Conformity, obedience and relevant studies.

Caveat to Conformity and Obedience
Caveat to Conformity and Obedience
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Evolution taught that belonging is the safest way for survival and to fit in any group, conformity and obedience is the best bet instead of being different from the rest.

Animal conformity as social learning

The roots of conformity and obedience are deep and vast. As evidence suggests, it’s presence is seen in other species of animals and very young humans.

The conformity or imitation in nonhuman is studied by various biologists suggesting that imitation is the basis for cultural evolution, cultural transmission of learning and tool formation.

Monkey see monkey do

A chimp is likely to copy an action if he sees three others doing it.

A study showed that a chimp is more likely to copy an action if he sees three other individuals do it once each time than if one individual does it three times. The same behaviour was observed in two-year-old humans. Thus animals will perform an action simply because everyone else does.

Social identity theory

Our concept of who we are is heavily shaped by social context and with whom we identify ourselves with. The need to be accepted and recognised by the social group is nothing but a survival instinct.

The agony and anxiety you feel when ignored or ostracised by the peer group and society arise out of the fear of abandonment.

To fit into the world

 To serve as an acceptable member of several socio-political hierarchies, individuals have to conform and obey many other members of the group and the authorities. To fit in and belong, humans have a deeply ingrained nature of obedience and conformity wired in them.

Gelling within the group

No need to elaborate on the positive aspects of conformity and obedience, as both are valuable and essential for the smooth functioning of society. One learns social manners from peers, and there is the benefit of the wisdom of the crowd. As a group, one can initiate any social movements and take the idea forward, that would create a tremendous impact than moving individually.

 Even when there is a pressure to conform to the things we may disagree with, if the stakes are not high, one might conform with the majority for maintaining social harmony and stability.

Obeying social norms

Humans have shown obedience to authority figures from time immemorial, from the tribe leaders to kings and political leaders. The spectrum of such behaviour can range from loyalty, fan behaviour, sycophant, mere obedience to total submission to tyranny. Obeying the legal, social codes of conduct pertinent to a particular community are expected norms. From the kids obeying parental advice to citizens wearing masks during the pandemic to not jumping the red lights or jaywalking, the significance of following the rules can’t be underestimated.

Group dynamics and Group aggressive behaviour

There are circumstances when the conformity and obedience can go horribly wrong, 

While following the herd and joining in on bullying, oppressing, expelling, killing and partaking in the antisocial behaviour of the group, as you don’t wish to be seen as the loner contradicting the bunch.

This relates to social and emotional contagion, where people jump to the bandwagon just because someone else is already doing so—following foolishness of the crowd may end up in the undesirable territories.

Why blindly obeying the petty despots?

As with conformity, so is with obedience, the darker side of blindly following the authority figures can prove fatal.

Blindly following the crowd can prove fatal

The most troubling part is, every human is capable of doing something awful if they have been ordered to do it. There are endless tragedies in history, of genocides, mass killings and horrendous torturing, where individuals were blindly following the orders of either the tyrant kings, military, authoritarian rulers or political leaders.

Why conforming when the moral and ethical consequences are at stake

The most daring, disturbing and ethically questionable studies done in the fields of conformity and obedience are,

Conformity experiments of Solomen Asch

Shock/obedience studies of Stanely Milgram 

The Stanford prison experiment of Philip Zimbardo

The trio and their studies, though morally disturbing and ethically questionable, have laid psychological foundations in the realm of conformity and obedience.

 Asch and Milgram belonged to post World War II  era of intellectual challenge of making sense of Germans, just following orders of the Nazi leaders.

Not going into the in-depth details, but only mentioning the highlights.

Conformity-Solomen Asch

Individuals changing their minds and consciously deciding to select incorrect answers to get along with their group was the startling revelation of conformity in Solomen Asch studies.

Miligram studies

In an experimental set up for teaching, a group of volunteers, selected to work as teachers, were willing to administer increasing levels of electric shock, even up to a life-threatening level to failing students, by order of a higher authority figure. A whopping 65 per cent of participants followed the instructions of authority and oversaw the lethal voltage being administered to the students. A study that shocked the conscience of the community.

All-time controversial test

Stanford Prison experiment, carried out by Zimbardo in 1971, funded by the US Office of Naval Research to study antisocial behaviour, is the most notorious and famous experiment out of all controversial psychological experiments.

A detailed version of the test is available on various websites and Wikipedia.

The test was nothing short of a disaster, for its startling revelations and exposure of the darker side of the human psyche.


The volunteers performing as the guards were transformed into ruthless, brutal bullies riding on the power and authority permitted with them. Meanwhile, the volunteer prisoners, snatched off their identity and treated in-humanly, underwent a great deal of emotional damage. The destruction caused by the perceived impression of powerlessness and helplessness were beyond imagination. Crushed and crumbled, when the torture started to affect their mental and physical health, the experiment was called off after six days.

You can find lots of books, movies and TV shows, based on SPE.

Situation matters

One thing that all three experiments teach us is that situation matters.

To fit in the group, people were willing to select incorrect answers, in the name of obedience and authority, people committed all kinds of horrible things.

Environmental forces

Zimbardo, the architect of Stanford prison experiment and famed author of The Lucifer effects, came forward with his Bad barrel theory– the problem isn’t how a few bad apples can ruin the whole barrel; it’s how a lousy barrel can turn any apple bad.

Zimbardo states, as a public health approach, that any deed, for good or evil, that any human being has ever done, you and I could also do, given the same situational forces.

Controversial approach

All the above mentioned psychological studies have attracted lots of controversies and scathing criticism from all corners of society. It won’t be possible to formulate identical researches in the current era due to the unethical, and risky nature of studies.

 Few teachers and guards were psychological wrecks afterwards, seeing what they had proven capable of, and that changed their lives.

Cognitive evidence of conformity

Neuroimaging correlation has shown that while in a group, if one thinks differently and finds out, others disagree, it activates anxiety centres followed by cognitive efforts required to modify their answers just to fit in. Even sensory perception and processing regions are forced to experience what is not valid. This rethinking happens in a matter of milliseconds.

When one is being coerced to join a lynch mob or follow the authorities to do something wrong,  the same neurobiological reactivity loop occurs.

Anxiety, and stress leading to subordination, and heeding the orders.

Possible explanation in a nutshell

What are the factors that enforced one to conform and obey, besides the situational context? The reasons are numerous,

  • Social influence to conform and belong 
  • Own survival and safety 
  • Taking away or misdirecting the responsibility thereby the guilt 
  • De-individualisation, where the person is no longer acting as an individual but an anonymous member of society, no personal responsibility for the horrendous behaviour 
  • when the victim is an abstraction, compliance happens easily 
  • Anonymity and moral disengagement in the mob or group 
  • Diffusing individual guilt in a group 
  • An agent mentality while following the authority, so no need to take responsibility 
  • Autocratic or terrifying authorities 
  • Considering others like them and de-individualising, them vs us mentality 
  • Stress and anxiety enhances pressure to comply 

Defending oneself

Zimbardo, in his recent writing, highlights the banality of heroism.

One has to muster enough social intelligence with enhanced ability to understand things like scapegoating and ulterior motives by the groups or authorities, that might empower one to defend themselves.

When you have the urge to resist, know that you are not alone and that others are willing to fight. When following norms and orders, learn where to draw a line before descending into the bottomless pits of savagery.

Reality Check

The desperate need to conform, belong and obey is evident in most individuals, especially in teenagers and young adults. Pull of conformity and obedience can lead us to some of our darkest places that we don’t wish to visit 

As disturbing it may be to learn that our perceived autonomy is easily influenced and manipulated by others, enriching ourselves with the knowledge enables us to avoid group thinking, to question the influence of authority and take steps to avoid being exploited.

Sayeeda Pearl

Doctor by profession, Trivandrum medical college alumni, a passionate reader first, writing tidbits here and there on this and that. Sharing bits of life’s fascinating teachings that everyone encounters.

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