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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 14th 2009

 Are you a "man," a nonconformist, in the way that Emerson speaks of? We Americans pride ourselves in being individualistic, independent and nonconformist. We prize our freedom to choose what we want to do and when we want to do it. We are convinced that it is more important to do the right thing than to go along with the majority.

However, during the 1950's an experiment was done that revealed the truth that many of us are more conformist in our behavior than we like to admit to ourselves or to other people. Specifically, there were a series of experiments done called the "Asch Conformity Experiments."

Solomon Asch was a psychologist who, during the decade of the 1950's wanted to demonstrate the power that groups exert over our thinking and behavior.

Here is a very brief description of the experiment. Participants were asked to sit in a room with other people. In fact, these other people were confederates or members of the team conducting the experiment. Everyone in the room were told to view line segments and to match the segment to other segments to which they must belong. They were given three other line segments to choose from to match to the first segment. For one thing, the multiple choices had to match the length of the first line segment.

While the correct answer might be very obvious, the real question was if the participant would select the correct choice or be influenced by the choices made by the confederates? If you are a truly nonconformist person you will choose the correct answer regardless of what the confederates chose. However, if you are conformist, you will quietly go along with the confederates. Of course, the participants had no way of knowing that the others were confederates.

At first, the confederates selected the correct answers to each of the lines. However, as the experiment moved along, they began selecting the wrong answers. The focus was on how this would influence the participant. (It should go without saying that this experiment was done thousands of times in order to provide a large sample of participants).

The results of the experiment were interesting and discomforting. When the experimenter went around the room asking people the line segment they selected the real question became "which answer would the participant give? Would the participant give the actual correct answer or go along with the answer provided by the confederates?"

When the confederates were universal in selecting the correct answer, the participant also gave the correct answer. If one of the confederates gave the correct answer, but the other confederates in the room gave the incorrect answer, the participant stayed with his beliefs and gave the correct answer. In other words, having one person agree encouraged the participant to be nonconformist in sticking with the correct answer.

However, once the numbers of confederates who gave the clearly wrong answer grew in size, the participants ended up going along and giving the wrong answer.

Asked why they did this, most of the participants said the following:

1. They feared being ridiculed,
2. They actually thought that they were wrong,
3. They had a strong need to feel accepted by the others.

Another way of stating the results of this study is to say that human beings have a powerful need to conform and are therefore, deeply influenced by the norms and values of the society in which they live.

I am reminded of a powerful movie done during the 1960s called "Twelve Angry Men." It starred Henry Fonda, among other great actors and portrayed a jury of twelve men who had the task of deciding the innocence or guilt of an Hispanic young man on trial for murder. At first, the jury was almost unanimous in believing the subject was guilty except for the lone stand out, Henry Fonda. There was enormous group pressure towards a guilty verdict based on such factors as the accused person's ethnicity, age, the wish to find him guilty, end the proceeding and go home. The character of Henry Fonda was able to stand up to the enormous pressure against his wish to explore the facts of the case much more carefully. Gradually, he urges the jury, one by one, towards changing their verdict based on "reasonable doubt."

That movie and this issue strikes at our sense of ethical thinking, moral judgement, human decency.

Are you able to withstand group pressure even in the face of the group being wrong when you know you are correct and they are wrong?

There are many real life situations in which the lines between right and wrong are not clealy marked and decisions are, therefore, more difficult to make. What do you do then?

There will be more on this topic in the form of how we decide the groups that are or are not stigmatized.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD





Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

This article proves Emerson's point - Ben - Jan 21st 2015

The article states that many people followed the group regardless of the actual answer. Few people have ever spoken up about a topic or an issue until there's significant support for the side of the claim they are on. Sheep follow the herd. As do most people. And to some extent that's just survival. But go to a meeting some time (e.g. public hearing or union meeting). Nearly every time you attend this type of meeting, when there is a heated topic or perceived threat to the herd they will all speak up. They will all say the exact same thing. And they will all anger if you offer any words that appear to be resistance to their point of view. I think that Emerson was making that exact point. And I don't know about anyone else but as an American myself I don't honestly find many people at all who really want to be independent, unique or a "man". 

Emerson had it wrong. - Frank - Oct 1st 2010

Far better in the world we live in today to say that whoso would be a nonconformist must first be a conformist. 

The basics of this life are being part of something bigger than yourself, and knowing what it is to sacrifice some part of yourself to that something bigger. Without that knowledge and experience, one's uniqueness proceeds from nothing - it cannot have any meaning or bring any good.

hard to believe that people would doubt themselves - - Dec 22nd 2009

So true. Its hard to believe that people would doubt themselves as much as they do when the group around them differs. But after all, it is a very natural hman behavior to be accepted, as the benefits of being part of a group can outweight the benifits of being above one.

the fine line between being who you are and conforming - - Apr 15th 2009

I enjoyed this article. Well done!I am very much interested in the fine line between being who you are and conforming to, what you think is what 'others' expect to see from you.  Being social creatures is one facinating thing. I suppose we all want to belong. Even if we are 'non-comformist' we may want to belong to this smaller group of non-conformists' that resemble us.I am intersted in finding out, what it means from a personal, and interpersonal point of view, and how one can utitise this information from a self-help perspective, how one can resolve the need to be appreciated/belong versus, being independent in our thinking and decision making. How it may be a good thing to be comformist to an extent. I would be really intersted as well in reading articles that tie the societal findings to actions/exercises one could do to improve independence. Or how to establish solid boundaries, without pushing others away. I do appreciate pure psychology rethoric, but, being on this site mostly to find ways to help myself [along with therapy], I am hoping to see more articles that link research to specific types of action or exercise that one can do to improve a personality issue. thank you! Please keep the articles coming  

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