I remember a few years ago, when people started to use the American Sign Language sign for “I Love You”. It seemed that everywhere I looked, people were holding up their hand and waving “I love you” to people. As a sign language interpreter, I quickly followed suit.

Lately, people are holding up both hands to make the shape of a heart, presumably to say “I love you.” Before long we were seeing it everywhere, and people were actually saying “I heart you”. I have yet to follow along with this one. Maybe I’m just getting too old to conform to a fad that will most likely be quickly forgotten and replaced with another.

But why do we so easily start doing something simply because other people are doing it, and why is it that the more we see others do something, the more compelled we feel to join in?

Group conformity is a lot more powerful than we realize: we are social beings. We like to feel like we belong; we are part of the greater community. It gives us a sense of comfort and safety to belong to a group.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, conformity is:

  • behavior that is the same as the behavior of most other people in a society, group, etc.
  • the fact or state of agreeing with or obeying something

According to Saul McLeod, conformity is “a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with the group.”  He goes on to say that the change is a response to the real or imagined group pressure. Real group pressure requires the presence of other people from the group, while imagined group pressure involves the expectations of the social norms of the group – what a person thinks they need to do to belong in the group.

In this video, a test subject is ushered into a crowded waiting room, where, for no apparent reason, everyone else there rises when a buzzer sounds. Eventually, the woman also stands along with her companions, after only a few repetitions of the behaviour. Even more fascinating is that even though the subject was never told why she should stand, and therefore could not have understood or even agreed to the reasoning, she still stood even after everyone else had left the room. When other people came in, they too mimicked the behaviour until finally one person refused to conform.

So what happens when a potential convert attends a cult meeting where a lot of people are conforming to certain rules? Take any unsuspecting potential convert to a few cult meetings, and before long his or her style of dress will change. The way they speak will change. Their behaviour will change. Even their emotional responses and attitudes to things will change. They will follow the pack led by just one person.

I have watched this change occur in a matter of weeks. The more they want to become part of the group, the more they will emulate all the behavioursÑfrom how they dress, to how they talk. Added to this is that many potential converts are instructed in the group mindset so they are groomed to make those changes.

Sam McLeod tells us: “the term conformity is often used to indicate an agreement to the majority position, brought about either by a desire to ‘fit in’ or be liked (normative) or because of a desire to be correct (informational), or simply to conform to a social role (identification).” So if you start to act like the group members, talk like them, and look like them, then those changes will show agreement with the beliefs of the group.

The change is subtle. It is covert. It is hard to see, unless you know and understand what it is and are able to make decisions based on reasoned choices, instead of conforming to certain group norms before you understand them.

After a person is in the group, it takes great courage and sacrifice to stop conforming to the group, even when the group rules make no sense, or when you have no idea why the rules exist. You can only break free after thoughtful contemplation about the meaning of the group’s beliefs and behaviours. This simple reality needs to be much more broadly known.

After I wrote this article I remembered an incident from years ago that was along these lines. When I first started recovery for the childhood sexual abuse I attended a self-help group. Later one of the women in that group started her own group and I attended the group one night. The first thing that struck me when I walked in was that all of the people there were sitting in the exact same posture as the group leader. Throughout the evening she never changed her posture and neither did anyone else. Ankles crossed and to the side, back straight and hands demurely folded in their laps. It is an image that has stuck with me for almost 30 years.

One of the rules of the group was to not comment on what someone else said. okay I suppose that is a good idea to a point. One young woman started to talk about how depressed she was and how all she could think of was suicide. No comment from the group. Nothing. She looked around for support, comfort, encouragement. Anything. And she got no response. She got up and left. I got up and went after her and we talked. She decided not to return to that group and later joined one that I was starting. I went back and asked the group leader why nothing was said or done. “Well that is the rule!”

Rules are fine to a point. You don’t want anyone attacking what someone has said. But this girl was so close to the edge and came looking for support only to get folded hands and blank stares and a leader who could not effectively lead.

Compassion, caring, support, simple acknowledgment is needed by all of us. Rules, whether they are stated or not, cannot be so definite that people cannot express their humanity. This was a group of women who had lived much of their lives hiding their feelings. And this group reinforced the belief that you should hide what you feel even when you hear it from someone else. Perhaps every one of those women has had similar thoughts but they were bound by the rules to not say anything.

Sometimes we have to step away from conformity and do what is right and loving.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about conformity or undue influence you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!