Courage Over Conformity

25/08/2016 14:06 | Updated 25 August 2016

Courage over Conformity

'The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.' Rollo May.

Rarely in this phase of my development do I get excited by a quote but when I stumbled upon this one in 'Man's search for himself', it really got my cognitive juices flowing. As a social psychologist I have often wondered over fascinating truths of social conformity. For decades there have been many tests on this type of conformity, you could say a pioneer for this field was Solomon Asch who executed a study where a participant was asked to identify which of 3 lines matched the length of a separate line. Prior to the unknowing participant's turn there were 5 other people in line to answer that were actually stooges and whom all gave the same obviously wrong answer, for example B. The test was to see if when it landed on the 6th person, the participant would then go along with the group and give what was clearly the wrong answer. Shockingly 75% of the participants gave the obviously wrong answer on at least one occasion. Interestingly post experiment they were asked why they gave that answer to which they said they 'thought perhaps they had made a mistake' or 'didn't want to look stupid'.

There have since been many other fascinating studies on conformity that demonstrate how worryingly easy human beings can be led in their behaviour. Some fun ones you can try out yourself when you are in a small group of people is stopping to look up at the sky as though you are looking at something, seeing how many stop to join you. In fact, if you can get enough of a crowd you can take the original people out and leave a large group of people looking at nothing. My personal favourite way to kill 5 mins is facing the 'wrong way' in an elevator to see if the other passengers that enter turn to face the same direction as you, helps to have one or two friends with you. Try doing that without chuckling to yourselves.

In all seriousness though the implications of social conformity are profound, think of a young person caught up in the wrong circle of influence and how easy it could be for them to be led astray from their values. Sadly, this happens all of the time. In my work with young offenders it has been clear that the lack of sufficient role models and positive peer influencers plays a massive part in someone's journey through life.

When I studied psychology I remember one definition of insanity being when the behaviour of an individual 'deviates from the statistical norm'. How dare we brand every great person of all time as insane? Quite the contrary, I believe that insanity is sticking to the statistical norm, by doing this you create, achieve and contribute nada of great value to society. It's scary to think that through fear we settle for substandard lives and below average goals. I think Les Brown sums it up well when he says 'the problem isn't that most people don't aim to high and miss, they aim to low and hit'.

Elon Musk is a prime example of someone who you could easily label as insane but instead we worship him. Why? Because he's an innovator, but more importantly because he has a proven track record. If I told you that I plan to colonise Mars you would say I was a fool, when Elon says it we say he is a force of nature. Was this always the case? Of course not, there were people that called him mad but Elon's skill was always not to conform. Nobody ever achieved the unreasonable by doing reasonable things and those that win are the ones that can see things before others can believe them. The inaugural flight of the Wright Brothers, the circular shape of the earth, these are just small examples of that which we have laughed upon until we were proved wrong. The future belongs to the brave, the fearful have always been and will always be dealt average rations.

How do we harness the ability to break our innate urge to conform? First, we must develop its antithesis; our courage. To boldly go where we have never been before. What a lot of people don't realise is that courage is like a muscle and the more you train it the stronger it gets. It is ideal to create intentional situations where you can train this muscle rather than wait for occasions to jump out on you so that when they do jump out on you, you are ready.

Below is a seemingly daunting exercise that I have extracted from my recent book 'Burn the Bullshit'. It is an exercise that I have been doing with my coaching clients for some time. The idea of this is to silence the doubtful voices that stop you following your creative and innovative urges, the idea is to take control of your life and stop living that of others. If you think people will think you are mad, good, hopefully they will but believe me giving in to unfounded fear is true insanity. Live courageously and please write to me with your feedback on how the exercise went for you.


Now it's time for you to do the work! Let's get rid of some more bullshit patterns and step into a new life. Go to a crowded place such as a coffee shop, shopping centre, restaurant, bar, or library. Casually stop whatever you are doing and break out into a sudden, unprompted, loud and animated celebration for 5-10 seconds. It is important that you hold it for that long so we can sustain the discomfort for a moment and ensure that people know it is you.

• Do not have your phone on you. No pretending you got a message or otherwise. This is you celebrating for no reason, no cover story permitted.

• Celebrations may include: jumping, shouting, whooping and punching the air. Keep it family friendly!

• Be loud! Make sure that you gain people's attention

• Laughing afterwards to yourself is fine, but smiling awkwardly at others is not. You're not doing it for anyone else

• Do this alone, no strength in numbers. No hand-holding and no spectators. This is a solo challenge for a reason

• If you are quizzed on what's going on just explain that you are having a fantastic day and wish them a fantastic day too!

Congratulations for daring to break free from the prison of self-conscious restraint. This challenge will disrupt any inhibiting patterns of self-talk, the same self-talk that stops you from asking for a date with that guy or girl at the gym, or stops you from telling your boss where specifically to stick their job. You will invariably hear the same voices before you perform this celebration; they will question the value, attempt to dissuade you. Simply thank them for their opinion and do it anyway. This is about taking ownership back over mind. You will finish feeling liberated and ready to do anything.