Henri Tajfel had a personal interest in studying genocide.
He was a Polish Jew who served in the French Army during World War II. He was captured by the Germans but survived the Holocaust because the Germans didn’t realize that he was Jewish. Although he escaped death, many of his friends and family didn’t.
As a result he dedicated his professional career to answering a seemingly simple question: What motivates discrimination and prejudice?
Tajfel and his colleagues ran a series of now-famous experiments. They assigned volunteers to different teams based on their answers to random questions. The subjects were asked, for example, which one of two abstract paintings they liked better. Based on their answers, they were assigned to a group made up of others who expressed the same preference.
These were relatively meaningless, artificially created groups. There was no shared history between the members and no inherent reason for conflict to develop between groups.
Yet the subjects developed group loyalty frighteningly quickly. They were more likely to distribute monetary rewards to the members of their own group at the expense of the others—even where they didn’t receive any rewards personally, and even when alternative strategies would benefit both groups.
In other words, it took the most trivial of distinctions for the subjects to divide themselves between “us” and “them.” The simple act of telling people they belong to one group and not the other was sufficient to trigger loyalty toward their own group and bias against the others.
People have a natural tendency to categorize themselves and others into groups. Once they are in a group, they tend to identify with it. They fixate on small or arbitrary distinctions, exaggerate those distinctions, and develop a favorable bias toward their own group. They become part of the group, and the group becomes part of them. Outsiders, in turn, become “those people.”
Conformity is a natural and efficient instinct. From the day we’re born, we learn by emulating and assimilating. Conformity teaches us everything from how to walk to how to talk. Instead of reinventing the wheel and attempting to figure out everything on our own, we master, through observation, the best of what other people have learned.
Conformity may be a harmless process when it comes to learning to walk and talk. But as we grow older, conformity can generate dangerous consequences. In Tajfel’s social experiment, preference between two paintings was sufficient to create group favoritism. In the real world, other classifications—such as men and women, Bosnians and Serbs, Muslims and Christians, Democrats and Republicans, Nazis and Jews—have divided societies, leading to conflict and, in some cases, brutal atrocity.
Conformity brought us the Red Scare, the American paranoia about the potential rise of communism. Conformity brought us the Salem Witch Trials, where even some of the accused conformed to the craze and vividly testified to being visited by the devil. Conformity brought us the Jonestown massacre, which resulted in the death over 900 people after they dutifully followed the instructions of their tribal leader, Jim Jones, and drank cyanide.
Consider also the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment. Conducted in 1971 by the psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the experiment divided twenty-four Stanford undergraduate students into two groups: guards and prisoners. These groups immediately began to conform to their assigned roles. To enforce group identity, the guards referred to the prisoners only by their number, not their name, and began to punish them for unruly behavior.
As the experiment progressed, the methods of punishment grew more sadistic. The guards began to attack the prisoners with fire extinguishers, prohibit them from emptying the sanitation buckets that they used as toilets, and force them to take their clothes off or sleep on the concrete floor by removing their mattresses. The prisoners also began to internalize their roles by passively accepting psychological torture. At the urging of Christina Maslach, then a graduate student, Zimbardo prematurely terminated the experiment on its sixth day, much to the chagrin of some of the guards.
Whether consciously or not, we conform to an expected role that society asks us to play each day. We play the role of the prisoner and the guard. We play the role of the good student who obeys the authority figure behind the podium. We play the role of the loyal employee who doesn’t rock the boat with a contrarian view.
Our instinct to identify with a group, and conform to that group, also makes us easy targets for fear mongering. Seizing on this instinct, politicians point the finger to another group that looks different, talks different, and acts different than us and blame them for our troubles.
Most of us yearn to be unique and stand out from the herd. We believe we have unique tastes and a different worldview than the rest of our tribe. We might admit interest in the choices of others, but we would argue that our decisions are our own.
The evidence suggests otherwise. In one study, participants were quizzed about a documentary they watched: How many policemen were there when the woman got arrested? What was the color of her dress? A few days after they took the test, they returned to the lab to get re-tested. This time, they were shown the responses of other participants, some of which had been intentionally doctored to be false.
Roughly seventy percent of the time, the participants changed their answers and went along with the wrong answers given by the rest of the group. Even after the experimenters told the participants that the group answers were wrong, the fake social proof was so powerful that half of the participants stuck with the wrong answers when they were re-tested.
We treat our differences from our tribes as glitches to be corrected, rather than imperfections to be embraced. Even though I frequently write about contrarian thinking, I have to actively fight the tendency to crawl back into my conformist skin (my writing often serves as a form of self-therapy).
Businesses also fall into the same conformity trap. They chase trends, adopt the newest fad, and do things simply because their competitors are doing it. This “monkey see, monkey do” approach creates a race to the center, even though there’s far less competition on the edges.
The cure begins with an awareness of our instinct to conform. But awareness by itself, as the studies above suggest, isn’t enough. The next time you’re tempted to jump on the bandwagon, stop and ask yourself: Am I doing this simply because others are also doing it? Or am I doing it because this is the right decision for me?
There’s a well-known saying in Japan: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” The world needs more resilient nails that refuse to be hammered down.