Conformity remains the basis of order and structure within modern societal institutions. One’s ability to change their behaviors and act like the majority is highly regarded in the industrial and educational sectors. Compliant and obedient individuals are easier to persuade, control, and influence, which can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo demonstrated the transformations in human character due to artificial changes that created a power system of prisoners and guards (Zimbardo). During a TedTalk, Zimbardo emphasized that seven social processes were involved in the negative conformity, including “mindlessly taking the first small step, dehumanization of others, de-individuation of self, diffusion of personal responsibility, blind obedience to authority, uncritical conformity to group norms, passive tolerance of evil through inaction, or indifference”. The school remains the second most relevant environment of socialization, which often requires students to either copy or confront the social norms presented by the authority. This essay is going to examine and assess factors that create the students’ urge to conform as well as forces that help them counteract conformity.
The Urge to Conform
An individual’s urge to conform to pre-existing norms and regulations dictated by authorities can be traced back to normative and informational influence. Conformity refers to “any change in behavior caused by another person or group; the individual acted in some way because of influence from others” (Cherry). Solomon Asch conducted a conformity experiment, which managed to explain the connection between social pressure from the majority and a person’s willingness to conform (McLeod). The study concluded that “people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence)” (McLeod). Normative influence is associated with a person’s desire to get rewards and avoid repercussions. Informational influence, on the other hand, originates from the place of insecurity since people look to others for ‘correct’ answers. Conformity involves giving in to pressoriginatingated from an entity that exercises the most power. Depending on the constructed system, a small number of individuals can possess such power, but a simplified scenario puts the majority on top due to the number ratio.
Factors that Influence the Level of Conformity
There are numerous factors influencing the degree to which people conform. School is a unique social environment since there is a visible distinction between authority (teachers) and students due to age differences. “Sitting in rows (or around tables – a massive break with conformity) in assigned places, facing the approved direction, not interacting socially with your peers, changing lessons at the sound of a bell” are examples of physical conformity in academic settings (Martin). Different psychological aspects of conformity are present in classrooms as well. An analogy to this would be the prison system, which includes both physical constraints and psychological pressure. The presence of guards and limited living spaces present physical constraints that have significant psychological effects on their willingness to conform to the prison’s rules. The psychological state of imprisonment refers to the prisoner’s dehumanization and a specific social hierarchy established inside the prison that requires conformity. Individual and cultural differences, as well as the size of the group, can influence the level of conformity among individuals.
Ways to Counteract Conformity
Compliance can be both positive and negative because a person’s actions have good and bad outcomes. Even though the concepts of right and wrong are subjective, it is apparent that specific acts of mental and physical torture should be identified as negative results of conformity. The three-month-long abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib is an unfortunate example of exceptionally negative conformity among American soldiers (Zimbardo). Therefore, there is sometimes a need to counteract compliance and conformity. Educational environments imply that students’ acts of nonconformity “represent partial non-adaptation, mainly to norms or the teacher who represents those norms” (Lojdova 57). According to Zimbardo, there are two forces that can counteract conformity, including acting instead of remaining passive and focusing on socio-centric acts instead of egocentric ones. This framework describes compliance and deviance as personal choices.
Psychology does not try to excuse but rather understand the acts of negative conformity. However, research provides multiple valuable insights that help psychologists adopt a new perspective on conformity and see the system behind one’s actions. Zimbardo argues that there is a set of situational factors affecting conformity. In order to change a person’s behavior, changing a situation is enough. In order to make such manipulations, a source of power needs to be identified, which brings it back to a specific system. Therefore, situations, power, and systems influence a person’s willingness to conform. As a result, transforming a system and supervising sources of power can not only counteract conformity but change it (from negative to positive and vice versa).
School as a Normative Institution
School is a unique environment that contributes to social reproduction and mobility. It “maintains the existing order, namely the distance between students with various amounts of cultural capital” (Lojdova 54). Lojdova defines school conformity as “adaptation to cultural objectives and the institutionalized means to achieve these objectives” (57). Student nonconformity, on the other hand, is the act of deviation from established norms. The age of students makes the school environment different from other institutional settings since it is largely influenced by the child’s primary socialization with their family. The relationship between the primary (family and peers) and secondary (school) environments has the ability to either strengthen or weaken the student’s willingness to conform in an academic setting (Lojdova). The normative world of the child can have various implications since norms can be different in school and family environments. Similarly, there are a number of cases of conformity with classmates/nonconformity with school and conformity with school/nonconformity with classmates (Lojdova). The student’s conformity depends on the amount of power a certain entity has in a particular scenario, which proves that the level of compliance is influenced by specific characteristics of a given situation. In conclusion, even though educational environments differ from any other institutional settings, Zimbardo’s three-factor theory is in full effect.
Burdens of Being Disobedient
In addition to the idea of conformity stemming from students’ fear of punishment, there is an argument that it is easier to comply and shift personal responsibility to someone else. Deviation from the school norms requires students to present their stance and argue for it, whereas conformity gives them an opportunity to be passive and irresponsible. Unwillingness to conform to the majority alienates an individual and makes them singularly responsible for their actions. Therefore, compliance can take the majority of blame, guilt, and remorse and ‘assign’ them to authorities that have the power. The desire to shife responsibility for one’s own actions is the primary reason for voluntary imprisonment. According to Zimbardo, some “choose to remain prisoners because being passive and dependent frees us from the need to act and be responsible for our actions.” In addition to the psychological motivation to shift responsibility, men and women choose to get arrested due to a number of compelling reasons, including free healthcare and an inability to provide for themselves (Abadi). An analogy with the school system can be made since children sometimes choose voluntary detention because of a social factor, just like prisoners who become irreversibly connected to their lives in correctional facilities.
Conformity implies behavior transformations that originate as a result of other people’s influence, which is why it encompasses compliance and obedience. Social pressure from the majority is rooted in the concepts of normative and informational influence, both of which explain the nature of collectivist decision-making. The level of conformity depends on numerous situational factors. However, the key takeaway from scientific research remains simple: people’s actions do not only depend on personal intentions but also on the norms established by authorities with power. Therefore, the only way to counteract conformity is transforming the system that dictates normative frameworks and supervises authorities. The academic environment is not representative of other social institutions since it operates based on visible distinctions between authoritarian figures (teachers) and subjects of conformity (students). School also serves as a secondary normative environment due to the influence family has over children. Despite this, students’ urges to conform remain similar, and their voluntary compliance is rooted in the same notion of responsibility shifting.
Abadi, Mark. “Some People Get Arrested on Purpose So They Can Go to Jail – And Their Reasons Range from Sad, to Nefarious, to Political.” Business Insider, 2018, Web.
Cherry, Kendra. “How Does Conformity Influence Behavior?” Very Well Mind, 2020, Web.
Lojdova, Katerina. “Student Nonconformity at School.” Studia Paedagogica, vol. 21, no. 4, 2016, pp. 53-76, Web.
Martin, Jesse. “Conformity and Learning.” BBN Times, 2018, Web.
McLeod, Saul. “Solomon Asch – Conformity Experiment.” Simply Psychology, 2018, Web.
Zimbardo, Philip. “The Psychology of Evil (Transcript).” TED, 2020. Web.