How to know when to conform and when to rebel

Guest post by Jacquelyn Kyle

I’m becoming more and more convinced that we do, in fact, each have a Conformist and also a Rebel within us.

No matter how determined you may be to fit in and go with the flow, there is a point at which you, too, would rebel. Where you would draw the line between conformity and rebellion would be much different than mine. But it’s really important to articulate exactly what that line is for you…

Two questions can help you get started:

  1. When is it important to conform?
  2. When is it important to rebel?

For those of you with a lot of Rebel in you…

Maybe you would say that it’s important to rebel anytime there’s something that you disagree with, or something you think is morally wrong.

But think really carefully about when it’s important to conform.

Is it important to conform in cases where rebelling would lead to you losing your job? Maybe there are ways you can make changes within the organization, but not if you get fired.

Is it important to conform in cases where doing so would be an act of love? Maybe you disagree with the politics of a singer your partner wants to go see in concert — setting that aside to be there with your partner may be worth it for you.

For those of you with a lot of conformist in you…

Maybe you tend to go with the flow or conform almost always. It can be easy to go along with things you don’t actually agree with, because it’s easier to go along than to cause a stir.

But think really carefully about when it’s important to rebel.

Groupthink is one concept I talk about with my students — when members of a group go along with something even when they know it’s not right. There are lots of studies and examples I go over with my students, but one that startled me was Asch’s lines.

Asch's Line experiment

This was an experiment where they placed a test subject in a classroom-like setting. The subject thought everyone else was also a subject, but they were part of the experiment. The researchers would show lines of various lengths on the board, and ask everyone to say which line (A or B) was closer to the length of the line they showed, like this:

They had each of the people participating in the experiment say that the answer was B, even though it’s clearly A. What they found was that by the time they got around to the research subject, they were very very likely (65 or 75% of them) to say B as well. Again, even though Line A is so clearly the answer.

In other words, people conform even when they know they’re wrong.

This can be really dangerous. Stanley Milgram did a famous (infamous, really) experiment as well, where he showed that people will do things they know are wrong if someone in authority tells them to. He had people use a shock generator on another person in a different room for the purposes (or so they thought) of measuring the effect of pain on memory and retention.

The majority of the subjects went on all the way to the highest (marked XXX) shock level, even though the person they thought they were shocking went silent — as far as they knew, the person could have been dead. Many of the subjects expressed discomfort with what they were doing, and said they’d like to stop, but the presence of the man in the white lab coat telling them that they must continue was enough for most to continue all the way.

Take the time to articulate your personal code.

I dislike confrontation, so I’m at risk of conforming even when a situation is really bad. Having a personal code has helped me. I’m able to say to myself, yes, this confrontation will be unpleasant — but I know I’ll feel guilty/awful/mad at myself later if I don’t say something.

Your answers are important to you, personally. The important thing is that you give conscious, intentional thought in articulating when you, personally, feel that it is important and when it is important to rebel.

Having a personal code gives you a guideline to adhere to when you’re not sure what to do.

Making decisions about conformity or rebellion in the heat of the moment is rarely a good idea, but having a personal code lets you make these decisions ahead of time.

Comments on How to know when to conform and when to rebel

  1. I think this is interesting, especially as a potential start for a conversation, but I really wish the article had also discussed the results of the (somewhat less well known) follow-up studies to both the Milgram and Asch experiments (the Asch ones are actually described in the linked Wikipedia page). In both cases the researchers did a lot to explore what factors could mitigate people’s obedience/conformity. Among others, having a single other person make a different choice—either choosing A or expressing reluctance to continue the Milgram experiment—made people vastly more likely to make the “nonconformist” choice. The “moral” being that if you see a lot of people making a decision that concerns you, often times speaking up will be enough to make a lot of other people who were also concerned speak their minds as well.

    • Really interesting point–I think it’s important for each person to determine when they’re comfortable being that first person, taking the risk that they actually are the only one who feels that way. I’m guessing that lots of times, maybe even the majority of the time, that won’t be the case, but at least for me it always feels like I must be the only one–which does make it a relief when someone else agrees.

  2. First, I will use the word “differ” because “rebel”, to my ear, sounds angry, and also sounds like either a weaker person rebelling against a strong one, or an adolescent person opposing someone more mature, either of which gives too much power to the other and makes differing sound more like reacting and less like simply being original. This matters to me because it shapes what I do and why I do it.

    I will differ whenever the result would do no harm. Harm does not include offending people for no logical reason, as in, “You make me uncomfortable when you wear your hair like that.” It’s on them if they can’t handle a little diversity. But if the person is in some way fragile, like someone with Alzheimer’s who gets easily confused by the unfamiliar, or someone who once got beaten up by someone with beads in their hair, I will conform out of charity.

    I will also conform if I am paid to and the requirement is harmless. Office-wear is no different from an ice-cream vender’s white shirt and trousers and little hat–if you’re paid to wear the uniform, that’s part of the deal, and you’re reimbursed for humoring the boss. I’m not about to dress like that on my own time, however. And I will not accept pay for doing anything harmful.

    I find that my own attitude towards my differing makes a huge difference in how I’m accepted (one reason why I call it differing rather than rebelling.) If I see myself as a weirdo outcast I get treated like a weirdo outcast. If I see myself as a lovable eccentric, I get treated like a lovable eccentric. I also have discovered that people will give a lot more leeway to someone kind, helpful, and actively seeking ways to contribute than they would to an ordinary person, let alone a hostile one. Sometimes it seems like conformity only matters (at least in the adult world) if a community has nothing else on which to evaluate one. In other communities it does matter all by itself, but they will forgive one of their own, and the best way to become one of their own is to look for ways to help out.

    I will dig in my feet hard against harm to others. I learned a valuable lesson at the age of eleven, when my school conducted an experiment in mainstreaming special ed students. The teachers would stand by observing bullying and taking notes but not interfering unless it got physical. One thing they allowed was kids standing in a circle around a particularly fearful girl with mental retardation, ordering her, “Come here! “No, come here!” “No, come HERE!” until she’d collapse in the middle sobbing. But only if I didn’t find them in time. If the teachers wouldn’t intervene unless it got physical, then I made it physical! As a nerdy-girl, I had a huge shopping-basket full of books and when I charged in swinging that thing all the bullies scattered! Teachers would then intervene, and my friend was safe for another day.

    (Yes, bruising bullies may be considered harm. Allowing them to continue, however, would cause more harm–to themselves as much as others. Sometimes you have to decide which is worse, and prevent that. The leader of the bullies wound up in a mental hospital as an adult. If only some teacher had intervened, someone capable of finding out what drove her to such cruelty!)

    Worst year of my school days, eleven going into twelve. It made me a pariah, and my peers found many ways to punish me. I cried myself to sleep every night and every morning contemplated suicide. But then always I’d remember that that girl needed me alive to protect her. I grew some spine that year that has benefited me my entire life. So no, I will not suffer cruelty in my presence, under any circumstances. (Cruelty being defined as needless harm, as opposed to, say, knocking someone out of the way of a speeding car and causing that person to skin his knee–the skinned knee was a necessary harm to prevent something worse.)

    Regarding religious rules, I’m a devout Christian, and I wish I could conform to doctrine, but I just can’t always. Jesus told me, “By their fruits so shall ye know them,” and so I look at the fruit of something before accepting it. How can I put this and avoid drama? When acting on a certain doctrine causes a lot of suicide, and self-loathing, and behavior destructive to the individual and to community, whereas tolerance causes productivity and good for the individual and community, I have to step back and say “Whoa! We must have mistranslated something in the Bible here!”

    I personally see divine revelation as a field of beans that God caused to grow for us, and the Bible as a delicious, wholesome bean soup made from it by human hands. But any cook knows that no matter how hard they try to avoid it, the harvesters are going to get a few pebbles in with the beans. If I find something in my soup that doesn’t taste like a bean, doesn’t look like a bean, and doesn’t feel in the mouth like a bean, I’m not going to break my teeth on the danged thing and call it faith. God gave me reason for a reason.

    So my criteria for when to conform and when to differ isn’t necessarily Bible-only. It does look to the Bible for what the fruits of the Holy Spirit are, though, and these are Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, and Steadfastness. Anything that results in something unloving, joyless, unpeaceable, impatient, unkind, harmful, or unsteadying is not godly in my book.

    Long answer, but that’s how I navigate. I respect the right of others to differ. So long as they’re not actively hurting someone to no good purpose I won’t come swinging my bookbag at ’em! 😉

    • I’m so blown away by this comment. It sounds like you’ve given a lot of thought to your own personal code, and that’s awesome (and it’s very similar to mine, but that’s beside the point).
      I also love your Biblical perspective here. You put something I’ve been struggling with myself into such a beautiful way of thinking, and I’m going to come back and reread that over and over again, I can already tell. Thank you for that.

  3. This may be a somewhat … weak, silly, and insignificant comparison but this article made me think about paint colors. Recently, I had to pick a paint color for my new office. I was given a book of colors and told to choose with no restrictions. I was really drawn to an electric green, a vibrant purple, and a bold aqua. I was pretty much settled on the green and then I started to get negative reactions from pretty much ALL of my co-workers. “Too bright” “Too bold for such a small space” “Might drive you crazy” etc. All the other offices are painted in rather subdued tones. Olive green, navy blue, steel grey, pale lavender etc. The woman who is getting my office chose beige. No matter which of the three colors I chose it would run contrary to what the others deemed appropriate office colors. So I chose the aqua which was the least vibrant of the three I liked. In a way I felt like a huge conformist because I let their opinions make me feel uncomfortable about my initial choice. But by the same token I am the newest and youngest person in the office so I felt like if my paint choice bothered people then maybe I should defer to them and tone it down a notch. Just a notch though. I spend 40 hours of my life every week in that office and it will be bright!

    • No I think that’s a perfect example! And the compromise you reached by balancing the conformist and the rebel in you seems good to me, even though I’m sad your coworkers are such downers :).

      • Haha, yes! I was bummed out by that too! Oh well, I already have a bright green dining room at home so at least I get to enjoy that color on a daily basis somewhere else. They actually brought in my paint today and just from the dab on the top of the can it’s going to be bright enough so I’m pleased. Hopefully everyone else will be too and I won’t become that weirdo in the neon office!

    • It sounds like you made a good choice: a compromise between your personal tastes and the needs of coworkers who will sometimes need to do business with you in your office. Aqua’s a good choice, because it can be both bright and calming at the same time. Selling out would have been accepting a standard office beige that you didn’t like. But you found a way to be you and yet to also invite your coworkers in, simultaneously–bravo for you!

      • Thanks! They finished the painting last night so today we all went in for the full effect. It is super bright! But I think part of the reason is seems so bright is because all the others are such “normal” office colors!

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