The Historical Views of Conformity: From Ancient Philosophy to Modern Psychology

Is Conformity a New Issue?

Throughout history, conformity has been a topic of interest for philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and many others. Conformity refers to the tendency of individuals to adjust their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in order to fit in with a group or society. In this blog post, we will explore the historical views on conformity and how they have evolved over time.

Ancient Philosophy

Ancient philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, had varying views on conformity. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is one of the earliest recorded discussions of conformity. In this allegory, a group of prisoners are chained up in a cave and can only see shadows on the wall. According to Plato, these prisoners represent people who are trapped by their own limited perspectives and conformist attitudes. He believed that true knowledge came from breaking free from conformity and seeing things as they really are.

On the other hand, in his work “Politics,” Aristotle saw conformity as a positive aspect of human nature because it allowed for cooperation and social harmony. He argued that humans are social animals by nature and our desire for acceptance leads us to conform to societal norms.

These philosophical debates about conformity have continued throughout history and remain relevant today.

These ancient views highlight how human psychology has not varied much over time when it comes to conformity. People have always been influenced by others’ opinions or behaviors, whether it be in ancient Greece or modern times.

Enlightenment Thought

The Enlightenment period, which spanned from the late 17th to the early 19th century, was a time of great intellectual and social change. During this period, there were various views on conformity that emerged among philosophers and thinkers.

One of the central ideas of the Enlightenment was the importance of reason and individualism. Many Enlightenment thinkers believed that individuals should have the freedom to think for themselves and make their own decisions, rather than blindly conforming to tradition or authority.

For example, Immanuel Kant argued that people should use reason to determine what is right and wrong, rather than simply following tradition or societal norms. He believed that individuals should be autonomous and make decisions based on their own moral principles.

Similarly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasized the importance of individual freedom and criticized society’s pressure to conform. He believed that society corrupted individuals by forcing them to conform to its values and norms. He argued that humans were naturally good but became corrupted by society’s expectations and norms.

On the other hand, some Enlightenment thinkers saw conformity as necessary for maintaining order in society. For instance, Montesquieu believed that laws should be created to regulate behavior and prevent chaos.

Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings are naturally selfish and violent, and that a strong government is needed to keep them in check. He believed that individuals should submit to the authority of the state in order to prevent chaos and conflict.

Yet another example is John Locke, who believed that individuals have natural rights such as life, liberty, and property. However, he also recognized the need for social contract theory, which asserts that individuals must give up some of their freedoms in exchange for protection and security provided by the state.

English philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that conformity was necessary for social progress. Contrastingly, he also argued that dissenting opinions could lead to valuable debate and ultimately result in societal improvements.

Overall, while many Enlightenment thinkers championed individualism and nonconformity as a means of progress and innovation, others promoted the importance of conforming to societal norms in order to maintain social order and stability.

These debates about conformity continue to shape our understanding of human behavior today. The tension between individual autonomy versus collective well-being remains an ongoing challenge for societies around the world.

Modern Psychology

In the 20th century, psychologists began studying conformity more systematically. Solomon Asch conducted famous experiments showing how individuals would change their answers on simple perceptual tasks in order to fit in with a group’s incorrect responses. This demonstrated the power of social pressure on individual behavior.

In these experiments, participants were shown a line and then asked to match it with one of three comparison lines. The answers were obvious, but confederates (people who were secretly working with the experimenter) intentionally gave incorrect answers. The participants’ task was to state their answer out loud after hearing the confederates’ responses.

Asch found that when participants were in a group where everyone else gave an incorrect answer, many of them also gave an incorrect answer even though they knew it was wrong. In fact, about 75% of participants conformed at least once during the experiment.

Asch’s work showed that people are heavily influenced by the opinions and behaviors of those around them, even if it goes against their own beliefs or judgments. This pressure to conform can be so strong that individuals will go along with something they know is wrong just to fit in with a group or avoid being seen as different.

Overall, Asch’s experiments highlight how powerful social pressure can be on individual behavior and emphasize the need for critical thinking and independent judgment in order to resist conformity pressures when necessary.

Another important study of conformity, Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments were a series of psychological experiments conducted in the 1960s to study how far people would go in obeying an authority figure, even if it meant causing harm to others.

In these experiments, participants were asked to administer electric shocks to another person (who was actually an actor pretending to be a participant) whenever they answered a question incorrectly. The shocks increased in voltage with each incorrect answer and eventually reached dangerous levels.

Despite the actor’s screams of pain and pleas for mercy, many participants continued to administer the shocks simply because they were told to do so by the experimenter in charge. In fact, over 60% of participants administered the maximum shock level, even though they believed that the shocks could be fatal.

These experiments revealed the power of authority figures and social norms in shaping human behavior. Milgram argued that individuals are often willing to act against their own moral beliefs and values when faced with pressure from authority figures or social norms.

The experiments also sparked controversy and ethical concerns about research involving deception and potential harm to participants. However, they remain an important contribution to our understanding of human behavior and obedience to authority.

These findings have important implications for understanding group dynamics and decision-making processes. They suggest that people may be more likely to conform than speak up when they disagree with a group consensus, which can lead to poor decisions or harmful actions.


Ultimately, like all of life, a balance is needed between conformity and the expression of individuality.

It is a tangled issue that has been debated throughout history. On one hand, conformity can be beneficial for social harmony and cooperation, while on the other hand, nonconformity can lead to innovation and progress by questioning established norms. Ultimately, the key to finding a balance between these two realms lies in recognizing the importance of both individual autonomy and collective well-being while finding ways to promote both within society. Of the examples we have examined, John Locke and John Stuart Mill may have been the closest to defining a reasonable balance, but as long as humanity endures, we will be challenged to embrace the tension.

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