Today’s guest post is by Benjamin.  Imagine that you are asked to participate in a study. The researcher tells you that she is studying people’s ability to interpret visual information. You are placed at the end of a row of four chairs with three other participants. On the projector screen in front of you appears this image.

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The researcher starts at the other end of the row and asks each person, “which of the lines on the right is the same length as the line on the left?”  Each person answers what is the obvious answer: Line A.  This process repeats a few more time, and each time, you are asked after everyone else gives their answer, and you give your answer.

Eventually, this card is projected:

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The monotony of the experiment is broken when the first person answers, “Line B.”  Surely, he has made a mistake, right?  But then the second person answers, “Line B.”  You start to feel anxious when the third person confirms that line B is the same length as the line on the left.  It is now your turn to answer, and you wonder what the other three people in the room can see that you cannot.

The researcher turns to you: “Which of the three lines on the right is the same length as the one of the left?”

What is your answer?

___________________________________________________

What you didn’t know was that there was only one research subject in the room: you.  The other three subjects were actually confederates.  They were instructed to give the wrong answer on the last card (but to agree with each other) so that the researchers could observe your behavior when you find yourself in disagreement with the group.  The experiment was evaluating the influence a group has on conformity.  The results showed that a third of all responses were incorrect (conformed to the confederate majority) with 75% of subjects giving at least one incorrect answer.  Only 25% never gave an incorrect answer (source).

Conformity as a form of social influence in religion came across my radar about a year ago.  A local member was disturbed when I quoted a couple of (what I thought were) benign sentences from the temple ceremonies to make a point about gendered imbalances in the church.  This member took me aside to tell me that using such quotes was a violation of my temple covenants.  When I explained my disagreement, he told me “The gospel is a gospel of conformity.”  He also explained in the same breath that this gospel of conformity was why men should wear white shirts to church (I had worn a colored shirt to give my ward’s Easter talk only a couple weeks earlier) and why priesthood holders should be clean shaven (I’m not).

My rejection of this Gospel of Conformity business was instantaneous.  I knew it was wrong, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time.  I will grant that there is a certain amount of conformity required in the gospel.  I will even offer scriptural justification for conformity.  It was Christ himself that instructed us to offer up a broken heart and a contrite spirit–to put down our pride and submit our will to His (3 Nephi 9:20).  But there is a certain irony to expecting total conformity to one of the greatest non-conformists in religious history.

In the year that has followed, I’ve periodically returned to some of my text books from college.  One of the most enlightening courses in communication I ever took was on persuasion, and I found a whole chapter in my textbook dedicated to conformity as persuasion1. While rereading this chapter, I came across a lot more positives from conformity than I expected.  Conformity builds a sense of belonging among groups, and fosters a sense of purpose.  Conformity also helps people rally around common goals and organize themselves.  Without some level of conformity, our wards would become dysfunctional and chaotic.  Yet, all of those positives can have disturbing consequences if the group proceeds to over-conform.

There are two forms of influence that pressure individuals to conform.  Informational influence appeals to our desire to be right.  In the lines experiment, some people reported that they would knowingly give the wrong answer because they desired to give what appeared to be the “correct” answer.  The most common catch phrase for this kind of influence in LDS culture would probably be “follow the prophet.”  The general authorities of the Church exhibit tremendous informational influence, where their opinions and interpretations are held as the gold standard for all members’ opinions and interpretations.  Over-conforming to informational influence occurs, for example, when we rely solely on the church to interpret scripture for us.  The problem with over-conforming to informational influence is that today’s interpretation may not be the guidance we need next year, next week, or whenever our life circumstances change.

While informational influence is motivated by our desire to have the right answer, normative influence appeals to our desire to fit in.  It is the social pressure that causes people to cover up tattoos to go to church; men to be clean shaven; and women to wear skirts.  It is this influence that causes us anxiety when we want to refrain from taking the Sacrament–what will the people in the pew behind me think!?  The orthodox view of covering up our sins is that we need to let go of our pride.  We would likely find it easier to let go of that pride if we felt less fear of being rejected by the community when we don’t conform to normative behaviors.

The consequences for failing to conform to these influences can be severe.  Dissenters (not to be confused with dissidents) face potential ostracism and exclusion.  Their worthiness and commitment to the gospel can be called into question.  All too often, they are labelled apostates when nothing could be further from the truth.  Very often, these are people with a deep reservoir of passion and testimony and strong personal ties to the Church.  The prospect of social exclusion is painful to them (and actual exclusion even more so).

When the dissenters are not entirely ostracised, they often risk other forms of marginalization.  Before starting my blog, I thought hard about whether it was worth the cost.  A lot of how I feel about the church doesn’t conform to the culturally accepted standards.  I knew that expressing myself could cost me opportunities to serve in leadership positions in which I could actually implement some of the changes that I have written about.  Giving up those opportunities was not a trivial decision.  I feel good about my decision now, but I still receive comments from people–almost always privately–that they wish they could have the courage to express their true feelings.  The fear of social consequences drives them to conformity.

With this much pressure to conform, is it any wonder that we see signs of over-conformity in the Church?  Among the symptoms of over-conformity is Group Polarization Phenomenon.  This phenomenon is characterized by the group stretching to more and more extreme positions on how they interpret normative expectations.  It begins with no coffee, and when that is universally accepted it becomes no caffeine.  Soon the consumption of soft drinks is prohibited.  It starts with treating the temple ordinances with reverence and morphs into never discussing any detail of temple ceremonies outside of the celestial room.  It starts with “no speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed” and becomes, “don’t ever question what your bishop tells you.”

These polarizations can work in the opposite direction as well.  Just as we can go to extremes in protecting sacred ordinances, we can also go to extremes in flippancy.  Neither extreme is healthy, but both extremes can be moderated by civilly dissenting voices.

More frightening consequences of conformity include Group Think–where individuals cease questioning the decisions of the group because they are so focused on accomplishing the goals of the group–and Deindividuation.  Deindividuation is an especially vicious development where individuals cease to attribute their actions to themselves and attribute them to the group mentality instead.  Deindividuation is the construct used to explain why people start violent, destructive riots in celebration of a Super Bowl win.  This is the phenomenon that drives people to call for the unconditional excommunication of anyone attending an Ordain Women event.  It is the phenomenon we see when people leave death threats on All Enlisted’s Facebook page.    After all, they are only protecting the Church and its doctrine, right?

The challenge for us is to understand the difference between healthy conformity and over-conformity.  This is as challenging as understanding the difference between persuasion and manipulation.  In truth, the difference between healthy conformity and over-conformity is very closely related to the difference between persuasion and manipulation.

We are taught in the Doctrine and Covenants that we should lead by persuasion and long suffering (D&C 121:41).  There is nothing wrong with an individual conforming to a community’s views so long as the individual feels good about their decision to conform.  The key elements there are 1) their decision, and 2) feels good.  When an individual chooses to conform due to fear of social consequences, persuasion has ended, manipulation has begun, and we’re taking the first steps toward over-conforming.

The key principle in preventing over-conformity is understanding that conformity and dissent do not have to be enemies.  Rather, they should be powerful allies.  Conformity of purpose and conformity of goals do not require us to accept conformity of thought and conformity of action.  Instead, they require us to hear out our dissenters and to understand them.  This doesn’t require that we agree.  For example, I don’t agree with everything Ordain Women has to say.  But I do understand that having the discussion with them and understanding their views will only make the Church stronger.

Curiously, I find myself now far less annoyed by the “Gospel of Conformity” than I did a year ago.  On an individual level, I think it’s true that our goal is to conform our will to the will of the Lord.  While I make my lifelong struggle to do that, I will also make my best efforts to ensure that His kingdom is not one ruled by the powers of over-conformity.
1 RH Gass and JS Seiter, “Conformity and Influence in Groups,” Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining, Pearson Education, Inc, 2003, 2nd ed.