Why it’s hard to stand out from the crowd19/03/18


I once went camping with some friends to a remote place where we were – at first – the only visitors. After a few days, another group arrived and they pitched their tents right next to ours, instead of at the other end of the campsite – ending our privacy and peace. As the psychologist in the group, I was challenged by my friends to give an explanation as to why people are inclined to behave that way – that is, encroach on others’ privacy. The only idea I had at the time was that they set up camp close to us because it felt safer for them. They felt instinctively that we would protect them from danger. Under those particular circumstances, the danger would have been predators (lions) or baddies (criminals). But over time I’ve come to realize that people stick together in fascinating ways – probably for reasons that have their roots in safety and security but that run far deeper than that in our modern day world.

Choosing wrong because of social pressure

In 1951, Solomon Asch did a fascinating and famous experiment that proved quite literally that people will often make a choice that is clearly, obviously and ridiculously wrong, based on the fact that everyone else made that choice. In the experiment, they went against all visible evidence as well as their own better judgement, and chose the option that others’ chose. Presumably, they believed that they couldn’t possibly be right if everyone else was making a choice that was different to theirs. Why in the world will social pressure make some people choose wrong, even when they have every reason to believe that they are making the incorrect choice?

Social pressure versus social alienation

Human beings can’t really be alone. We need one another. All of us! Even those of us who think that we don’t. Most of us really want to fit in and belong to the group that we are in. We want to be accepted – not ridiculed or rejected for our contrasting ideas. It’s hard to believe in yourself or your own judgement when it isn’t shared by others. As in my camping experience, it’s probably in our prehistoric roots to rely heavily on one another for protection from danger. If you alienate yourself from the group by taking a stand that is unpopular or doesn’t fit in with what others think or believe, you risk being cast out from the group, alone in the cold, dark, dangerous night. Basically, if you eat what others refuse to eat, you could get poisoned. If you venture outside into areas that others avoid, a predator could have you for dinner. The modern day version of that is that it feels bad, difficult or even traumatic to be the only one who takes a stand and says, ‘No!’ when everyone else is going with the flow.

In prehistoric times, even if you were right and everyone else was wrong, it was probably wiser to hide your beliefs or feelings and stay with the crowd. Alienate yourself from the rest of the clan and your chances of survival would be lower. Social alienation feels dangerous to the human psyche in a similar way as the threat of physical danger is to the human body. When you take an unpopular stand that nobody agrees with or likes – it can feel like a threat to your psychological existence.


For a more detailed and academic description about the fascinating biological process of how we are programmed to conform to the views of others, read Robert Sapolsky’s brilliant and life-changing book, Behave. Sapolsky explains the way in which your brain tells you that you are wrong when you make a choice that is different to the choice others have made. That feeling is so uncomfortable that you are likely to change your mind and take on the views of the people around you. As Sapolsky writes, your choice is between conforming or being deeply lonely. Psychologically speaking, if you feel strongly enough about your alternative views and if you’re not willing to change your perspective and conform, your other option is to try to convince others about the ‘rightness’ of your perspective. If they are not convinced, your feelings of alienation will intensify. There are hundreds of examples in this world of how social pressure and the desperate desire to conform has made people behave in ways that they know are wrong. The most alarming ones that spring to mind are gang violence, gang rape and war.

The famous studies done by Stanley Milgram in the 1960’s have proven that people are often willing to inflict pain and suffering on others simply because they are ordered to do so. Some WWII perpetrators tried to justify their atrocities on the basis that they were just obeying orders from those in authority. Sometimes people hate and kill because that’s what others around them are doing. If the prevailing ideology is to target or scapegoat a particular person or group of people, it takes a strong minded individual to step out of that ideology and see it from a different perspective.

Certain cultures actively discourage standing out from the crowd. The Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’ keeps most people in their place, as does the Norwegian ‘Law of Jante’. Both of these ideological phenomena put social pressure on people to stay the same as everyone else. They are examples of an unwritten law that requires you not to believe or portray yourself to be better than anyone else. In certain African cultures, if you stand out in any way that could be considered advantageous for you – like if you get rich or lucky – there is a real danger of being accused of witchcraft. So you slip back to where you belong in the eyes of others. Blended into the crowd where you are the same as everyone else and away from the threat of being different.

The bottom line of this lengthy post is, yes, you really could be right while everyone else is wrong! And sometimes the right thing to do is to stand out from the crowd and have your say, even if you are made to feel as though your rightness is wrong.

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