In the film, Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays an unorthodox teacher who extols the virtues of non-conformity to his students. Dramatically standing on top of his desk during class (and imploring his students to do the same), Williams cries out that he does so …to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

As the movie progresses, the viewers are left with no choice but to root for this iconoclast as he challenges the stodgy norms of an elite prep school and inspires his students to “seize the day” and blaze their own trails. Yet, as the students form an increasingly cohesive group, they end up conforming toward each other (albeit in a non-traditional manner), leading to a climactic moment in which they pressure each other to stand on their desks and recite a farewell poem to their beloved teacher (“O Captain! My Captain!”)!

Dead Poets Society is a striking example of the ambivalence toward conformity that is a central theme of American culture. We abhor conformity, yet we end up conforming to our chosen groups of non-conformists. Why is this so? Why do we revere non-conformity one moment and applaud conformity the next?

Our research suggests that how we feel about conformity depends critically on why we think that people conform in the first place. In a series of experiments, we asked participants to evaluate instances of conformity that were drawn from their own lives, as well as those presented in hypothetical scenarios.

We found that when people view conformity as reflecting self-focused intentions (for example, conforming to gain the approval of others), they tend to view conformists as having weaker character than when the conformists are motivated by other-oriented motives, such as a concern for the other members of the group. We call this type of conformity “benevolent conformity” because it is done out of genuine regard toward one’s fellow group members.

Imagine, for instance, that you are working on a group project. Even though you might disagree with the group about some aspects of the project, you may still care about maintaining the harmony within the group and, rather than say anything, would simply play along. Or, you may not want to hurt anyone's feelings and decide to simply go with the flow. Those who conformed for these benevolent motives were also viewed as warmer, more competent, and even more authentic (despite having acted in a way that conflicted with their true beliefs and attitudes) than those who conformed out of self-interest.

What about non-conformity? Do we also judge non-conformists based on whether their motives were benevolent? To investigate this question, we presented participants with several versions of a hypothetical scenario involving a student senate vote at a university. The protagonist in this scenario holds a different view than the rest of the senate members, and can therefore be viewed as a non-conformist.

Participants read that this person ends up either voting in line with the group (conformity) or differently from the rest of the group (non-conformity). On top of varying conformity versus non-conformity, each of these outcomes also varied in terms of whether the protagonist’s motives were self-focused or benevolent. Did he conform because he wanted to be liked, or because he cared about the harmony within the group? Alternatively, did refuse to yield to group pressure because he cared about asserting his individuality, or because he worried about the group making the wrong decisions?

The findings were clear. Conforming because he cared about the group seemed to gain the student "extra points" in participants' eyes in a way that conforming because he cared about being liked didn't. In contrast to judgments of conformity, we found that participants viewed the protagonist’s non-conformity as similarly positive, regardless of whether or not it was rooted in self-focused or benevolent motives. These results seem to reflect a bias in which those who resist the influence of others are given the benefit of the doubt, whereas those who bend to the will of others are not.

No matter how we feel about conformity, it is a ubiquitous aspect of social life. We are often required to subvert our own needs and fall in line with the group. This is especially true during the current pandemic we are dealing with, when conforming to health guidelines (in spite of how one may personally feel about them) becomes a literal matter of life and death.

Paying closer attention to the role of conformity adds nuance to how we understand others’ social behaviors. People can appreciate the rugged individualists who challenge the status quo while still acknowledging the merit of coming together and showing up for their groups. Lauding those who have the courage to stand apart from the crowd and admiring those who self-sacrifice for the benefit of the group are not mutually exclusive.

Just as Williams’ character urged his students to view life from different perspectives, we too can view conformity from multiple vantage points. Doing so reveals that conformity is neither good nor bad. Rather, as is the case with so many complex social behaviors, intentions are key. Realizing this allows us to be more discerning in our social judgments, so that we can encourage those acts of conformity that are truly benevolent and serve the greater good.

For Further Reading

Wice, M., & Davidai, S. (2020). Benevolent conformity: The influence of perceived motives on judgments of conformity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Matthew Wice is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at SUNY New Paltz. His research examines social cognition from a cultural and developmental perspective.

Shai Davidai is an Assistant Professor in the Management Division at Columbia Business School. His research examines the psychological forces that shape and distort how people see the world, especially when it comes to important societal issues such as inequality and economic mobility.