Are You An Individualist or Conformist?

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The USA is one of the most individualistic societies in the world. It’s part of the DNA of the culture to believe that we make our own choices and determine our own destiny.

Recently I noted a bumper sticker on a Texas truck that proclaimed boldly “Take my gun? Never”. Like the Texas trucker we all cherish our power to choose to march to the beat of our own drum.

But look for a moment at the other side of the coin. Conformity.

To what degree do you allow the opinions of others to shape your choices? Do you do most things that others want you to do? Before you hit the denial button remember that conformity is one of the most powerful forces in shaping human behavior.

Think hotel towels for a moment.

We have all seen the request in the hotel bathroom to reuse the towels for the sake of the environment. I don’t believe the compliance rate is very high. However, in a series of experiments the level of compliance amongst hotel guests goes way up (47%) when the hotel notifies the guest that other people are reusing their towels and so should they too. What other people do shapes our behavior.

A few years ago I heard a Stanford business professor say that the chief driver for behavior change in individuals was the social pressure from their organization to conform.


The pressure to conform has a downside.

There comes a time when one has to assert one’s individuality. The “I will not sit in the back of the bus” or “I will not fight in an unjust war” or “I will not do everything you think I should do” becomes a part of our living our truth, asserting our individual rights, and acting on the basis of personal preference or conscience.

The result of asserting one’s individuality is that we;

1. Earn the disapproval (and sometimes admiration) of others.

2. Show courage in traveling the road less traveled.

3. Take innovative and adventurous steps that we would not have taken if we listened to the voices of naysayers.

4. Live our lives not worrying “what will people think?”

5. Are influenced by the dictates of our inner moral compass.

One key to a life well lived is to balance prudent conformity (team player and collaborator) with individual expression (think and act for yourself).

And that takes both wisdom and courage.


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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