Dr. C. George Boeree


Conformity is actually a rather complex concept, and there are a number of different kinds:

1.  The conformity to norms we discussed earlier is often quite unconscious.  It has been internalized (learned well), probably in early childhood.  Our societal norms are seldom doubted; rather, we take them as givens, as "the way things are."  The learning is supported throughout life by the "validity" of the norm -- i.e. it works because it is the norm.

2.  But sometimes we choose, consciously, to conform, as when we join a group voluntarily.  We adopt certain norms because the group is attractive to us and we identify with the group and its values or goal.  In its more dramatic forms, this is called conversion.

3.  In other cases, we conform because we are forced to, i.e. we are conscious of our conformity but it seems a lot less voluntary.  This is often called compliance, and it can be brought on by anything from a gun to the head or the promise of candy.  In other words, it is conformity due to the sanctions the society or group has in effect.

4.  But most of what we call conformity in the research literature concerns something "somewhat conscious" and "not quite voluntary."  It is usually brought on by social anxiety -- fear of embarrassment, discomfort at confusion, a sense of inferiority, a desire to be liked, and so on.  I think it should be called defensive conformity.

The basic research on this kind of conformity has been conducted by Solomon Asch and his students:

Imagine that you have volunteered for a psychology experiment, and you show up at the lab at the promised time.  There is a table with four chairs around it, three already occupied by other students.  So you take the last chair and prepare yourself for some kind of psychological bizarreness.  Finally, the experimenter comes in carrying two stacks of rather large cardboard cards.  He introduces himself and thanks you for volunteering and begins to explain:  One set of cards, as evidenced by the top card, shows three lines at a time, each line of a different length.  The other set shows one line at a time.  The task is called "line-length judgment" and looks to be very easy:  Even from a distance, the line among the three that matches the single line is very clear.

So we begin.  The experimenter points at the first student.  He looks at the lines, hems and haws a bit... and chooses the wrong match!  Oh well, there's one in every crowd.  The experimenter just nods sagely to himself.  He points at the second volunteer, and he too hems and haws... and chooses the wrong line!  Now you begin to feel a bit uncomfortable.  The experimenter points at the third person -- your last chance -- and he, too, chooses the obviously wrong answer.  Now it's your turn.  Being a person of integrity, you clearly announce the correct answer -- at which point, all three volunteers and the experimenter give you a look like you're from outer space.

The experimenter reveals the second card of each stack, and starts again.  And the students again start giving what to you seem like clearly wrong answers.  But this time, when your turn comes, what do you do?  Well, even in this rather unthreatening social situation, 35% of the time, subjects in this experiment gave what were clearly wrong responses.  It's true that some 10% of the subjects never conformed; unfortunately another 10% conformed all the time or all but the first trial.  And, although each of us firmly believes that they would be a part of that first 10% -- last of the rugged individualists and all that -- in fact, that's what everybody thinks.  You don't quite know how you'll behave until you are there!

(Note:  The other subjects were actually "stooges" or confederates of the experimenter -- usually graduate assistants.)

Asch and his students did many variations of this study to find out which variables had significant effects on the amount of conformity:

1.  The difficulty or ambiguity of the task.  For example, we might make the differences between line lengths much smaller and so the correct answer much less certain.  As you might guess, the conformity increases under those circumstances.  A similar experiment by Shaw used the counting of metronome clicks.  He found that the faster the metronome, the more conformity.

What is happening is that we have more and more need for the group's input as the task becomes more difficult.  If in the earlier situation we conformed because we didn't wish to be embarrassed, in the more ambiguous situation, we also "conform" because we are less sure of ourselves and the others become sources of information.  Some call this a change from normative pressures to conform to informational pressures to conform.

It might be better, though, to see it as the overlap between two very different processes altogether:  On the one hand, we are addressing our need to be accepted by others (and other social needs); on the other hand, we are addressing our need for an accurate understanding of what is going on around us.

2.  The relative perceived competence of the subject and the group.  In one study, they had the subjects perform the line-judgement task alone first, and they were given feedback on how well they did:  "You did really well" or "You aren't very good at this, are you?".  The feedback, however, was random, i.e. had nothing to do with performance.  In other words, the experimenter manipulated people’s self-esteem.

Then the subjects were put into the regular Asch situation.  If they had been told that they had done well -- i.e. felt competent -- they conformed less.  If they had been told that they had done badly -- i.e. felt incompetent -- they conformed more.  Notice how this also involves a measure of need for information:  If you are not competent at something, you turn to others for guidance.

You can also manipulate the perceived competence of the group:  Imagine going through the Asch situation with three guys wearing super-thick glasses, leaning forward, squinting furiously, and so on.  If you believe them to be incompetent (at this task) you will conform less.  Or we could do the reverse:  Imagine being there with three architecture students, who should, of course, be rather good at lines....

3.  Relative perceived status of the group and the subject.  If the influence of competence involves the rational need for information, the influence of status is a lot less rational, and provides a clearer example of "defensive" conformity.  If we are convinced that the group is of a higher perceived status (i.e. in our eyes), we conform more.  If we are convinced they are of lower status, we conform less.

This is true as well of groups conforming to individuals:  If we see a high-status person crossing against a don't walk sign, we are much more likely to follow him than if we see a low-class person doing so.  This is even more true when status is combined with competence:  Who is it better to follow into New York City traffic, an alert young executive or a bum reeking of gin?

4.  Group cohesiveness.  If the group is composed of friends, we conform more.  Although in one way we have, in a group of friends, the freedom to "be ourselves," our desire to be a cohesive group is a part of what made us friends to begin with!

But we don't need to look only at our tendency to conform to groups we belong to;  we also conform to groups we wish to belong to -- our reference groups. The more the subject is attracted to the group, the more conformity.  Imagine, for example, a fraternity pledge with a group of fraternity brothers.

Perhaps the most important aspect of group cohesiveness is the sharing of goals.  When the group has a common goal, there is more conformity.  In one experiment, subjects were told that the group with the most accurate responses would win desirable theater tickets.  You would think that everyone would  make their most accurate guesses, even if the rest of the group seemed to disagree.  Instead, we find more conformity than ever.  Nobody wants to "stand out" when something of value is at stake.  As the Japanese say, the nail that sticks out tends to get hammered!

5.  Group composition.  If the subject thinks that the group is made up of a number of different kinds of people, he or she will also conform more.  If they were all the same, and they all made the same stupid mistake, you would figure, well, it must be something about them.  (Remember attribution?)

But if you're a student and next to you is a banker, and across from you is a housewife, and there at the end is bricklayer -- what on earth could they all have in common to lead them to their bizarre behavior?  It must be you who is mistaken, and so you conform.

6.  Group size.  The easiest variable to study is group size, but the results are disappointingly simple.  Conformity is already high with 3 or 4 stooges; it gets a little higher with 6 or 7; it levels off at 15 or 16.  Apparently, social pressures in the Asch situation don't increase linearly with group size.

Contrast this, however, with the effects of large crowds on behavior (mob behavior.)  If you've seen films of Hitler's rallies or large-scale religious revivals or ever been to a football game, you know that emotional behavior is highly contagious in large crowds.  There is something about a crowd that leads to a sense of anonymity or even depersonalization:  You lose your sense of individuality and let the mob carry you away.

7.  Group unanimity.  Group unanimity is perhaps the strongest variable in Asch's research.  In the original studies, the stooges were always in unanimous agreement.  All you need is one stooge that doesn't conform with the others, and the spell is broken.  You may feel free to deviate.  This is true even when the non-conforming stooge is still giving a wrong answer!

This is a very important point.  Most societies are very hard on non-conformists, because the non-conformist threatens the stability of the social structure.  If the non-conformist exhibits his non-conformity with no negative results, others will follow.  It is therefore the society's "duty" to make sure there are negative results!  Mind you, this can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the society and the nature of the non-conformity.

Cultural variables

1.  Nationality.  When we compare Norwegians and Frenchmen regarding their tendencies to conformity, we find that the Norwegians conform more than do the French.  This is no surprise to people familiar with these cultures:  The Norwegians have traditionally emphasized social responsibility (since the Viking days!); the French have an equally ancient tradition of particularly colorful individualism.  (It is joked that if you want to pick a fight with a Frenchman, pick a subject!)

2.  Alienation.  The Japanese culture, like the Norwegian, tends to emphasize tradition, cooperation, and responsibility, and, like Norwegians, the Japanese tend to conform more than, say, Americans.  But when Japanese college students were compared with American college students, it was found that they conformed less!  In fact, they had a tendency to anticonformity,i.e. the tendency to give incorrect answers when the group is giving correct ones (just to be difficult, we might say).

This is the effect of alienation.  The Japanese students seemed to feel a bit lost, no longer a part of traditional Japanese culture, yet not a true part of the western culture that dominates university life and studies.  We saw this same effect closer to home in the 1960's with the hippie movement:  predominantly middle class students no longer felt a part of the dominant, success-oriented culture around them, and often defined themselves, not in terms of "this is what I am" but rather in terms of "I am not you," i.e. anticonformity.

3.  Assigned status.  Assigned status is status that you are born with, status that is assigned to you by society without any reference to your desires or abilities.  The low status that has been assigned to blacks, women, and various ethnic groups are clear examples.

In the 1950's, it was found that, although there was no difference between whites and blacks in their overall tendency to conform, both black kids and white kids conformed more when the majority of the group they were in was white than when it was black.  This goes back to things we've already looked at:  relative perceived status and relative perceived competence, in the sense of the lower self-esteem that often accompanies low assigned status.

4.  Gender differences.  In the 1950's and 60's, research indicated almost invariably that women conform more than men.  Social psychologists -- at least the male ones -- were ecstatic.  After all, we don't come up with many results this strong in social psychology!  But Sistrunk and McDavid (1971) reviewed the research and noticed something peculiar:  The researchers were all male!

Sistrunk and McDavid started with 100 statements of opinion and fact, such as "Fords are better than Chevies," "cake is easier to make than pie," and "the earth moves around the sun."  They then asked 53 people to judge whether a statement was "masculine" (e.g. "Fords..."), "feminine" (e.g. "cake..."), or "neutral" ("the earth...").  Any statement that 80% of the people agreed on was then included in a questionnaire.  And with each statement, they included a fake (random) "majority response," e.g. "Most Americans agree."

They then gave the questionnaire to 270 male and female subjects.  Here are the results:  (The numbers represent "tendency to conform;" don't worry about the absolute number -- just look at the differences and similarities.)

                             Masc.    Fem.     Neutral       Total
                             Items    Items    Items

Males                34.15    43.05    39.65           38.95

Females           42.75    34.55     39.10           38.80

What these figures mean is that, in our culture, women are quite conformist when it comes to sports and cars and other things they either don't know much about or don't care much about; and men are quite conformist about cooking and fashion and other things they don't know or care about.  Otherwise, they conform about equally.  The earlier results were due to the fact that the men constructing these studies used statements they found interesting -- i.e. male ones!


Obedience is a very similar phenomenon to conformity.  It can be distinguished by an emphasis on the impact of legitimacy (as opposed to other social pressures), and by the fact that it usually involves a single person -- the authority.

The most famous study concerning obedience is Stanley Milgram's.  Picture yourself in this situation:  You have volunteered for a psychology experiment, so you find yourself at Dr. Milgram's office one evening.  Another student is already there with Dr. Milgram.  Dr. Milgram thanks you both for volunteering and explains that this is a study of the effects of punishment on learning.  One of you will be the teacher and the other the learner.  To decide, he asks each of you to pick a slip of paper out of a hat:  Your slip says teacher, the other volunteer's slip says learner.

So you and Dr. Milgram take the learner to a small room next door, where you help the good doctor strap the learner into what looks like an electric chair.  You then paste electrodes to various parts of his body.

You and Dr. Milgram return to his office, where he puts you in front of a microphone, speaker, and a rather dangerous looking piece of electronic machinery with 30 toggle switches in a row along the bottom front, labeled from 30 volts to 450 volts.  (The ones toward the end have a little sign above them that says "Danger:  High Voltage!")

You are to read a list of nonsense syllables into the microphone to the learner in the next room, and he is to repeat them in the correct order back to you.  If he makes a mistake, you are to pull the first switch.  This switch will then lock in place, requiring you to use the next higher voltage if the learner makes a mistake the next time.

You read the list, and of course the learner makes a couple of mistakes, so you flick the first switch.  You read the list again, but he makes a mistake again, so you flick the next switch.  As you move up the line, the learner begins to complain.  At 75 volts, he moans a bit.  At 150 volts, he's begging to be let out of the experiment.  Perhaps you turn to Dr. Milgram, who is sitting nearby correcting test papers, and ask him if it would be alright to stop.  He explains that you both volunteered for this and he expects you both to complete the experiment.

At 180 volts, the learner is screaming that he can't stand the pain.  You are shaking and sweating bullets.  At 300 volts, you flick the switch and you hear the beginning of another scream form in the learner's throat, but it never quite comes out.  When you read him the list again, he doesn't even attempt a response.  He's unconscious!  Perhaps he's even dead!  You turn to Dr. Milgram for guidance, and he tells you:  "No response is an incorrect response.  Don't be concerned:  There will be no permanent neurological damage.  Please continue."

You continue to shock your fellow-volunteer all the way up to the maximum voltage of 450 volts, unaware, of course, that this was all a set-up and that the learner was a confederate of Dr. Milgram!

Before Milgram did this experiment, he asked several psychiatrists' opinions on what percentage of people would go how far.  The psychiatrists (who we suppose would know about crazy behavior) suggested that most people would stop at 150 (when the learner asks to be let out), that only four percent would go up to 300, and that a mere one percent would go all the way to 450 volts.

In Milgram's study, 62 % went all the way.

This was quite a shock (no pun intended) to the psychological community (and well beyond!).  This experiment was inspired by the Nurenburg trials, where Nazi officers would often plead that they were only following orders.  People assumed that the kind of atrocities committed by these Nazis were the results of warped personalities encouraged by a warped culture, that red-blooded American men would never engage in those kinds of behaviors.  We are, after all, rugged individualists!  Milgram's study showed rather dramatically that we were not.

A knowledge of history, of course, would have made Milgram's study unnecessary:  Obedience to authority and the atrocities that often go with it has been a part of human existence since as far back as we can go.  Not very long ago, we have the Nazi example.  More recently, we have Idi Amin's Uganda and Pol Pot's Cambodia, and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia.  And even us red-blooded Americans have the massacre at Mai Lai in Vietnam on our conscience, not to mention the treatment received by Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and laborers over our mere two centuries of existence.

62 % is rather incredible.  But let's say it's been exaggerated.  Say it's only 10 %.  Our population is roughly 250 million.  10 % of that is still 25 million, 25 million people who would follow orders to the point of hurting or even killing another human being.

When we combine this tendency to obey with immorality, lack of empathy, or sheer sadism....  A few years ago, the state of Texas advertised for two positions as lethal-injection executioners, paying $600 per death.  They received over 30,000 applications.  If the state of the world or the nation gets you down now and then, perhaps you should consider how well we are doing, given who we are working with!

Just like the Asch experiment, Milgram's has been altered to find the effects of other variables.  One set of experiments looked at the effects of proximity of the learner.  In the original experiment, the learner was in a separate room.  What if he were in the same room, or right next to you?  Or what if you actually had to touch the learner to apply the shock?  As you might expect, proximity greatly reduced the amount of obedience:  If they were in the same room, full obedience went down to 40%; if they were touching, it went down to 30%.

Milgram's original study was done at "a prestigious ivy-league school" (Yale).  What if you did the experiment at a run-down office building in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut?  Well, the percentage of full obedience goes down to 48 %.

In the original study, Milgram, PhD, professor, psychologist, scientist, sat there the entire time, the personification of authority.  What if he weren't there?  What if all the instructions were given over a phone?  The absence of the authority figure reduced the full compliance to 21 %, including heart-breaking attempts to cheat by pretending to flick switches.  Similarly, if an "ordinary" person were giving the orders, the obedience went down to 20%.

The variable that most reduced obedience, however, was the presence of an example of defiance.  In this scenario, you see a fellow volunteer refuse to shock anyone before the start of the experiment.  This reduces full compliance to 10 %.  Again, the presence of a "non-conformist" has a powerful effect!

Other variables had little effect.  Women were as likely to obey as men were.  There were few major differences cross-culturally.  And these studies aren't just restricted to the supposedly conformist 1950's:  Recent studies show similar or even greater obedience today! (Meeus and Raaijmakers 1986, 1987)

Most of us would like to think that, in hard times, we would be freedom-fighters in the underground, or civil-rights marchers, or other such people-of-principle.  Unfortunately, as people who have been in these situations will tell you, you don't really know how you'll act until you are in these situations.  For most of us, disobedience of authorities or non-conformity to social pressures is very difficult.  However, there is the enlightenment effect (or self-defeating prophecy):  Knowing how difficult it is already gives you an edge.


One more research area that has a strong relation to conformity is non-involvement, also known as bystander intervention research.

A favorite example of extreme non-involvement is the Kitty Genovese murder:  At 3:00 in the morning, over a period of 30 minutes, Kitty Genovese was attacked three times in the courtyard of her apartment building.  The man first mugged her, left, then returned to rape her, left again, and finally returned to kill her.  This entire tragedy was witnessed, and her screams for help heard, by 38 of her neighbors, none of whom came to her rescue or even phoned to police!  The lack of response on the part of the neighbors turned out to be a journalistic exaggeration, but the story got people - especially psychologists - interested.

The response to this was the usual:  "Typical for New York City;"  "Could never happen here;" and "It would have been different if I had been there."  Social psychologists Bibb Latane' and John Darley and several of their students decided to put these assertions to the test.

In one of their studies, the volunteer was asked to wait for the experimenter in a waiting room.  In this waiting room, there were already two students, reading magazines.  After the volunteer had settled into his chair, a puff of smoke would enter the room through a crack in the wall near the volunteer.  The other students (stooges, of course) showed no reaction.  The puff became a stream; the stream became a flood; and eventually you couldn't see the other side of the room.  Through all this, the stooges remained in their seats, reading their magazines... and so did most of the volunteers!

In fact, only 10% of the students responded within 6 minutes.  Even if they used three actual students -- i.e., people who were not instructed to do nothing -- only 12 1/2 % responded.  When alone, 75% of the students responded within 6 minutes.

Another experiment, by Bibb Latane and Judith Rodin, is even more dramatic.  A female experimenter asks the volunteer to fill out a questionnaire, as another student is also (apparently) doing, and retreats behind a curtain into what appears to be a storage room.  As the volunteer fills out the form, he or she hears the experimenter climbing a step ladder and struggling with what are apparently heavy boxes.  Suddenly, she falls:  the ladder clatters and her body thumps onto the concrete floor, and she cries out "Oh my God, my foot... I.. I can't move it!"  This goes on for about a minute.  The other student continues to fill out the form.  So do 80% of the volunteers!

When with someone who doesn't respond to an apparent emergency, only 20% of us do respond.  Even when we are alone, only 70% respond.  It really makes you wonder about the other 30%, doesn't it?  Are they so afraid of embarrassment that they can't even get up to ask if the experimenter is okay?

Well, it seems to be a bit more than a fear of embarrassment going on here -- although embarrassment is likely a component.  First, most people seem to experience a degree of empathic fear -- a combination of identifying with the victim and being uncertain about what to do that causes many people to freeze or panic.

Robert Baron found that, when a victim is in pain and the subject felt that they could do something to ease the pain, then the more pain the victim shows, the more quickly the subject responds.  But when the victim is in pain and the subject did not know what to do, the more pain, the more slowly the subject responds.

So, if we get a bit nervous and aren’t sure what to do, and there are other people around, we often hope that they will be the ones to respond, so we don't have to.  In fact, the more people around, the less likely it is that we will respond.  This seems to have been very much a part of the Kitty Genovese case:  The apartments formed a U around the courtyard, so the residents could see each others' lights come on and window blinds open.  Many of them simply assumed that someone else must have called the police.

If you think about it, it is rather logical:  If I am there alone, I have 100% of the responsibility, and I should certainly help.  If I am there with one other person, I have 50% of the responsibility, and I can flip a coin.  But if I am there with 100 other people, I have only 1% of the responsibility, so it would be terribly presumptuous of me to try to help (and potentially terribly embarrassing!).  They call this diffusion of responsibility.

And there are the purely selfish reasons for not helping:  Some of Kitty Genovese's neighbors admitted that they didn't want to get involved -- the costs of involvement are too great.  If you went out to help, you yourself could get hurt or killed (or sued, as occasionally happens to people who interfere in "domestic arguments.")  Even if you only called the police, there'd be statements to make, line-ups to attend, trials to testify at, and possibly even retribution from the criminal, were he to get off on a technicality, say.

(Keep in mind that this is a world where a man who was attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a New York subway train successfully sued New York City, the subway system, and the brakeman who managed to stop the train in time, for millions of dollars!)

Now most of us like to think of ourselves as nice people, even if we do freeze, panic, leave things to others, or take care of ourselves first.  So we have to make sure to justify our decisions.  This is most easily done by the distortion of reality called reinterpretation of the situation.

For example, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in broad daylight, a woman named Eleanor Bradley broke her leg while shopping.  She lay there in shock for 40 minutes before someone helped her, while literally hundreds of people walked around her!  Obviously, people explained her away:  It can't be serious, she's probably a drunk, she's crazy, she's play acting, this is a Candid Camera stunt, whatever.

This is strongly reinforced by the diffusion of responsibility tendency mentioned above:  If it were serious, all these other people wouldn't be walking around her, would they?  We use others as a source of information, as well as bending to fears of embarrassment or desires to belong.

It might be valuable to consider ways we could counteract these unfortunate tendencies in ourselves.  Some good clues can be found in Leonard Bickman's studies.  In one, for example, people were engaged in a (phony) experiment involving the use of intercoms.  They then heard a crash and screams over the intercom.  Those subjects who thought everyone in the experiment was in same building tended to stay where they were; those who thought that only they and the victim were in the same building tended to try to get help.

In another study by Bickman, again using intercoms, a third of the subjects heard screams over the intercom, another third heard screams followed by the voice of a witness getting upset, and the last third heard the scream and the witness define the situation as an emergency.  The first third were least likely to help, and the last third most likely.

Precisely because of their artificiality, these studies serve to emphasize that things like diffusion of responsibility and redefining the situation are, in fact, "in the mind of the bystander."  We can therefore directly counter these tendencies by simply developing certain habits:  Assume personal responsibility (unless someone more qualified is clearly present), and assume that the situation is an emergency (until you know better).

The problem of empathic fear also has a solution:  Develop emergency competence.  In a number of studies, it has been found that people with some knowledge of emergency procedures are much more likely to help, even in emergencies for which they were not trained!  They, like professionals, don't lose their heads in emergencies.

Again, the enlightenment effect or self-defeating prophecy will play its part with you:  Just knowing that we tend not to help makes it more likely that you will help.  It may wreck future social psychology experiments, but it may save future Kitty Genoveses.


If conformity is, quite literally, normal, then non-conformity is, for better or worse, abnormal or deviant.  But you can be abnormal in many different ways:

Mental Illness

When people act strangely, one of the easiest things to do is to label them mentally ill.  Many people, sadly, get this label only because they are irritating, annoying, or troublesome to others, especially when the others have power and the one getting labeled does not.  They don't do what they are supposed to do, so we send them off to therapy or, better yet, an institution.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as mental illness.  "True" mental illness usually carries the connotation that the behaviors, experiences, thoughts, or feelings that are so troublesome are not completely under that person's control.  Someone who is eccentric, or a political dissident, or a criminal presumably chooses to do what they do. The mentally ill person is not completely free to choose, and is therefore not fully responsible.

Problems that have (1) strong genetic components to them (such as schizophrenia is believed to have), or ones involving (2) damage to the nervous system, (3) psychological traumas, (4) long-term conditioning, or (5) addiction, are more likely candidates for the term mental illness.

This doesn't make it that much easier to distinguish mental illness from other forms of non-conformity:  We are, for example, far from establishing clear methods for distinguishing biological from psychological causes.  Many people believe that criminals behave as they do because of early traumas and social conditioning.  In the former Soviet Union, people with dissenting political opinions were considered insane, since political opinions are, at least in part, established through long-term conditioning.  Further, culture itself is a matter of long-term conditioning.  And people of principle -- Saint Francis is a particularly good example, or the student that stood in front of the tanks in Tienamen Square -- often act in ways most of us would consider insane!

One thing I should make clear at this point:  We are, throughout this section, talking about deviation from norms, not from normality.  Many unusual things are not considered deviant (red hair, for example) and some are even valued (beauty, intelligence, strength....).


When non-conformity refers to formalized norms such as laws, we call it crime.  It is usually assumed that crime is committed by choice, so that demonstrating mental incompetence, lack of intent, accident, or circumstances justifying the act will at least diminish the degree of guilt.

Some criminals can be understood as being undersocialized.  They never developed much of a conscience or superego, perhaps because of a childhood filled with neglect, abuse, poverty, and so on.  It is also possible that they lacked, from the beginning, the basic capacity for empathy that some consider the foundation for a conscience.

These people are sometimes called sociopaths.  An older term was psychopath, but today that tends to bring images of the most extreme cases only.  They have little concern for people's feelings, much less for society's norms and laws.  Self-centered, they want what they want when they want it, and get what they want assuming they have sufficient skills to do so.  We sometimes glorify them -- Billy the Kid, Bonny and Clyde, and so on -- as true non-conformists.  But generally we see them as on the borders of mental illness, or past them.

Similar to these are the criminals who may well have a well-developed conscience, but who also have very demanding needs.  A drug addict who steals to support his or her habit is one example.  Someone who steals in order to eat might be another.

But many criminals are not truly non-conformist at all.  Instead they conform to a different set of norms.  That is to say, they belong to a criminal subculture.  If you are brought up to believe that stealing is fine in many situations that the dominant culture finds criminal, or that killing someone for revenge is a moral duty, not a mortal sin, then it is the strength of your conformity that is the problem!  Examples might include crime "families," urban gangs, and groups like the klan.

There are also people who define themselves negatively, that is, as whatever other people are not.  This is anticonformity again, and may account for a great deal of purely destructive behavior such as vandalism.  Some groups make anticonformity a part of their norms, so that throwing beer cans on people's lawns or spray painting your name everywhere or knocking over grave stones becomes “the thing to do."

The problems created by criminal subcultures and anticonformity can be made worse by the alienation that many of the people involved feel.  If there is no place for urban youth to fit in, for example, their need for identity and belonging will make their commitment to the criminal subculture and the desire to strike out against the mainstream culture all the stronger.  Note, for example, the increase in neo-Nazi or skinhead activity in Germany as unemployment and the influx of immigrant labor increased.  Especially dangerous are those individuals whose weak personalities make them particularly desperate for membership and recognition from any source!


Some people who are different are mentally ill or criminals.  Most people who are different are just conforming to different sets of norms -- i.e. they aren't "non-conformists" at all!  But a few people are truly independent of conformity pressures and use their freedom for the good.  The term that has become popular for these people is self-actualizers.

Abe Maslow believed that, when you are no longer pushed around by your physical needs, by your fears, by your social anxieties, or by your inferiority complexes, you are essentially free to do what you want to do -- you are free to "be all that you can be."  You are a self-actualizer.

Maslow reviewed the lives of a number of people he felt were prime examples of self-actualizers, including some famous people such as Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt.  He ended up with a list of characteristics these people seemed to have in common.  I'm not going to give them all, but a number of them are quite significant to the idea of non-conformity at its best.

Self-actualizers strive for (1) autonomy and independence, and they (2) resist enculturation, that is, the social pressures most of us can't seem to resist.  They are not impressed by authority or fashion.  Instead, they rely on themselves, their values, conscience, reason, and experience.

They have (3) democratic values, meaning that they are open to and comfortable with cultural and individual variety.  But they are not just tolerant, they are actually drawn towards variety.  And they are more (4) accepting of others and themselves, as they are rather than as anyone says they should be.

More subtle indications of their non-conformity are their preferences for (5) spontaneity over the contrived or the calculated, and (6) simplicity over pretense and artificiality.  They have the ability to (7) appreciate things that others take for granted, and a capacity for (8) creativity that allows them to rise above the mundane.  All this doesn't mean we are dealing with someone flamboyant, however, or with radical non-conformists:  Their love of simplicity often means that they appear rather ordinary on the surface, and their ability to accept self and others often means accepting much of the social order as it is.

But non-conformity is not, by any means, the only quality of the self-actualizer:  They also enjoy warm (9) intimate relations with a few friends, and have a great capacity for (10) Gemeinschaftsgefühl -- social concern.  In fact, running parallel to the element of non-conformity in their personalities is an even more important element of compassion.

Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree