The unprincipled conformist

char1012_imageryEven as I have spent the past few weeks writing about people’s admiration for the person who deviates from the group norm for a good cause, I have been planning how to discuss the “foil” of the principled rebel – the unprincipled conformist. Conformity requires that a person at least appear to follow a set of rules. So how can a conformist be unprincipled? A required similarity within a group can mask controlling force that is actually harmful to the people within the group.

The nature of this harm can express itself in a number of ways. One of the most common is the exclusion of people for insignificant reasons. In order to create the strong camaraderie a common enemy needs to be found. There are two reasons groups do this; one is the age old reason that wars exist – to take something of value from another person. Exclusion allows the group to gain. The second reason is to shift what the group doesn’t want onto the shunned people; blame for any problems is shifted onto the scapegoats.

The difficulty with both of these actions is that in the end they destroy the group.  Whether the exclusion is used as an excuse to take away wealth or credit or influence from the other person, or simply a social snub, it results in physical pain. This pain tends to cause the excluded people to avoid interacting with those people, even if they would prefer to conform in order to fit in. [1] This results in the group seeking out a fresh scapegoat, and this process continues until an apparently cohesive group crumbles from the inside out.

The other “harm” caused by unprincipled conformity is the squelching of creativity. People placed in new situations tend to gather in groups based on superficial similarities. However, the enforcement of these similarities often lead people to become rigid in their behavior. It appears that a clique, which initially occurs to help people deal with the changing world around, actually prevents them from innovating and adapting to change. Authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster who have studied the effect of this in business environments warn that “Very few cliques are populated by the highest performers…”[2]

[1] Eisenberger, N. I.  (2012)  Broken hearts and broken bones: A neural perspective on the similarities between social and physical pain.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 42-47,
[2] Crowley, K. and Eslter, K. (2007)Working with You is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself form Emotional Traps at Work


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