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New York – In the US, disruptors are popular. Look at Silicon Valley, rock music, or even President Trump as a 2016 presidential candidate, for instance. But new research from social psychologist and Assistant Professor of Business at Columbia Business School Shai Davidai finds that while Americans love rulebreakers, they actually respect conformists when their actions appear to serve others. Conformity is praise-worthy when it’s for the greater good.
The four-part study, co-authored with SUNY New Paltz Professor Matthew Wice, examined over 700 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and their perceived understandings of why people conform. Participants were asked, for example, to compare those who conform to fit in, versus those who conform to keep the peace or benefit others. In the former scenario, conforming was seen as weak-willed, but in the latter, conforming was seen as courageous. We see this play out daily in the choices Americans make to wear a mask or not. Public health communication strategies emphasize the need to conform to the “new normal” of wearing masks in order to keep others safe, but critics refuse to wear masks on the basis of not wanting to be told what to do – or be seen as conformist. Policymakers should consider more clearly messaging public health prevention measures as selfless in order to drive more Americans to comply, the research findings suggest.
In 2020 – a year that fell far outside any norm – the election of former Vice President Joe Biden is an indicator that conformity won in the end. Per the study: “Populist politicians try to rally the support of their base by promising to ‘shake things up’ rather than adhere to time-tested rules of civility and propriety” – a tactic that worked in 2016 but failed once Americans had time to digest it. President-elect Joe Biden was able to convince Americans that he more closely represents the “benevolent conformity” that encourages adherence to “social norms out of sincere regard for others.” While nonconformity is key for innovation and growth, conforming for others’ sake allows society to function with norms and civility – a comfort Americans don’t want to sacrifice after all.
The study, Benevolent Conformity: The Influence of Perceived Motives on Judgments of Conformity, is available online here.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Shai Davidai is Assistant Professor in the Management Division of Columbia Business School. His research examines people’s everyday judgments of themselves, other...Read more.