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 if all those answering before the research participant selected the same incorrect answer approximately 76% of the people would choose that same obviously incorrect answer. [1] So if most people are in a group of ten or twelve people and all of the others say the sky is normally red, the average person will agree and somehow rationalize agreeing with a statement that they know to be false. Perhaps the question is about Mars, and not Earth. The sky is normally red on Mars, isn’t it?  This really has not changed since this 1950s, if anything differs it is the fact that less than 24% of the people tend to disagree when they know that the others are wrong.

But there is something else about conformity that Asch did not delve into. It is our cultural liking for rebels and mavericks. These people are often not in our immediate circle, which make them easier to tolerate because they are not directly disagreeing with us. However, this counter-cultural preference for the non-conformist shows that s perceptions really do not change based on peer pressure. People still know the sky is normally blue; they are just going along with everyone else in order to avoid ruffling feathers.  They buckle under knowing full well the right answer because they are reluctant to face possible negative reactions from the group.[2]

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 be as empathetic or as interesting a character in fiction as well as 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.”[3]

However, a problem arises with creating the non-conformist hero that most readers admire. Authors are not immune to the tendency to exclude maverick acquaintances who do not conform to their own “norms.” The source of people to draw from when modeling the non-conformist is often limited.  If this character is based on authors’ own desire to dissent, they will simply  write the same “unique” character repeatedly until this literary personality becomes predictable.

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]

Just as this quote notes that tidiness can be an unbearable burden when taken too far, the writer must balance the disagreeable traits of the non-conforming hero with value that they bring. A person who almost never imitates the actions of others is probably just too obnoxious to be likable. This balance has to be woven through out the story creating a type of inconsistent non-conformist. One who sometimes says the sky is normally red when they  know perfectly well that’s not true. However, being honest enough to admit faults is what keeps the character from losing the empathy of the reader. That is the very strength of the non-conforming hero.

[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
[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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