Everyday Evil, Part 4: Conformity

Christians often tout community as if it is an unmitigated good. Community is a good. Being with and in relationship with others is a great thing. But there is a dark side to community as well. So we need to realize that community is a relative and contextual good.

We all know some of the bad things associated with groups. Sometimes it is a mindless herd mentality. Sometimes it is groupthink. But sometimes it can be more sinister.

The most famous studies concerning group conformity were conducted by Solomon Asch in 1953. Asch had subjects observe lines of differing lengths on a paper and to state which of these lines was the same size as a target line. The responses took place within a group setting where the subject could hear everyone else's responses. What the subject didn't know was that all his/her fellow "subjects" were really in on the study.

During the trials the fake subjects began to give obviously wrong answers by saying that a given line segment was"the same size as a target line that was obviously longer or shorter. The question asked by Asch was this: When the group gives the obviously wrong answer will the subject go with what they are actually seeing or with the group? Will they conform and give an obviously wrong answer?

The answer: Most people conform. Despite seeing the facts with their own two eyes. The YouTube clip is a modern-day replication of the study. So you can see the effect for yourself.

This tendency to conform is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does reveal a few important things about the dynamic of everyday evil:

1. We have a very, very strong need to conform.

2. Consequently, our moral resolve is highly contextual depending upon the group pressures surrounding us.

3. Thus, if the group gets going in a bad direction normally decent folk can get swept away in the conformity rip tide.

All this is to say that most of the evil in the world is committed by groups. Very little evil is committed by rouge individuals. True, there are a few sociopaths among us. But most of the evil we see, historically and today, is done by collections of people.

But none of this is new, is it? As it says in 1 Corinthians 15:33:

"Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character."

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6 thoughts on “Everyday Evil, Part 4: Conformity”

  1. For some reason my first thought were gangs. It is amazing how behavior changes when we are around certain groups. It seems to me that our fear of rejection is more powerful than we think. I know I have conformed many times for the sake of approval. And as a Christian, it still is tempting to just conform, then really stand firm in what is right and true. I think this is true in every group in religion. Sometimes we believe such silly things without really knowing why. Sometimes we even preach things we really don't understand.

    It reminds me of that day when they had Jesus shackled and beaten, and he is standing in front of the crowd, and then everybody is starting to yell, "crucify him, crucify him." I have a strong feeling that most of those people were just conforming and not really knowing what was really happening. And Pilate who found no guilt in him also confromed because of his fear.

    Too really think about this conformity in the church is a really scary thought. I mean, how many times do we get caught up in the crowd with a sinner in front of us and we start yelling, "crucify him, crucify him," when we really don't know all the facts. Or scarier, we do and we still yell it because that is what everybody else is doing. Man, to think about how we really miss the ball because we want to be popular and well liked.

    I think that it would be a very sad thing to go to the grave knowing that I spent my whole life conforming instead of just living my life and being courageous. Not easy. I think of that quote that goes something like, "even if your voice is shaky, speak up." or something like that.

  2. Richard,

    Concerning good and evil behavior, creativity, conformity, and community, you might want to check out this url:



    George C.

  3. Richard, great post!
    Again, this is a reminder for the KIND of community the Church needs to be. Because the community molds those who belong to it, those who shape the community's practices need to be mindful of this 'ripple effect'.
    I think it'd be worth exploring how community-displacement affects individual decision making. I.e., how might the attitudes developed in one context prevent us (or encourage us) from conforming to other groups we may find ourselves in?

  4. I think that without this aspect of human nature there would never be belief in God in a modern society. It is the desire to follow the herd that keeps people from questioning authority and tradition. It is essential to any religion. I feel like this is something that religious groups should realize and stop taking advantage of in people. I am a big advocate of faith but I'm opposed to how we generally lead people along with peer pressure.

  5. George,
    That's a great link. I really enjoy Haidt's stuff and have blogged about his moral dumbfounding work before.

    Bob, Daniel, Roxanne, and Mike,
    Reflecting along with you...

    Community is such a razor's edge. It can support, teach, defend, protect, and guide. But it can also pressure, indoctrinate, scapegoat, and insulate. I think there is lots of work to be done in this area. Too often, as I note, we say "community" in theological conversations like that term means something specific. Like, the "doctrine of the Trinity is a statement about the ontological nature of community." Well, as a psychologist I don't know how to unpack that. I think was is needed is less a focus on community and more of a focus on the KIND of community.

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