The Secrets of Our Minds: Secret #3 – The psychology of conformity. How to embrace your inner rebel.


The Secrets of Our Minds: Secret #3 – The psychology of conformity. How to embrace your inner rebel.



Hi, I’m Astrid and I’m an organisational psychologist. In psychology, we study human behaviour extensively. In this series, I’m going spill the beans on some of the psychological secrets behind our behaviour. Please use it for good…


Some of my favourite (and perhaps equally horrific and fascinating) series of psychology experiments are the Milgram experiments of the 1960s. In these experiments, participants were divided into pairs and one person was asked to give electrical shocks (via a button) to their fellow participant (or so it seemed to them) of increasing intensity when the fellow participant answered questions incorrectly. The person administering the shocks was in an adjacent room, didn’t know the other participant was actually an actor, and didn’t know that the shocks weren’t real. All they knew was that they could hear the scream, the whimper and then the silence of their fellow participant, who was strapped to a chair. When the participant hesitated to ‘give’ a shock, the Experimenter, the figure of authority, told them firmly to continue. If they did not continue, the Experimenter would explain, the experiment would fail.

Sixty-five percent (26 out of 40) of the participants went all the way through to giving the experiment’s final, massive, 450-volt shock. A shocking result! (Sorry). We’re an obedient bunch, aren’t we? And not only to authority. In a famous set of experiments by Solomon Asch in 1951, participants were shown 4 lines, 2 with exactly the same height, and they were asked to identify which lines matched in height. It was a simple task, easily performed correctly by individual participants. However, this changed quickly in a group situation in which the majority of the group (actors) chose a different (incorrect) answer. Only 25% of the participants stayed put. A significant majority conformed at least once in a series of trials. Some, every time.

We have a strong tendency to conform. ‘Going’ against authority, or the group makes most of us feel very uncomfortable. Our urge to be accepted is so strong, that we conform, we change our behaviour and comply. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, this makes sense. Standing out from the crowd, not being accepted by the group could negatively affect our chances of survival.

From an innovation perspective, this isn’t so useful. Challenging the norm, the status quo, the ‘that’s just the way we do things around here’ is precisely what is needed to drive real change. Easier said than done? Not necessarily. Here are some starters to get you on the way.


  • Take an honest look at your group meetings. Group meetings can feel efficient (people can supposedly just speak up!), but they are often ineffective. A couple of strong opinions (the usual offenders) will overshadow any diversity and rebelliousness you have in your team. Listening to diverse opinions is critical for innovation and change. Get everyone to write down their thoughts at the start of the meeting (or even before!) and then give each person the opportunity to speak. Make it clear you are looking for opinions that challenge the norm. Use your authority to encourage diversity and, especially at the start of the meeting, try to restrain yourself from giving your own. You’ll be amazed.

Those of you who’d like to take your first rebellious steps:

  • Stop and take a step back to look at the situation you are in. Is what is happening in line with your own values? Are you following someone else’s (perceived) expertise because they seemingly have all the answers? Then take a moment. Being rebellious isn’t about shouting adversity or just pushing your Ask questions. What are their opinions based on? Ask why things are done this way? Be curious and open. Build up your confidence and your knowledge. Innovation and rebelliousness often starts with challenging assumptions. You’ll soon be on your way to becoming an expert rebel!

Obviously, rebelling for the sake of it is typically not helpful. So be sure that your desire to be more rebellious is driven by a drive to innovate and challenge the status quo for the betterment of the organisation. Keep your ego in check, and you can be a real catalyst for change.

If you would like any more information on challenging the status quo, better decision-making processes, or just dealing with anything innovation in general, please let me know via; I’m always up for a chat!


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