What you need to know:
- Young people feel driven to wear the latest fashion, and there’s an unwritten dress code at work.
- The pressure to conform with a group is such a powerful influence on our behaviour that it can easily make us do things that conflict with our values.
- It’s amazing how the pressure to conform can lead to some very strange attitudes.
You belong to many different social groups. Your family, classmates, workmates, sports teams and drinking companions, for example.
And they influence you hugely, so you probably feel obliged to behave in different ways depending on the particular group you’re with.
Like you’re probably quite different when you’re at home compared to the office, or when you’re out drinking with your buddies. Young people feel driven to wear the latest fashion, and there’s an unwritten dress code at work.
You probably don’t think about all this much, but chances are you’ve noticed moments you felt you had to behave in ways that didn’t fit with your beliefs or preferences, just to go along with a group.
Imagine a very typical situation. You’re discussing some controversial issue with a group that you see often. Friends maybe, or colleagues at work. And you notice that the whole group seems to share one view, while yours is quite different.
Then suddenly everyone turns and asks your opinion. What do you do? Saying what you really think risks a confrontation. So maybe you go along with the others even though you believe something different?
The pressure to conform with a group is such a powerful influence on our behaviour that it can easily make us do things that conflict with our values. Or even make us agree with something that we know to be factually and very obviously wrong.
It gets harder to break ranks if you know the members of the group well and feel committed to them. And in situations where the right answer is not actually clear, such as a political opinion.
A good example is how people are much more likely to engage in unsafe behaviour like casual or unprotected sex, if that’s what their close friends do. Even though they know all about the risks involved.
The pressure to conform varies around the world. People are more conformist in cultures where group stability is considered more important than individual rights, such as in traditional and eastern societies. While educated, urban and westernised people tend to be more individualistic.
But even there, it’s amazing how the pressure to conform can lead to some very strange attitudes. Look at how President Trump’s supporters say they don’t believe in global warming, for example, or won’t wear masks to protect themselves against Covid-19.
They do this because saying that they hold such beliefs is more of a ‘group membership badge’ than a statement of something they believe to be true. So their need to belong overcomes objective facts, even when the consequences might be disastrous.
Can you resist the pressure to conform? It’s hard, because the need to belong is very strong, and an inescapable part of human nature. But the ability to stick to your views when you know that you’re right is an important skill to develop.
Because it will help you make better choices, despite group pressure. Whether you’re just shopping for clothes, or in the polling booth.