When characters will not conform

Jeff 2007The social psychologist Solomon Asch  is famous for his experiments on  how peer pressure affects our perceptions in 1950s.  According to Asch approximately 76% of the people would answer  an obvious question incorrectly if all those answering before him (or her) selected the same incorrect answer. [1] In classrooms and groups today, I often see the same situation. When a number of people provide the a similar incorrect observation, only a few people tend to disagree.

But there is something else about conformity that Asch did not delve into. It is our cultural liking for rebels and mavericks (often those not in our immediate circle). This preference for the non-conformist seems to indicate that subjects of Asch’s experiments did not really change perception based on peer pressure. They buckled under knowing full well the right answers, but unwilling to face possible negative reactions from the group.[2] Social scientist seem interested in what causes  people to conform. Yet Hornsey & Jetten , psychologists from the University of Queensland, wonder why more social research focus on conformity than “our liking for rebels and mavericks who challenge group norms and do not appear to be afraid of standing out.”[3]

It seems the majority of people admire the person who has the guts to do what they do not – challenge group norms. That’s right. Conformist don’t seem to make an empathetic or interesting character in fiction or real life.  Apparently loyalty to a group at the price of individuality is the basis of fictional dystopia for most people.  Nemeth and Goncalo, psychologists from Berkeley and Cornell use the word “Orwellian” to describe a group with extreme emphasis on loyalty.  “These types of groups are more likely to be found in horror or science fiction movies than matching any kind of reality.”[4]

However, a problem arises with creating the non-conformist main character that most readers long to imitate. The author’s source of people to draw from for modeling these characters is often limited. If this character is based on authors’ own desire to dissent, they will simply repeatedly write the same “unique” character until this literary personality becomes predictable.  Authors are not immune to the tendency to exclude maverick acquaintances who do not conform to their “norms” (even if the norms are not those shared by Asch’s 76% who respond to peer pressure).

As much as any other group, those that record stories for the generations need to see the value of dissent in real life.  Sociologist Erikson saw deviants as part of a healthy society,  and curiously enough he quotes Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) to support this view.

 Now tidiness is undeniably good – but a good of which it is easily possible to have too much and at too high a price… The good life can only be lived in a society in which tidiness is preached and practised, but not too fanatically, and where efficiency is always haloed, as it were, by a tolerated margin of mess– even nourishing this society.[5]

[1] Asch, S. E. (1952). Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments. In G. E. Swanson, T. M. Newcomb & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in social psychology. New York: NY Holt.
[2] Aronson, T. D.; Wilson, R. M.; Akert, E. (2010). Social Psychology (7 ed.). Pearson
[3] Jetten, J. and Hornsey, M.J. (2011) The Many Faces of Rebels. In J. Jetten, and M.J. Hornsey,(eds) Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference, and Defiance. 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
[4] Nemeth, C. J. & Jack A. Goncalo, J.A. (2011) Rogues and Heroes: Finding Value in Dissent.  In J. Jetten, and M.J. Hornsey,(eds) Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference, and Defiance. 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
[5] Erikson, K.T. (1966). Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.




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