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Conformity and Consensus

Conformity and Consensus

By Dennis Loo (11/18/13)

In my last article ("Setting the Terms") I referred to the very common practice by those who seek to bring about social change of more or less mirroring back to the majority what they already know and think. "Don't get too out ahead of people," these organizers advise. What is possible, according to that kind of activist, is more or less what is already going on, slightly accentuated. 

I contrasted this practice to the fact that what the majority think and do is mainly shaped by what they see others around them doing. In other words, those who tail after spontaneity (mirror back to people what they already see themselves) are not even reading the problem correctly.

Conformity is more important than consensus: people tend to adopt the social norms of those around them, less because they all fully agree with those norms than that they are accommodating themselves to others’ behavior in order to fit in. Social psychologists call this ubiquitous social behavior “pluralistic ignorance.”

Those who are aware that things are awry in the world and want to see a different world see the extensive conformity around them and tend to wrongly assume that others’ conformity reflects consensus. They believe that they would therefore have to change the way people think in order to change the way they behave and they rightly hesitate at the seeming enormity of such a task.

While it is true in an overall sense that what people do is based on what’s in their heads, and while it also true that changing the way people think is critical to changing the world, people’s beliefs and values are not the main determinant of their public behavior. Social cues are more important overall: people tend to adopt the behavior of those they regard as leaders. In the absence of strong convictions against the normative social behaviors, people are going to “go along to get along.” Humans are, after all, first and foremost social beings.

This was confirmed in a 2005 study[1] that looked at humans’ brains and social conformity:

In a recent study that reproduced the famous Solomon Asch conformity experiment (with the difference that in the recent study MRI’s were taken of the participants’ brain activity), when people gave answers that agreed with the group, even though the group’s answer was obviously wrong, their brains showed no emotional distress. When they gave the right answers but those answers differed from the group, however, their emotions were triggered. In other words, when we are doing the wrong thing, so long as that wrong thing agrees with what the group is doing, our brains do not evidence emotional distress. But doing the right thing when it means departing from the group’s actions is emotional. The study further found that the group’s stance actually influences people’s individual perceptions. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 333)

In other words, what we see individually is commonly affected by what the group says: our very perceptions are influenced by what the group says is going on. Furthermore, going along with the group, even when we know for certain that the group is wrong, is unemotional for us. Standing up for what is right when it varies from the group, on the other hand, triggers our emotions and makes doing so much harder.

No wonder it’s so easy to get people to do terrible things. including atrocities, that their consciences would ordinarily reject if leaders tell them to do it and others around them are doing it. This is especially easy to do so when those leaders are a nation’s political leaders. As Nazi leader Hermann Goering put it during his trial at Nuremberg:

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders… All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.”

The so-called “War on Terror,” in other words, takes its playbook straight from the Nazis, whose use of fearmongering and appeals to patriotism against all those who opposed them as “enemies of the state” proved so damnably effective.

1 Sandra Blakeslee, “What Other People Say May Change What You See,” NYTimes. com, June 03, 0665,

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