It’s Right to Speak up When the Crowd Is Wrong

August 30, 2016

A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good just because it’s accepted by a majority. – Rick Warren

Are you afraid to express yourself when your thoughts and opinions differ from those of your family, friends, and colleagues?

Do you conform (or pretend to) with the beliefs of others in your circles in order to keep the peace and not ruffle any feathers?

Sure, sometimes it is easier to go with the flow rather than share a dissenting opinion.

But, often the right thing to do and the hard thing to do are the same thing.

What conformity is and how it can be detrimental

Conformity is a process by which your attitudes and beliefs become influenced by other people. It can be obvious (as in peer pressure), or it can be a more subtle influence that develops over many years…or even a lifetime.

The result is that you end up thinking and behaving like everyone else.

While that might feel comfortable for you, it can have negative effects on your health and happiness. In extreme cases, confirming with the crowd (herd mentality) can be damaging to society.

Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd. – Bertrand Russell

A new study from the University at Buffalo found that standing up for your beliefs, expressing your opinions, and demonstrating your core values can be a positive psychological experience.

Mark Seery, an associate professor in UB’s Department of Psychology, said there can be a clear divergence between what people do and say and how they feel:

People can show conformity, but going along with the group doesn’t mean they’re going along happily. The external behavior isn’t necessarily a good indication of their internal experience.

The findings, published in the journal Psychophysiology, provide new insights into what it’s like to be the outlier. The researchers investigated participant experiences as they happened.

Studying what it is like to be the lone dissenter is tricky. Seery said that methodologically, it is a hard thing to capture. Most research to date has focused on behavior and self-reported attitudes. It is uncomfortable being the outlier, and people are typically motivated to conform because it relieves that discomfort – or so it has been assumed.

Questioning study subjects during the experience can be disruptive, while waiting to interview them later demands that they recall feelings that aren’t always accurately reported.

That’s why Seery and his team of researchers – UB colleague Shira Gabriel, Daemen College’s Shannon Lupien and Southern Illinois University’s Mitsuru Shimizu – tried a different technique.

Seery explains:

But we can tap into the experience using psychophysiological measures, which is what we did in this case by assessing cardiovascular responses. That’s where this study started. To try to understand what that momentary experience of conformity pressure is like.

By measuring cardiovascular responses, the researchers got a sense of how study participants were evaluating personal resources versus the demands of the situation while in the act of potentially conforming.

When trying to reach a goal, evaluating high resources and low demands leads to a mostly positive, invigorating experience called challenge, which corresponds with feeling confident. Low resources and high demands lead to a much less confident state called threat, which may produce feelings of anxiety.

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