I have always listened to all genres of music: Rock, rap, show tunes, country—you name it. I never thought anything of it until one day in high school, when I was listening to some top 40 songs and a classmate of mine told me it was weird that I still listened to popular commercial music. I asked what she meant, and she said that she hadn’t listened to pop music in years because it was “too mainstream,” and that she was “really only into alternative music right now.” Don’t get me wrong; I love alternative music, too.
I just found it bizarre that she made a comment criticizing the fact that I was listening to a certain kind of music because it was too popular.
This was my first experience with the sort of fad that nonconformity had become. Since then, the concept of conforming versus not conforming has become a topic of discussion in the social sciences as well as in my everyday life.
Conformity is behavior in compliance with a set of socially accepted norms, or “rules.” In the realm of the social sciences, there are two types of conformity: normative conformity, in which the goal is to fit in with a group even though we might privately disagree with the views of the group, and informational conformity, in which we look to a group for guidance in times of uncertainty and accept the views of the group as our own.
One model proposes that we might conform because we have a desire to be correct, a desire to be socially accepted, a need to accomplish group goals, a need to maintain one’s social identity, or a desire to affiliate ourselves with people with whom we share similarities.
Nonconformity, then, is exactly the opposite: it is the deliberate rejection of social norms for any variety of reasons. Several studies suggest that nonconformity is most often motivated by our human need to be unique individuals, but according to a study published in 2008, even that desire for uniqueness varies based on multiple factors. This study shows that our levels of NfU, or need for uniqueness, vary from person to person and can affect the way we interact socially. For example, people with higher NfU are more likely to consume “unusual or even unpopular” products: an example of nonconformity. NfU levels can also fluctuate situationally. Certain circumstances can cause us to feel too similar or too different from others, and we might compensate for that feeling by conforming or not conforming.
There are countless pros and cons of conformity and nonconformity in different situations, making it impossible to declare one or the other the “better choice.”
Conforming to certain social norms, for example, can foster a sense of belonging to a group and can promote harmony in the workplace or in other environments. However, conformity also has its drawbacks, the most evident being that it takes away from the very sense of uniqueness and individuality that is critical to our mental well-being.
As for nonconformity, several studies point to benefits other than the obvious individuality and sense of uniqueness. One such study suggests that the strive for uniqueness that motivates people not to conform to a norm can also decrease a person’s likelihood to give in to majority influence in other aspects of their life, including peer pressure with friends or in the workplace.
Additionally, a different study shows that when people observe someone who is deliberately not conforming, they often associate that person with higher social status.
However, while nonconformity can help develop resistance to peer pressure as well as give the impression of higher status, it can also lead to loneliness derived from a sense of exclusion from the group. As social creatures, this exclusion and isolation is detrimental to our mental health.
In many ways, then, the decision to conform or not to conform to a certain norm or socially accepted rule is a sort of balancing act.
While we need to feel unique, we also need to feel included.
Pulling from the conformist side and the nonconformist side not only helps us to foster a sense of inclusion and group values in our communities, but also helps us to be more balanced, well-rounded individuals. After all, you can listen to all the classic rock and ska you want, but if you refuse to listen to Beyonce and Calvin Harris because they’re “too mainstream,” I’m sorry, but frankly you are really missing out.