Throughout history, we’ve seen human beings accomplish wonderful things. We’ve also seen them commit unimaginable horrors. Members of our species have done things so heinous, that we’ve questioned whether we should consider them human at all. However, the most vile acts we’ve committed, haven’t been at the hands a few bad eggs. Often times, the worst of humanity comes out when we follow the herd.
When people find comfort and safety in the herd, they often begin to compromise their ethics for the “greater good”. It creates an environment where sociopaths can rise to the top, and the anonymity of the crowd gives everyone permission to act out against their fellow man. I would argue that more people have been killed or persecuted at the hands of conformity, than by any other human activity throughout history.
Adding to this dangerous behavior, has the been the technological advances in mass communication developed in the 20th century. For the first time in history, a small number of people could convince millions to follow their lead. As a result, the past hundred years has seen human conformity reach its peak with the rise of the Nazis and Communists of the early 1900′s. The human race saw with complete clarity, the power and the danger human conformity, and it could be measured by the millions who died by its hands.
After that dark period, many wondered if conformity was a natural instinct in humans. Could we excuse all those Nazi’s who were just “following orders?”. Several academics answered the call with the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. The results weren’t pretty.
They found time and again, that most, but not all humans were prone to falling into a mob mentality. Large segments of the population can and will fall in line to persecute and kill their friends, neighbors, and countrymen, at the drop of a hat. All they need is a strong authority figure or symbol that they trust and admire, or maybe even the threat of persecution against themselves, and they’ll march straight into the hell if ordered to.
Unfortunately, this may be deeply ingrained in us as a species; much more so than previous researchers could have ever imagined. Recent research has found that people are prone conformity as young as 2 years of age, and it may be something that isn’t shared by most species.
“Our research shows that children as young as two years of age conform to others, while chimpanzees and orangutans instead prefer to stick with what they know.”
In previous research, the researchers discovered that both human children and chimpanzees rely on the majority opinion when they are trying to learn something new. This makes sense when the group has knowledge that the individual doesn’t.
But other research has found that human adults sometimes follow the majority even when they already have the relevant knowledge, just so that they don’t stand out from the crowd.
For the current study, the researchers presented 18 two-year-old children, 12 chimpanzees and 12 orangutans with a similar reward-based task.
Each participant was given a box that contained three separate sections, each of which had a hole in the top. By playing with the box, the participants found out that although the ball could be dropped in any of the three sections, only one of the sections would deliver a treat (peanuts for the apes and chocolate drops for the children).
Next the participants watched while three familiar peers, who had been trained to all strongly prefer the same colored section of the box (different from the participants’ preference), drop the ball into the box. The participants then had to decide which section to drop the ball into while their peers watched.
The findings showed that human children were more likely to adjust their behavior to match that of their peers than were the apes. The apes and orangutans almost always ignored their peers, sticking to their original strategy, whereas the human children conformed more than half of the time.
What’s truly frightening about this, is the fact that primitive species that are similar to us, are far more individualistic. It could be that having a natural born instinct towards conformity is one of many factors that makes our species more successful than others. It helps us band together so that we can defend ourselves from outside threats, and accomplish complex tasks. If that’s the case, than this urge to conform is never going to leave us as a species.
Fortunately, we still have free will. As a species, we are capable of denying our instincts, and we do so on a daily basis. When somebody cuts us off in traffic, we don’t run them off the road (at least most of us don’t), and if someone has something that makes us jealous, most of us don’t kill them for it. We routinely go against our urges, because we know it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s beneficial to us. Just because we have urges programmed into our biology, doesn’t mean we have to follow them. We’re not robots.
So while we may be born to conform, we certainly don’t have to. We can pick and choose when it’s beneficial to us, and when to ignore the urge. And in the 21st century, arguably one of the most conformist ages in human history, that may be the most important skill that any of us may posses. Being able to recognize when some slick politician is spewing propaganda and trying whip the herd the into a frenzy, will save you from being trampled.
So no matter what science says about our biology, or instincts, or evolution, we still have free will. We can still choose to do the right thing, and “I was just following orders” will never be a good excuse.