Before the industrial revolution, humans lived in small groups that they were born into, and had minimal interaction outside these groups for the duration of their lives.
Because humans were not great at surviving in the wild, we used our frontal lobes, communication skills and opposable thumbs to work together to build villages and castles that helped protect us from the outside elements, predators and other groups.
Humans realised that by bonding and working together, we were safer, more secure and less vulnerable than what we were alone. But in order for the group to work, certain rules or social mores needed to be created and followed, and everyone had to contribute or play their role if they wanted to benefit from the increased resources and protection that the group provided.
People who didn’t fit in or do their bit were at risk of being kicked out of the group, where they would have to fend for themselves or face the world on their own. This typically led to an early and untimely death at the hands of dehydration, starvation, extreme weather, predatory animals or other humans.
Based on the above story, it makes a lot of sense why evolution favoured fitting in and getting along with others over being authentic and true to ourselves. A potentially large price to pay, especially if you were very different from what the group wanted you to be, but definitely worth it if it was a matter of life or death.
Fast forward to the 21st century
We suddenly live in a much more mobile world, where it is possible to meet and interact with more people in a single afternoon than our ancestors may have met in their entire lifetime.
Groups and social hierarchies still exist, and in many ways are much more complicated than they have ever been. They are also more fluid however, and people are now able to change their position in the hierarchy or even leave their group entirely or move to another country and start over again if they don’t get the benefits that they would like from them.
Being excluded from groups or rejected by others is generally no longer a matter of life or death either, especially once we become adults. So why does it still feel that way?
Since the industrial revolution, technology and society has changed so rapidly in the modern and post-modern world in comparison to how things were in the past that it has been impossible for evolution to keep up. The amount of information in the world used to double about every century. Some now say it is every thirteen months, and IBM said it could one day be as quick as every 12 hours. We are therefore still genetically programmed to fit in, rather than be our authentic selves, even when it isn’t in our best long-term interests.
We obey authority, even when it means causing harm to an innocent other (the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment):
We take on the roles that are given to us, and can become cruel and inhumane in the process (the infamous Robert Zimbardo prison experiment):
We also conform to the opinions of everyone else in the group, even when it is fairly obvious that they are all wrong…
The Pressure to Conform
In the 1950s, Solomon Asch did a series of experiments looking at the power of social conformity. He brought male participants into the lab, and asked them to be part of “a simple perceptual experiment”. They were first instructed to look at a series of three different sized straight black lines on a card – a short line (A), a long line (B), and a medium length line (C).
He then randomly presented one of these three lines on cards for 18 trials, and asked the participant as well as seven other individuals which line was shown – A, B or C.
Unbeknownst to the participant, the other seven individuals in the room who responded before him were confederates, or actors that were part of the experiment. For the first two trials, the confederates all gave the obviously correct answer, as would the participant, but on the third trial, and 11 out of the subsequent 15 trials, the confederates all gave the same incorrect answer.
How the participant answered on these incorrect trials indicated how much they had been affected by the influence of social conformity. Disturbingly, up to 75% of participants gave the same incorrect answer on at least one trial, with the majority experiencing a distortion of judgment over time, where they assumed that their perception must be wrong and the majority’s perception right. This was in sharp contrast to the results in the control group, where there was no pressure to conform, and the error rate was less than 1%, indicating that it was easy to determine which line was which.
Even with easy decisions, it is possible to begin to doubt ourselves quickly if what we believe goes against the opinions of the majority. We may even begin to doubt our own perception and experiences. It’s therefore no wonder that so many people give up on what they may individually know or believe in so that they can fit in with the group. This doesn’t make it right however. If who we are or what we believe in is different to the majority, what is the best thing to do?
The Possible Solutions
#1 – Be true to yourself, never be afraid to say anything and always stand up for what you believe in.
Whilst this may seem like the obvious solution, it does appear to be too idealistic and too simplistic. Speaking up, especially to the wrong type of authority figure (boss, teacher, parent, government official), puts us at risk of being punished or ostracised from the group each time we do it. Fortunately we have the right to protest and say most things that we want to here in Australia, but each group still has its rules and social mores, and not following them can lead to exclusion and isolation. There are times that speaking up is preferable, but it still comes with considerable risk and potentially significant consequences or emotional pain. What is important is that we try to reflect on things when we have time and try to make up our minds for ourselves on the issues that we care about. By doing this, we can hopefully remain strong and sure about what we believe in, and share our opinions in appropriate and safe settings.
#2 – Don’t worry about the group and just live the life that makes you happy by yourself.
As long as we have a place to live and an income for food and water and leisure activities, we might be able to get by okay with shutting most people out. This is definitely the path that some people take after they have gone through significant traumatic events, especially in the context of relationships. Maybe the pain of the social exclusion would lessen if it was self-imposed too, and there are some jobs that require very little interaction with others.
In reality though, we are social creatures, and being so isolated from others would likely take its toll over time. It’s why solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment and as a deterrent in prisons. There is also the endless amounts of research out there showing the beneficial aspects of social support for optimal physical and emotional health, especially after a traumatic physical or psychological event. Being around people that care about us and that we can talk to and share our thoughts and feelings with does seem to be required on some level.
#3 – Find the right group where you are able to be as close to your authentic self as possible and are not only accepted by the group, but loved and appreciated for this.
The beauty of our flexible society and the world these days is that we can move if needed, change jobs, let go of old friends and partners if they are not right for us, and seek out new ones that are a better fit. But what should we look for in our friends? How do we know if the group is right for us? How do we figure out if it is likely to have a positive impact on our physical and emotional well-being in the long run?
In her book ‘Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships’, Amy Banks suggests seeking out people who CARE. With these individuals, you feel:
C – calm. You feel safe and secure being around them, sharing yourself with them and opening up to them.
A – accepted. You feel like they wholeheartedly accept you for who you really are, and you feel the same way with them. You may not always agree with everything that the other person does, but you still appreciate them for who they are.
R – resonant. You get each other. You are able to see how the other person thinks and feels, and can accurately reflect that back to them. You feel that you connect, click and are on the same wavelength.
E – energised. You feel energetic, motivated and maybe even inspired around each other. It is the opposite of a draining relationship.
If you currently don’t feel calm, accepted, resonant or energised with anyone, I highly recommend reading the book, as it suggests a number of strategies to help rewire your brain to make these types of relationships possible in time.
Otto Rank, a one-time disciple of Freud, believed that “life is an ongoing struggle between the desire for autonomy and the desire for union“. Both are important, and how much you choose to give up one for the other needs to be considered and determined at various points throughout our lives.
Although some sacrifices do seem necessary, I’d like to hope that these days we are much closer to being able to have the capacity to be both our authentic selves and to truly connect with others. We just need to learn how to know ourselves and seek out the right people and groups to spend time with.
Dr Damon Ashworth