In the natural world, numerous animals live and thrive together in groups. Essentially, animal aggregation provides protection from predators, which often target the outliers, but it also significantly reduces the chances of an attack. Staying in groups can be found in an incredibly big number of species, ranging from the smallest, like ants, to the largest, like elephants and whales. This is especially true for mammals, including us humans. Almost all mammals are very social creatures and depend on one another for survival. But benefits usually don’t come freely without some sort of disadvantage. Let’s take a look at the behavior of animals when they are in groups, or more commonly referred to, herds. More specifically, let’s look at sheep.
Sheep are hoofed mammals that are usually kept as livestock. The behavior of sheep is what allows farmers to easily manage, move, and look after large numbers of them. Sheep are extremely gregarious animals. They require company for the same reason previously mentioned, which is protection. Sheep, and a lot of other animals that live in herds, have something called the herd mentality. Let’s take a look at this picture here.
For animals, the herd mentality is an instinct of following other animals in the herd, whether it is doing something or traveling somewhere. As for sheep, whatever a single sheep in the herd chooses to do, the rest strongly follows. However, varying from animal to animal, this innate behavior can be so powerful that animals don’t really think about it. For sheep, it is hard-wired and strong. This means that sheep will do whatever the herd does no matter what it is, even if it leads them to their death, as you can see in the picture with cows. If a sheep is led to the slaughterhouse, the rest will follow without hesitation. If a few sheep decide to jump off a cliff for no reason, the others will likely follow. After all, sheep are prey animals and their only defense is to flee together, so they constantly feel the need to be in a flock, especially in the center, as a way to ensure they’re safe from predators. A fun fact is that if a sheep is not accompanied by at least 4 or 5 other sheep when grazing, it will start acting incredibly agitated. They need each other. So that is the nature of sheep and the herd mentality.
Why am I telling you this? The herd mentality, also referred to as mob mentality, is often used to portray the human tendency of blindly following the crowd, even though possible harm is involved. When I say crowd, I mean any social group, whether it is your class, your family, your group of friends, coworkers, or just society as a whole. And by blindly following the crowd, I mean making decisions based on other people, decisions that are different from what you would make on your own. It is also more based on emotion, rather than logical consideration. When most of the people in a group do something, it creates this pressure and compels others to copy. Simultaneously, but subtly, it also instills into those people fear of social rejection, meaning that if you’re different or not doing what we’re doing, we will exclude you from the group. Herd mentality is following the crowd in doing something because of no other reason than that there are a lot of people doing it and that you don’t want to be an outlier.
There’s a similar behavior that is more present in human society nowadays known as conformity. Conformity is the act of changing one’s attitude to behave the way that other people do in a social group, to match its norms in hopes of gaining social security and acceptance. Simply put, norms are implicit and unspoken rules of how you should act, of what is considered socially acceptable. So in a way, it is pretending to be someone who you are actually not. I’m confident I can say that a lot of us have experienced conformity before. When was the last time you changed your answer to a question on the board just because when the teacher called on many other students, they had a different answer? This is how we instinctively function, it is hammered into our DNA. In a more primal sense, being a part of a group reassures you of your survival. We conform because we fear social rejection, because we feel a lack of social security in ourselves. To be a part of a group is to be accepted and to be accepted, in today’s world, is to conform. And that, the fear of being excluded and alone, known as social rejection, for a lot of us in society, dictates how we act.
To visualize conformity, let’s take a look at this image. There are two halves. In the first half, you see a group of 3 girls who are wearing similar clothing, jeans, striped tops, and slip-on shoes, hanging out together and another girl who’s wearing differently, spotted clothing, a skirt, and boots, looking at them with a slightly upset face. In the second half, you see that the girl has changed her clothes and shoes to match those of the group of girls. You can also see that she is approaching and interacting with them with a smile, rather than staring at them with an upset face. This is what conformity may look like for students at school. It is caused by the desire to have company and to fit in, as a response to the fear of being socially rejected.
Despite the idea of changing yourself in any way just to fit into a social group seeming somewhat negative, conformity is not necessarily bad. I believe that a double-edged sword is the idiom that describes conformity. Whether conformity has a negative or positive effect solely depends on who or what you conform to. According to researchers, many people conform for a variety of reasons. We’re going to take a look at the positive and negative side of conformity.
For a large number of individuals, in the process of conforming, they lose their identity as people. Because they changed to fit into a group, they’re no longer themselves, but rather are imitating the behavior of others. They may even feel pressured to keep acting that way because if they don’t, they might not be considered a part of the group anymore. That is unhealthy and toxic. Additionally, on a large scale, this can lead to a lack of diversity in people. There would be groups of people acting the same way. They would like the same things and do the same things. There just wouldn’t be any diversity in people and everything can feel very boring, robotic you could say. These are some of the negative effects of conformity.
Turning to the bright side, in conforming for social security, it can benefit us in ways that we didn’t initially think of. When you conform to a group of people, you can change drastically, depending on how long you stick with them. Things about your character that can change include your habits and your interests. If you have bad habits, the group may notice them and by spending more time with the group, you will slowly learn to get rid of those bad habits, and maybe even adopt some good habits that other people in the group hold. Of course it also depends on the type of people that are in the group, but if you have the right people, there are sure to be positive changes. Being a part of a group also means that you have people who will provide you with company, support, and protection. When you’re feeling down, you will have people who will talk and help you, in addition to your family. They’re basically friends. At some point in life, you will go through some sort of conformity, especially when you’re growing up or moving to a new place, and it can lead to many great things, like best friends, and shape you in different ways.
Comparing the effects of conformity, it all comes down to how you ultimately view them. Following the crowd, disregarding whether it is herd mentality or caused by conformity, is a behavior that a lot of us have experienced, and still do. It’s even in animals. Despite its negative connotations, conformity is not something that is always going to have bad outcomes. As I said, it is like a double-edged sword. Depending on who or what you conform to, the effects can either be positive or negative. You just need to evaluate the situation and how you conform. If you’re a conformist, think about the group of people you’re conforming to, but also think about yourself. Is this really worth it? How are people treating me? Personally, I believe that conformity is something that we all go through at some point in our lives. It may or may not lead to great things, but I believe that it is essential in keeping balance in society. How worthy is a solution if there was not even a problem in the first place? Conformists or nonconformists, they all are a part of society. And that is the beauty of it all.