rules, outlining how work gets done.  However, it is far more insidious than we often realize.

Just as couples who have been together for a long time begin to 'look' alike simply because they adapt their non-verbal communication patterns to 'match' those of their partner (they often speak in the same rhythm, use similar phrasing, make similar gestures, etc.) so too does it happen within organizations.  In an effort to fit in, new employees will unconsciously adopt mannerisms and speech patterns that they discern in the group.  For example, in one client organization, a majority of their employees all uptalk.  They certainly don't consciously hire for this speech inflection (where the speaker's inflection continuously goes up, sounding as though they are continuously asking questions), but I'm willing to bet that they do.  For those employees that are hired who are not uptalkers... it is likely only a matter of time until they unconsciously begin to adopt it.  In their efforts to fit in and be liked they adopt that habit as their own so that they too can now sound like one of the group.

Although many of these elements, when taken individually, may sound innocent enough, the greater the number and the greater the prevalence, the more dependent upon the group the individual becomes.  
  • leaving the organization becomes difficult because they can't seem to find anywhere else that they 'fit' in
  • the more you have unconsciously compromised your beliefs and habits to conform to those of others, the more justifications you have developed for doing so.  It proves difficult to break away from these since it requires us to admit that at some point we were 'wrong' in our choice
  • often the organization struggles with the need for independent thinking (for growth, to remain competitive) when systemically they don't reward for it.  Those who are able to remain independent of the group often continue to feel as though they don't fit in and leave to find somewhere that they do
The need and desire of many to be liked by others, to fit in, to feel that they belong can be a strong motivator, leading people to make choices and take actions that they may never have previously considered but that become automatic for them within the framework of the norms of their new group.  Hitler's regime was built upon the premise and strength of conformity.  Our existing military forces do the same (though obviously with different intents!)  Religions rely on the power of conformity as do virtually any formal group. Some are more benign, some more cancerous in their impact.

What is important is to realize the extent to which our desire to belong and be liked can, and does, influence our thinking and actions.  We need to be clear about what we truly believe is right and fair and just and learn to weigh our choices against these beliefs.  The greater our level of clarity, the better able we are to fight against the unconscious pushes we receive to act in ways that do not support these beliefs.  It is only through this clarity that we can hope to avoid compromising those areas that matter, to take a stand against those that would have us simply follow the herd.  

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