Normality and the need to conform

By Naomi Jones. Naomi lives in Oxford, UK. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

The dictionary definition of normality is the opposite of deviant, eccentric and unusual behaviour but “normalcy” differs from person to person, but I think the general meaning is “to be like everyone else.”  Anything or anyone that doesn’t fit their views are thought of as “abnormal”.

Psychology uses the term “norm” to refer to a general beliefs, expectations and standards of behaviour shared by members of a group or culture.  Some of these expectations are formal and explicit, but most are informal and do not have to be followed.  Some norms cover appropriate behaviour in different roles and situations.  Not following these “norms” often result in sanctions or exclusion from the group or culture.  For some people, being “normal” is a huge part of their identity as a person.

One must wonder how, when and why people tend to get caught up in societal norms.  Well, the general answer is that we are often born into them, or we pick them up as we become more aware of what our peers think of us.  This is particularly prominent in adolescence, which is a time of great emotional upheaval, when one’s body is starting to change and hormones are running rampant.  These changes often fill individuals with the need to feel accepted.

Historically, what was or was not socially acceptable tended to dictate what was legally acceptable or vice versa.  For example, gay relationships were not accepted by society and was therefore illegal; if a person was caught in a situation that could be construed as being in a same sex relationship, it would at the very least have ostracised them and at worst have earnt them a jail sentence. In some countries, this is still the legal norm.

An ongoing example of expulsion from a community is the Roman Catholic Church which has a notoriously strict set of religious norms.  Failure to comply with the strictest of their creeds would result in excommunication, such as committing abortion which is viewed as a great sin.

Another even more extreme example in which both children and adults were made to conform to a society’s ideals comes from the Nazi regime.  There were some who genuinely believed in their propaganda, but most only conformed due to the heavy repercussions that they would suffer.  During a history class on the Third Reich, I learnt about a case in which a schoolgirl fell asleep during class after having spent the night before trying to complete a homework assignment and she was immediately carted off to have her womb removed because she was deemed unfit to have children for that one small fault. In this case, conformity is a survival instinct in a totalitarian society.

All of the above examples can only be construed as peer pressure.  In psychological terms, peer pressure, or group pressure, is when group members demand that individuals conform to certain standards or behaviours.

Teenagers are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and will often conform to what others view as “normal”.  This is known as conformity, also referred to as majority influence.  In psychology, it is a form of social in fluence (when a person changes when in the presence of one’s friends).  In most cases of teenage normative influence, one would conform in order to belong, to be liked or to be approved of by one’s peers; as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Though the context is a bit different, the same train of thought can be applied to the idea of conformity; societal norms cannot influence you unless you allow them to.

Which leads me to the “Asch effect”, named after Soloman Asch, who was known for conducting experiments that demonstrated how individuals could be pressured into conforming to a group’s standard.  Asch found that when a majority expresses a certain opinion, individuals will go against their own judgments and agree with the majority, though he later found that under certain circumstances the need to conform is negated.  Such as the presence of another individual who expresses an opinion that is in agreement with their viewpoint and conflicts with the majority.

There are so many books, films and television programmes that depict school life, especially from America.  In one of the books I read when I was a teenager, was an American novel called Speak, set in a modern American high school, the main character is ostracized throughout the story by her peers, including a girl who had been her best friend in their old school, for being different.  One of the minor characters, who shamelessly uses the main character to help herself when it suits her, puts in lots of effort in trying to fit in with one of high school cliques, the Marthas, whom I understand modelled themselves after the television personality Martha Stewart.  Towards the end of the story, the minor character is cast out of the group because she was unable to meet their high standards.

I have no idea if the above scenario is true to life in its depiction, but it highlighted a lot of what I had been feeling—like there weren’t many other kids that really understood or accepted me. 

As a teenager, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to be like everyone else so that you’d be accepted by  your peers, as if their opinions will somehow validate you as a person.  ­  Like most teenagers, I wanted to fit in with the other kids.  I think it helped that, around that time, I came across an exercise in a magazine where one stands in front of a full-length mirror and study one’s reflection from head to toe.  Next, you say aloud your physical qualities, both good and bad and then say how that makes you unique, such as “I have large ears.  They are nicely rounded, making me a good listener.”  The purpose of the exercise was to boost one’s self-confidence and self-esteem.  It didn’t work immediately, but as I did it more often my confidence in my own image increased, so I did not feel the need to care about the opinions of others when it came to my appearance.

As an adult, the temptation to change oneself or spend lots of money on unnecessary things to “fit in” is still there but I like to think that most will have the presence of mind to think matters through and decide for themselves what is really important to them.  In most popular psychology books and articles, in order to avoid falling into pitfall of conforming to other’s beliefs one has be certain one’s own convictions and not be afraid to be different from everyone else, and maybe even go out of your way to be different from other people in small ways.

Part of this pursuit of normalcy can partially be blamed on television and how the media portrays everyday life in dramas and soap operas.  Because of it, many mistakenly believe that what they see on the television is how it is in real life and so they try to emulate the so-called ideal.

To conclude, the concept of normalcy is a certain point of view.  In times of change, especially one experiences a great upheaval such at the onset of adulthood, one feels compelled to conform in order to fit in with one’s peers.  As such, there is a pressure from the people around them which dictates to them how they should and shouldn’t act.  Teenagers are particularly sensitive to the opinions of others and will often try to change themselves in order to “fit in”, as are often depicted in films and books for young adults which are not necessarily reliable.  Solomon Asch, a psychologist, found that when faced with a majority opinion that contradicts one’s own, that person will follow the majority unless another individual with a similar opinion challenges the majority.  Most adults have the strength of mind to stop themselves from conforming to the ideals of other people, but some will spend large amounts of money and effort in order to be like everyone else, or what they perceive as “normal”.  This can be blamed in part on the media and how everyday life is portrayed on television, which leads many viewers to copy what they think is real. Despite this overwhelming bombardment of pressure from multiple angles, there comes a times when one realises that “normalcy” is severely overrated, and the best thing to so is just be yourself.

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