Conformity

Almost everyone knows the meaning of conformity. From an early age, we are taught to conform with others’ ways of doing things, to go along with group norms, and to desire to be like everyone else. Few of us actually think about the strong social pressures designed to ensure our conformity; we tend to “go along to get along” without giving much thought to the consequences of our actions. Conformity is one of the most researched topics in social psychology. Most definitions of conformity involve a degree of conflict between the way in which a person wants to be and the way group pressures dictate the person’s behavior. Thus, for conformity to exist, the individual would not have acted in a certain way on his/her own, however, the group pressures were strong enough to change the person’s actions. Conformity to group norms has a myriad of consequences from highly positive, such as adherence to the societal pressures to stop at a stop sign as a means of controlling traffic flow, to highly negative, such as soldiers’ “only following orders” when slaughtering innocents during war time. Most effects of conformity, of course, fall someplace between these two extremes. Pressures to conform can be strong, as well as explicit, such as the threat of punishment for failure to conform. (Think of how quickly most employees learn to conform to their employer’s work related norms, such as arrival and departure times.) Other times, pressures to conform are implicit and more subtle, such as conforming to social norms about how to dress for dinner at a fancy restaurant by discussing the dress code with one’s dining companions prior to going to dinner. Because most people desire social approval, conformity has benefits for both the individual and the group(s) to which he/she belongs. In my role as a litigation/trial consultant, I have the opportunity to observe conformity in many ways. For example, the attorneys who retain my services for jury selection always wear conservative business suits, usually in dark colors. I have never been in the presence of an attorney who was wearing anything other than a very nice suit while inside a courthouse. I always conform to the attorneys’ dress code, donning my darkest, most conservative suits when assisting them during the jury selection process. I see no reason to be an anti conformist when in the courthouse, thereby risking having the judge’s wrath directed toward me! The jury deliberations process almost always involves group pressures designed to attain individual conformity. In that the group of individuals who comprise a jury must reach a unanimous decision, during the course of our mock jury research, we often hear statements such as, “Almost everyone here feels the same way. Why won’t you just go along with the rest of us?” as the jurors try to convince a wayward person to vote the same way as the majority. Understanding the group dynamics that lead to conformity is a first step in many people’s understanding of the fact that a group is stronger than its individual parts.

Melissa states that understanding conformity is part of understanding that a group is stronger than its individual parts. That is, in our litigation consulting world, a jury is stronger than a single juror, even if a single juror can “hang” a jury. My comments conform to her statement, but I want to expand it beyond just “a group is stronger than” to point out that conformity is one person why a group is different than its individual parts. As Melissa noted, when we watch mock jurors deliberate, we frequently observe the verbal pressures on the part of the members of the jury, as well more intimidating tactics, to “encourage” a non conforming mock juror to “get with the program.” Rarely do we see a non conforming mock juror convince the rest of the mock jurors to conform to his/her perspective as in 12 Angry Men. But, depending on the mock juror, it can happen. It is true that some people live their lives in non conformist ways and they take pride in being different. These are people who don’t want to get along for the sake of not getting along. Discovering such outliers is one of the reasons voir dire is conducted prior to the beginning of most trials – though, admittedly in different ways in different courts. And, it is during voir dire that the lawyers have the opportunity to consider whether the potential jurors can get along. Lawyers probably intuitively consider whether they want jurors who will get along and reach a group decision; there are times however, when they perhaps don’t want that, and perhaps would prefer a hung jury. Knowing about human tendencies to conform should inform voir dire strategies. Of course, it is usually the case that attorneys seek jurors who will get along – who will conform to the group – as long as they are conforming to that attorney’s perspective. Taking a chance on a non conformist is risky. Certainly, in an actual trial, the pressures to conform are stronger than in a mock jury (which has a finite ending time), but nonetheless, mock jury exercises demonstrate the pressures by, and on, the individual to conform and reach a verdict. Some of these pressures are internal to the juror wanting to agree with others, some are by the other jurors pressuring those in the minority to go along. Whatever the source of the conformity pressure, it is clearly an issue time and time again. And, as an aside to the overall point of this post, this significant group dynamic is a primary reason why mock juries should be conducted in face to face groups, because these dynamics cannot be replicated in online “mock juries.”

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