The Gospel of Conformity

By: Guest
April 17, 2014

Today’s guest post is by Benjamin.  Imagine that you are asked to participate in a study. The researcher tells you that she is studying people’s ability to interpret visual information. You are placed at the end of a row of four chairs with three other participants. On the projector screen in front of you appears this image.

Source

The researcher starts at the other end of the row and asks each person, “which of the lines on the right is the same length as the line on the left?”  Each person answers what is the obvious answer: Line A.  This process repeats a few more time, and each time, you are asked after everyone else gives their answer, and you give your answer.

Eventually, this card is projected:

Source

The monotony of the experiment is broken when the first person answers, “Line B.”  Surely, he has made a mistake, right?  But then the second person answers, “Line B.”  You start to feel anxious when the third person confirms that line B is the same length as the line on the left.  It is now your turn to answer, and you wonder what the other three people in the room can see that you cannot.

The researcher turns to you: “Which of the three lines on the right is the same length as the one of the left?”

What is your answer?

___________________________________________________

What you didn’t know was that there was only one research subject in the room: you.  The other three subjects were actually confederates.  They were instructed to give the wrong answer on the last card (but to agree with each other) so that the researchers could observe your behavior when you find yourself in disagreement with the group.  The experiment was evaluating the influence a group has on conformity.  The results showed that a third of all responses were incorrect (conformed to the confederate majority) with 75% of subjects giving at least one incorrect answer.  Only 25% never gave an incorrect answer (source).

Conformity as a form of social influence in religion came across my radar about a year ago.  A local member was disturbed when I quoted a couple of (what I thought were) benign sentences from the temple ceremonies to make a point about gendered imbalances in the church.  This member took me aside to tell me that using such quotes was a violation of my temple covenants.  When I explained my disagreement, he told me “The gospel is a gospel of conformity.”  He also explained in the same breath that this gospel of conformity was why men should wear white shirts to church (I had worn a colored shirt to give my ward’s Easter talk only a couple weeks earlier) and why priesthood holders should be clean shaven (I’m not).

My rejection of this Gospel of Conformity business was instantaneous.  I knew it was wrong, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time.  I will grant that there is a certain amount of conformity required in the gospel.  I will even offer scriptural justification for conformity.  It was Christ himself that instructed us to offer up a broken heart and a contrite spirit–to put down our pride and submit our will to His (3 Nephi 9:20).  But there is a certain irony to expecting total conformity to one of the greatest non-conformists in religious history.

In the year that has followed, I’ve periodically returned to some of my text books from college.  One of the most enlightening courses in communication I ever took was on persuasion, and I found a whole chapter in my textbook dedicated to conformity as persuasion1. While rereading this chapter, I came across a lot more positives from conformity than I expected.  Conformity builds a sense of belonging among groups, and fosters a sense of purpose.  Conformity also helps people rally around common goals and organize themselves.  Without some level of conformity, our wards would become dysfunctional and chaotic.  Yet, all of those positives can have disturbing consequences if the group proceeds to over-conform.

There are two forms of influence that pressure individuals to conform.  Informational influence appeals to our desire to be right.  In the lines experiment, some people reported that they would knowingly give the wrong answer because they desired to give what appeared to be the “correct” answer.  The most common catch phrase for this kind of influence in LDS culture would probably be “follow the prophet.”  The general authorities of the Church exhibit tremendous informational influence, where their opinions and interpretations are held as the gold standard for all members’ opinions and interpretations.  Over-conforming to informational influence occurs, for example, when we rely solely on the church to interpret scripture for us.  The problem with over-conforming to informational influence is that today’s interpretation may not be the guidance we need next year, next week, or whenever our life circumstances change.

While informational influence is motivated by our desire to have the right answer, normative influence appeals to our desire to fit in.  It is the social pressure that causes people to cover up tattoos to go to church; men to be clean shaven; and women to wear skirts.  It is this influence that causes us anxiety when we want to refrain from taking the Sacrament–what will the people in the pew behind me think!?  The orthodox view of covering up our sins is that we need to let go of our pride.  We would likely find it easier to let go of that pride if we felt less fear of being rejected by the community when we don’t conform to normative behaviors.

The consequences for failing to conform to these influences can be severe.  Dissenters (not to be confused with dissidents) face potential ostracism and exclusion.  Their worthiness and commitment to the gospel can be called into question.  All too often, they are labelled apostates when nothing could be further from the truth.  Very often, these are people with a deep reservoir of passion and testimony and strong personal ties to the Church.  The prospect of social exclusion is painful to them (and actual exclusion even more so).

When the dissenters are not entirely ostracised, they often risk other forms of marginalization.  Before starting my blog, I thought hard about whether it was worth the cost.  A lot of how I feel about the church doesn’t conform to the culturally accepted standards.  I knew that expressing myself could cost me opportunities to serve in leadership positions in which I could actually implement some of the changes that I have written about.  Giving up those opportunities was not a trivial decision.  I feel good about my decision now, but I still receive comments from people–almost always privately–that they wish they could have the courage to express their true feelings.  The fear of social consequences drives them to conformity.

With this much pressure to conform, is it any wonder that we see signs of over-conformity in the Church?  Among the symptoms of over-conformity is Group Polarization Phenomenon.  This phenomenon is characterized by the group stretching to more and more extreme positions on how they interpret normative expectations.  It begins with no coffee, and when that is universally accepted it becomes no caffeine.  Soon the consumption of soft drinks is prohibited.  It starts with treating the temple ordinances with reverence and morphs into never discussing any detail of temple ceremonies outside of the celestial room.  It starts with “no speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed” and becomes, “don’t ever question what your bishop tells you.”

These polarizations can work in the opposite direction as well.  Just as we can go to extremes in protecting sacred ordinances, we can also go to extremes in flippancy.  Neither extreme is healthy, but both extremes can be moderated by civilly dissenting voices.

More frightening consequences of conformity include Group Think–where individuals cease questioning the decisions of the group because they are so focused on accomplishing the goals of the group–and Deindividuation.  Deindividuation is an especially vicious development where individuals cease to attribute their actions to themselves and attribute them to the group mentality instead.  Deindividuation is the construct used to explain why people start violent, destructive riots in celebration of a Super Bowl win.  This is the phenomenon that drives people to call for the unconditional excommunication of anyone attending an Ordain Women event.  It is the phenomenon we see when people leave death threats on All Enlisted’s Facebook page.    After all, they are only protecting the Church and its doctrine, right?

The challenge for us is to understand the difference between healthy conformity and over-conformity.  This is as challenging as understanding the difference between persuasion and manipulation.  In truth, the difference between healthy conformity and over-conformity is very closely related to the difference between persuasion and manipulation.

We are taught in the Doctrine and Covenants that we should lead by persuasion and long suffering (D&C 121:41).  There is nothing wrong with an individual conforming to a community’s views so long as the individual feels good about their decision to conform.  The key elements there are 1) their decision, and 2) feels good.  When an individual chooses to conform due to fear of social consequences, persuasion has ended, manipulation has begun, and we’re taking the first steps toward over-conforming.

The key principle in preventing over-conformity is understanding that conformity and dissent do not have to be enemies.  Rather, they should be powerful allies.  Conformity of purpose and conformity of goals do not require us to accept conformity of thought and conformity of action.  Instead, they require us to hear out our dissenters and to understand them.  This doesn’t require that we agree.  For example, I don’t agree with everything Ordain Women has to say.  But I do understand that having the discussion with them and understanding their views will only make the Church stronger.

Curiously, I find myself now far less annoyed by the “Gospel of Conformity” than I did a year ago.  On an individual level, I think it’s true that our goal is to conform our will to the will of the Lord.  While I make my lifelong struggle to do that, I will also make my best efforts to ensure that His kingdom is not one ruled by the powers of over-conformity.
1 RH Gass and JS Seiter, “Conformity and Influence in Groups,” Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining, Pearson Education, Inc, 2003, 2nd ed.

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18 Responses to The Gospel of Conformity

  1. Stephen R. Marsh on April 17, 2014 at 7:52 PM

    When I hear people reciting litanies when they comment or post, the power of conformity really hits me.

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  2. Stephen R. Marsh on April 17, 2014 at 7:53 PM

    BTW, I liked your bottom line:

    “I find myself now far less annoyed by the “Gospel of Conformity” than I did a year ago. On an individual level, I think it’s true that our goal is to conform our will to the will of the Lord. While I make my lifelong struggle to do that, I will also make my best efforts to ensure that His kingdom is not one ruled by the powers of over-conformity.”

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  3. Hedgehog on April 18, 2014 at 1:55 AM

    Really interesting. I used that study introducing a RS lesson I gave long ago (https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-john-taylor/chapter-23?lang=eng). I remember it fondly.

    Having rather non-conformist tendencies myself, it was interesting to read of potential benefits. But I too have certainly come across over-bearing leaders who coerce. And I can’t help but think that the clean-shaven, white-shirted stuff is overly narrow.

    “It begins with no coffee, and when that is universally accepted it becomes no caffeine. Soon the consumption of soft drinks is prohibited. It starts with treating the temple ordinances with reverence and morphs into never discussing any detail of temple ceremonies outside of the celestial room. It starts with “no speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed” and becomes, “don’t ever question what your bishop tells you.””

    Which is pretty much how it is where I am, tending to that extreme. Less so on the soft drinks, caffeine thing. But the rest, so much so, that in a discussion on women and priesthood, a stake RS leader wasn’t apparently later extremely upset because there had been mention of women performing priesthood function in the temple, and she believed she had failed because she hadn’t been able to keep the conversation clear of the temple (it would seem any mention of anything that happens in the temple is regarded as a taboo, outside the names of the ordinances themselves). And quite a few Bishops appear to enter the calling with the expectation that the membership will simply fall in line, and have no disagreement with anything they say. Which can be grim, for them and us.

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  4. Hedgehog on April 18, 2014 at 1:58 AM

    #1, ha ha. That might just be because the non-conformists are all encountering same problems, don’t you think?

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  5. Benjamin on April 18, 2014 at 4:52 AM

    Stephen, that bottom line took me by surprise. I’ve spent a year fuming over conformity and determined to expose it for the horrific thing it is. And then suddenly I found myself not caring as much about it as I once did. I guess that’s the difference of seeing conformity as a tool and not a goal.

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  6. Nate on April 18, 2014 at 5:36 AM

    “All human beings have always aspired to an idyll, to that garden where nightingales sing, to that realm of harmony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against a man and man against other men, but rather where the world and all men are shaped from one and the same matter. There, everyone is a note in a sublime Bach fugue, and anyone who refuses to be one is a mere useless and meaningless black dot that need only be caught and crushed between thumb and finger like a flea.” -Milan Kundera

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  7. fbisti on April 18, 2014 at 10:05 AM

    Benjamin, hear, hear. Well-written.

    As you mentioned, I have often heard others say, in private, that they wished they could speak out in disagreement–or with an alternative, non-conforming thought. The pressure to conform is expressed as defining any alternative as dissent and/or contention (and specifically FORBIDDEN by many scriptures).

    Together with one other guy, over the course of several years, we were able to foster a relatively open-minded atmosphere in our HP class. We often had great discussions where several others would join in with their comments–both orthodox and heterodox. Then, a few years ago, ward boundaries were changed. None of those willing to express their thoughts ended up in my new ward. This new HP class consisted of generally very quiet and/or “genuflecting” Mormons and my alternative views were decidedly unwelcome and/or ignored (I couldn’t even incite or provoke a discussion). So, after over 2 years of frustration, I stopped attending anything beyond Sacrament Meeting–where the majority of the talks consist of reading recent conference addresses.

    I cannot agree that “our goal is to conform our will to the will of the Lord.” That is unless you also interpret that, as I do, to mean that my goal is to become like Christ in that my will (Agency) is to be fully righteous–not because it is His will, but because I choose to be righteous.

    Also, being somewhat immature psychologically, I don’t have your level of tolerance for the mindless, often harmful consequences of my brothers’ and sisters’ conformity mindset.

    ps. This brings to mind a compliment paid to me during my time as a BYU MBA student. The teacher in question was bemoaning how rare it was for students to speak up in disagreement during case study discussions in class. While this was in the early 70′s, I suspect our LDS cultural bias for “conformity” may well be a current phenomenon even in BYU graduate-level classes.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on April 18, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    “I guess that’s the difference of seeing conformity as a tool and not a goal.” Very insightful.

    By nature, I do like to question, but I also like to question my questioning. I had a good friend, a former bishop, who was a big proponent of the white shirt stuff and conformity in general, more than I was. I always worried about the kids who would feel left out or who couldn’t afford nice things or who just were teenagers who didn’t like to be pushed around and put in a box. His view was “It’s the team uniform. You can be on the team, but you don’t go out on the field unless you are wearing the uniform.” On some level, I get what he’s saying. Sometimes we choose not to conform for dumb reasons, too.

    He & I were talking about Singapore before I moved there because he had also considered living there at one time. I objected to how forceful the authoritarian government was with censorship and all the fines for ticky-tack offenses (caning for chewing gum or vandalism!). He sort of hand-waved away my concerns by saying “Well, you’re not going to use your cell phone when you drive, then, are you?” and “You’re not going to chew gum, then, are you?” Obviously not, if caning and a $1000 fine are at stake! But still, on some level, on principle, it feels stifling and draconian. And yet, I lived there for 2 and a half years and didn’t use my cell phone while driving and mostly didn’t chew gum (both of which are habits I mostly broke as a result of my time there).

    Conformity for its own sake seems bad, but non-conformity isn’t necessarily an inherent virtue either. Both are two sides of the same coin – basing our actions on others, either to be different or to be the same.

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  9. Benjamin on April 18, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    fbisti,

    Nailing down what I mean by “conform our will to the will of the Lord” might be hard to do in practical terms. Some of it is likely contextual. It could be like Christ in the Garden asking if there is some other way, but accepting the path that was before him. It could also mean listening to a prompting that a certain member of my ward is in need of friendship and rallying others to befriend them because I realize I myself am not a compatible personality. I think the common thread is that we be open to instruction from the Lord.

    If you continue to disagree with me, then wo be unto you. We must all be of one mind on this matter :)

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  10. Benjamin on April 18, 2014 at 1:26 PM

    hawkgrrrl
    First, I always have trouble counting the r’s in your name.

    Second, you bring up a very good point. By some happy miracle, I managed to use the word non-conformist only once. You warning about non-conformity for the sake of non-conformity reminds me of a challenging young adult I once had in my Institute class. He termed himself a non-conformist, and was so determined not to be bound by social norms that he would do the exact opposite of what behavior he thought was ‘expected’ of him. I didn’t consider him a non-conformist, but rather an anti-conformist. Despite his claims, his behavior was still entirely dictated by the cultural norms that he was acting against. Rather than liberating himself from his social prison, so to speak, he’d just moved across the row.

    A true non conformist, I would argue, adopts norms when they suit him, and abandons them when they don’t. Two phrases that I’ve never liked to hear as justification for doing something are “It’s tradition” and “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” But I will readily accept “It’s a tradition I enjoy” and “I think it’s the right thing to do in this situation” as solid justifications.

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  11. Frank Pellett on April 18, 2014 at 1:58 PM

    Being only slightly tangential –
    I’ve wanted for many years to get my Scottish heritage nailed down enough to qualify wearing a kilt. I’d love to even be able to wear this to the Temple (they do make all-white kilts), but am a bit concerned this would be seen as too non-conformist. There’s certainly the common thought amoung members that we should all keep the standard “uniform” to not distract others from the spirit, and one friend wondered if I’d be doing it just to stand out. I’m starting to think I would wear it, even to the temple, as a matter of pride in my ancestors, whose work I’d be doing there. Is this just a poor rationalization? Are others right that my desire for non-conformity is just selfishness? Is it possible for non-conformity to exist without some portion of selfishness?

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  12. Hedgehog on April 18, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    Frank, I’d think elements of selfishness on all sides, both conformist and nonconformist.

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  13. Benjamin on April 18, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    I think wearing a kilt would be very distracting. At least to me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think you shouldn’t do it. After hearing why you want to do it, it seems a lot less strange, and even something worth celebrating. If you have any hope of doing it, you’ll need to recruit the help of your temple president. If you can sell him on it, you might have a chance. But I would also caution you not to get your hopes up. It seems like a tough sell.

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  14. Benjamin on April 18, 2014 at 4:53 PM

    One thing I need to say that wasn’t written in my post is a big thank you! It was fun to contribute to your group for a day. I wish you all the best for a memorable Easter weekend.

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  15. Cheeky on April 18, 2014 at 5:26 PM

    One word: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

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  16. Hedgehog on April 19, 2014 at 2:12 AM

    “A true non conformist, I would argue, adopts norms when they suit him, and abandons them when they don’t. Two phrases that I’ve never liked to hear as justification for doing something are “It’s tradition” and “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” But I will readily accept “It’s a tradition I enjoy” and “I think it’s the right thing to do in this situation” as solid justifications.”

    Reminds me of a story a family member would tell of himself: as a child his parents quickly learnt to ask him to do the opposite of what they wanted, in order to achieve the desired outcome. He did learn that lesson though. He has non-comformist traits, especially for what he feels is conformity for the sake of conformity. That may be a family trait. I have it. Though one of my siblings is highly conformist.

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  17. Jeff Spector on April 21, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    Very interesting. I think a large part of conforming is a “don’t care.” In other words, it makes no difference to conform to the group. Some folks just rebel about some of the most inane things. And as result, there are consequences. I choose to have a beard which leaves me out of a few things right now, like working in the Temple or going on a mission (not quite ready for that anyway). So I am willing to take that consequence even if I think it is ridiculous. But I certainly haven’t mounted a campaign because of it.

    More interesting to me is the how the so-called non-conformists conform to each each other in their non-conforming and complaining about being non-conformists. I find that they care a bit too much about what others think and that most people do not hold them in the same low regard as they perceive themselves to be held.

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  18. New Iconoclast on April 23, 2014 at 2:21 PM

    Hawkgrrrrrr[sic]l in #9 and Benjamin in #11 touch on something I’ve probably run afoul of more than once – the desire to be a nonconformist for the sheer pleasure of not conforming. A common sin of mine in my younger days, probably related to pride, I find this occurring less frequently as I age – although I do occasionally get a bee in my bonnet. :)

    I’ve come to think of myself more as an unconformist, I suppose – I conform when I think the conforming opinion is valid, and I don’t when I think it’s nonsense. If it’s something in which I have no particular stake or strong interest, I’ll usually go along just to go along. Cultural conformity has no interest for me, however, for the most part. This means that I probably know a few more publicans and sinners than some of my fellow ward members.

    Now, I don’t live in Utah, and in my part of the country the members are converts from Catholicism, Lutheranism, and other mainline ho-hum churches, so we tend to be a little more laid-back than people in The Core or people where the converts come from hard-shell Baptists and the like. But still, I don’t think in nearly 30 years of wearing non-white shirts to Sacrament meeting for talks, choirs, and the like, it’s ever come back to me that I’ve been criticized for it.

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