Conformity involves developing attitudes, opinions, and behaviors to match the attitudes of a specific group. Most people conform to the standard values,also called norms, of many groups without stress and often without even knowing that they are doing so. By itself conformity is neither good nor bad.
Some degree of conformity is necessary for societies to function. For example, when you stop at a red light, you are conforming to the law and to the general agreement that for the good and safety of society, a red light means stop. You stop, even though most of the time there is not a police officer on thescene to enforce the law.
Different societies and different organizations put higher or lower values onconformity. The United States is often said to have been settled by non-conformists. Many of the early colonists were people who did not fit in, for religious, philosophical, economic, or social reasons, with the expectations of society in their native countries. They sought a place to live where the levelof conformity and norms of society were more comfortable for them. In the United States often some degree of non-conformity is still admired today. The ideal of the "rugged individualist" who does things his or her own way is partof American culture.
Other societies put a higher value on fitting in or conforming. There is a Japanese proverb that roughly translates into the saying, "The nail that sticksup gets hammered down," meaning that it is better not to stand out in a group but to conform. Military organizations are an example of a group that expects a high level of conformity in the behavior of their members and punishes those who do not conform.
All people balance the need to conform and fit in with the need to express their individuality throughout their lives. Some research into birth order suggests that the oldest child in a family is more likely to conform, while laterchildren are more likely to become non-conformists. However, these studies are open to different interpretations and, although interesting, should not beconsidered conclusively true.
Young children tend to be the least aware of the group and society values andare the least influenced by the need to conform. However, with more social interactions and more awareness of others, the need to conform grows. Pre-teens and teenagers face many issues related to conformity. They are pulled between the desire to be seen as individuals of unique value and the desire to belong to a group where they feel secure and accepted. The result is that oftenteens reject conforming to family or general society values, while conformingrigidly to the norms or values of their peer group. An example of this phenomenon is seen when young people join gangs. In joining the gang they are rejecting the community's way of dressing and behaving. Yet to belong to the gang, they must conform to the gang's own style of dress, behavior, and speech.
Conformity is tied closely to the issue of peer pressure. Although people feel peer pressure their entire lives, young people who are seeking to define themselves are generally most influenced by the values and attitudes of their peers. Adolescents often encourage friends to do or try things that they themselves are doing in order to fit into to a group. The encouragement can be positive (studying hard to get good grades) or negative (drinking beer after thefootball game).
Deciding how much and which group's values to conform to are one of the majorstresses of adolescence. Trying to conform to the behaviors of a group thatgo against one's own beliefs in order to be accepted creates a great deal ofinternal conflict and sometimes external conflict with family members and friends from an earlier time. Defining oneself as an individual and developing aconstant value system forces young people to confront issues of conformity and non-conformity. This is a major challenge of adolescence.
Many studies of young people show that if a person's friends engage in a behavior - everything from cigarette smoking to drinking alcohol to shoplifting to sexual activity - an adolescent is highly likely to conform to his or her friends' behaviors and try these activities. The alternative is for the youngperson to seek different friends with values more in line with his own. Often, however, the desire to be part of a group and the fear of social isolationmakes it more appealing to change behaviors than to seek other friends.
Attitudes toward conformity are of particular interest in community health, where conformity may influence the willingness of people to engage in activities such as illicit drug use or high-risk sexual activities, or prompt them toavoid drug rehabilitation programs.
The tendency to conform to a group's values is of interest to outreach workers because social networks may provide a link to reaching and influencing thebehavior of a wide range of people involved in drug abuse and high-risk sexual activity. If key members of a group accept messages about how to change behavior to reduce risky activities such as needle sharing, drinking and driving, and unsafe sexual behavior, other group members often follow their lead andchange their behavior also.
Although society tends to focus on teenagers' needs to conform and follow fads, and many parents worry about how the desire to conform will influence thedecisions their children must make, issues surrounding conformity continue into adult life. They may be as trivial as choosing the proper clothes to wearto the office so as not to stand out or as serious as choosing whether to have one's children vaccinated against diseases. Finding a rational balance between belonging and being an individual is a challenge for everyone. Many people who feel as if this area of their lives is out of balance benefit from seeking professional counseling to help them find a level of conformity that is more comfortable for them.