Baggy slacks with two-inch cuffs are popular at Bud’s school. Bud wears baggy slacks with two-inch cuffs. Is Bud a conformist? Matt, a student at the same school, wears straight-leg, cuffless slacks. Is Matt a nonconformist? Is he an individualist? Which is more desirable, to be a conformist or to be a nonconformist? Many people think of a conformist as a “bad” person, weak-willed, mindless, spineless, and lacking convictions (or at least the courage to stand up for his convictions). To be called a nonconformist, on the other hand, implies to many people that one is a “good” person who has the courage to stand up for his own convictions in the face of group pressures, who “does his own thing” regardless of what other people think.
To most people conformity means behaving in agreement with norms (laws, rules, customs, traditions, styles), while nonconformity means behaving differently from norms. In this traditional approach, Bud would be a conformist and Matt would be a nonconformist. However, this view of conformity and nonconformity refers only to outwardly observable behavior. To fully understand conformity it is helpful to get inside the person and examine his motives and intents—the reasons why he is behaving as he is. We need to look at conformity and nonconformity at the psychological level as well as at the behavioral level.
When we view conformity at the psychological level, we can see two different phenomena that can appear as conforming behavior. Although both of these phenomena may result in the same behavior, they differ in the motives underlying the behavior. (1) The first may be called true conformity. Two things are necessary for true conformity to exist: awareness of a norm, and conflict between the norm and the person’s preferences. The true conformist goes along with the norm because of group pressure to do so, even though he would rather not.
The second phenomenon that may result in conforming behavior may be called conventionality. As with true conformity, the person is aware of the norm, but there is no conflict between the norm and his preference. He would just as soon comply with the norm as deviate from it. Thus, he complies with the norm because it is consistent with what he prefers, not because of group pressure to do so. For example, just because everyone else eats soup with a spoon doesn’t make you a true conformist when you do so—unless you would rather eat it with your fork but are afraid of what others would think of you.
There are also two phenomena that may appear as nonconforming behavior. These phenomena may result in the same behavior but differ at the psychological level of motives and intents. The first can be viewed as conformity to other norms. A person may appear to be a nonconformist because his behavior deviates from our norm, but he actually may be yielding to a set of norms that is different from those we are using as a reference. He is really no more independent of norms than is the true conformist but rather is dependent on a different set of norms. For example, some so-called “free souls” living in communal societies or wandering around the country are nonconformists when compared with middle-class norms, but they may be conforming quite strongly to their own subculture’s norms. Another example of conformity to other norms is the adolescent. A teenager may be viewed by his parents as a nonconformist because his behavior deviates from their norms, when actually he may be yielding just as strongly to his peers’ norms as the adult true conformist is to adult norms. An illustration of this is the teenage boy who said to his father, “Gee, Dad, I just gotta be a nonconformist; how else can I be like all the other guys?”
This kind of conformity is what Elder Neal Maxwell probably had in mind when he said: “The religion of nonconformity is dogmatic and intolerant; it venerates freedom but does not emulate the purposeful lifestyle which is a precondition to the maintenance of freedom. Emancipation from adult control is often replaced by peer-run ‘prisons.’ David Reisman has observed that the disintegration of adult authority simply intensifies the young’s control of each other.” (A Time to Choose, Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 7.)
The second phenomenon that may appear as nonconforming behavior has been referred to by social psychologists as anticonformity. Anticonformity is similar to what we commonly think of as rebellion. Whereas the true conformist goes along with whatever is the norm, the anticonformist goes against whatever is the norm. The anticonformist is just as dependent on norms as is the true conformist: the only difference is that for him they serve as a negative reference rather than a positive one. The following statement by Brigham Young characterizes the anticonformist. “There are those who, when they know that they have liberty to act in a certain manner, do not care about moving in that direction; but if you say that they cannot or shall not, they are then very anxious to do so.” (Journal of Discourses 7:67.)
Although most nonconformists like to think that they are individualists, neither of these two kinds of nonconformity—conformity to other norms, and anticonformity—is the same as independence. Both of them are actually just forms of conformity, and neither one really represents “doing your own thing” independent of norms. The person who is truly independent thinks for himself, yields to no will but his own, and truly does his own thing. He evaluates a norm for its intrinsic merits within the framework of his own value system. Based on whether he thinks a norm is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, he may sometimes decide to comply with the norm, and other times he may decide to deviate from the norm. Thus, the true individualist sometimes will appear as a conformist in his outwardly observable behavior and sometimes will appear as a nonconformist.
I have suggested some distinctions among two kinds of conforming behavior, two kinds of nonconforming behavior, and independence, based on the motives underlying the behavior. Do these distinctions have any practical meaning? What implications may they have for our understanding of our own and others’ behavior? The following three conclusions are based in part on the above considerations.
1. Conforming behavior, and even true conformity, is necessary in order for a society to exist. If everyone did his own thing, with no regard for laws and rules and the rights of others, we could not have an organized society.
Thus, we should not be too quick to reject the norms of our society. Historians Will and Ariel Durrant, after spending 40 years compiling a 10-volume history of civilization, condensed what they had learned into a book entitled The Lessons of History. One of the lessons they suggested is the following:
“Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. … So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it.” (pp. 35–36.)
2. Conformity is not always bad and independence is not always good. Not only is conformity necessary, but there are ways to look at conformity that make it desirable. Suppose that for conformist we substitute team player, or for nonconformist we substitute deviate. Somehow team player and deviate do not evoke the same evaluations that conformist and nonconformist do. For example, how much would we admire a football player who ran his own patterns with no regard for what play the other team members were running? Or the basketball player who took a shot every time he got the ball? Yet, are they not “doing their own thing”?
Consider the man who wears a tie to church because everyone else does, even though he would be more comfortable in a sweatshirt; or the woman who stays home and takes care of her small children, but would rather leave them at a day-care center and get a job; or the man who would like to go golfing Saturday morning, but goes to work on the welfare farm because his quorum expects him to do so. These may be examples of true conformity, but are they necessarily bad?
True conformity may even be viewed as related to maturity and self-control. A conformist is subjugating his own desires to the will of others, and isn’t it often desirable to place the needs of others before our own needs? In fact, it is often seen as a sign of maturity and unselfishness to be willing to give up our own desires for others. Joseph F. Smith suggested that it may show “a stronger characteristic of individuality for men and women to bring themselves into harmony and union with the purposes of the Almighty than to be divided against them or separate from them.” (JD 25:245.)
I am not suggesting, of course, that true conformity is the same as self-control and maturity but only that there may be ways of looking at conformity that make it not always look so bad.
If there are ways in which conformity may be necessary and even desirable, there may also be ways in which independence can be undesirable. It might seem ridiculous even to suggest that it could be bad to be an individualist. But a pure individualist is a person who does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without subjugating his desires to norms. A society could not exist if everyone did his own thing. In addition, we are not likely to grow as individuals if we do not subjugate our own desires to the will of other people and to the will of the Lord.
Paul appeared to be counseling against doing our own thing without considering other people when he said, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” (Philip. 2:4.) The Lord counseled against doing our own thing without considering his will when he condemned those who had strayed from his commandments: “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own God.” (D&C 1:16.)
3. Since we usually do not know what motives and intents underlie a person’s conforming or nonconforming behavior, we should be careful about judging or criticizing others. Let’s take another look at the simple example that introduced this article. Although Bud’s behavior is in agreement with the norm at his school, we do not really know whether Bud is a true conformist without knowing how he feels about wearing baggy slacks with two-inch cuffs. Similarly Matt may be an individualist who wears what he wants to wear regardless of what others are wearing; or he may be an anticonformist who wears out-of-style clothes, even though he may not especially like them, just to be different; or he may be conforming to a different set of norms (for example, adult norms). We should not judge Bud’s or Matt’s behavior without knowing the motives and intents underlying it.
When we feel like breaking a rule, custom, or law, we may be wise to take a look at our motives and ask ourselves if we are really doing our own thing. On those occasions where the answer is yes, then we might further ask ourselves whether we should be doing our own thing—there may be situations in which it is not in the best interest of ourselves or other people to be completely independent. Conformity is not inherently good or bad, but its goodness depends upon what you are conforming to and why you are conforming.