Despite the 21st century’s professed love for independence, originality, and individuality, the reality is very few people want to be different from the other members of their social groups. This phenomenon, whereby the majority of people in a particular social setting strive to be like everyone else in the group, is referred to as social conformity. Over the years, conformity has proven to be a somewhat controversial, though interesting topic for analysis within psychological circles. On the one hand, conformity may be viewed as a negative trait which involves individuals losing or hiding their personalities for their own advantage; on the other hand, conformity may be regarded as a crucial factor which helps us build successful societies according to accepted general standards.
Human beings are social creatures. Throughout history, the human race has tended to thrive when people live in interactive, cooperative, and supportive groups. Over this time period, many fundamental social rules have gradually been established. In many ways, these unspoken rules and standards play a huge role in determining how we live our life. In fact, it may be quite plausible to say that most people live under constant social pressure. The general rule of thumb is if you wish to be a part of human society, you should know and follow the social norms. Individuals who discard or rebel against accepted social standards are often viewed negatively and treated suspiciously.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why many immigrants may be eager to conform after they arrive in a new country. They may change their appearance, language, behavior, and even their culture in order to reflect what they see in their new environment. The motivation for these adjustments, of course, is the fear that they may not be accepted in their new social group.
The social pressure to conform affects people from early childhood to adulthood. For example, a kindergarten student may feel the need to adopt the traits of his or her classmates if he or she wants to integrate successfully into a new class. Teenagers are often exposed to intense peer pressure as they seek to find social groups in which they feel valued and respected. However the selection process is extremely important as peer pressure may influence adolescents positively (such as setting new academic goals and striving to reach them) or negatively (for example engaging in promiscuous sex, drinking alcohol, or using illicit drugs). A similar situation may be experienced during adulthood. If your goal is to build a successful career at your current workplace, your company may require that you adopt the behavior and beliefs of your coworkers and boss. Social conformity is an extremely powerful facet of human behavior and many people often choose to “fit in” rather than “stand out.” Evidence of this is seen in many cases of negative peer pressure, where an individual may choose to conform even if he or she realizes that the required social standards are harmful.
In the past few decades, many psychologists have attempted to define specific types of conformity and its influence on human thinking and behavior. At present, experts in the field have distinguished at least three major types or stages of conformity.
The first type of conformity is referred to as compliance. Compliance occurs when an individual adopts a group’s ideals because he or she seeks to gain a specific advantage or avoid a specific punishment. The individual may have private beliefs which are completely different from the group’s beliefs, however he or she still chooses to conform. Any perceived behavior change is temporary and the individual usually stops conforming as soon as group pressure is removed.
The second type of conformity is identification. Identification is associated with a person accepting the ideals of respected or authoritative people, especially when in the presence of these people. The individual’s public behavior as well as his private opinion may conform in this setting. For instance, a child may choose to sit quietly when in the presence of his parents, but may run amok when not under parental supervision. As illustrated, identification may lead to changes in behavior or belief which are not permanent.
Internalization is the third major stage of conformity. Internalization is the complete acceptation of the behavioral norms and attitudes of a specific social group. The conforming individual accepts these norms both publicly and privately. He or she develops new moral values, beliefs and behaviors, and follows them devotedly. In this scenario, changes in public behavior and private beliefs are permanent.
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