Intuition vs. Conformity- The Balance between Group and Internal Guidance

I have been thinking a lot about conformity and how it challenges intuition and specifically have been spending a lot of time revisiting lessons from one of my favorite subjects- Social Psychology.

I loved this class in college, and the timing of my studies coincided with the 9/11 attacks. In fact I was sitting in the classroom just before class started when we got the news that the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. The days and years to follow would bring the most salient lessons from this course to life as we would come to experience first hand the powers of persuasion, group think, conformity as in group biases, self attribution biases, and other theoretical concepts shaped policy and reshaped our concepts of security.

Once again current event bring me back to revisiting conformity and group behavior, this time with an additional consideration- the role of intuition as a potential protective factor against the negative effects of group think.

Not all forms of conformity and group influence are bad. When social norms dictate that it is appropriate to help those in need, for example, conforming to a standard is beneficial. But when the tides turn and social pressure leads us to fall into step behind a leader who is inclined to scapegoat others, or to use their power toward aggressive and selfish means, then group think can be downright dangerous.

We are first and foremost social creatures and so even the most individualistic among us is prone to the influence of group behavior and conformity. Paraphrasing anti-racist activist and author Tim Wise, ‘Americans love the idea of rugged individualism…but if you ever truly meet a rugged individual- run! This person will have no sense of civilization and will try to eat you!’

What I find captivating in our present society is how technologies such as social media potentially exploit both our drives toward individualism and the power of group influence. You have the option to create a unique image to represent your profile on Facebook for example, yet frequently people feel compelled to change their Facebook picture to show solidarity for one cause or another (conformity to group pressure). I am not suggesting this is bad, simply making the observation.

I wonder what future social psychology studies will reveal about our emerging e-society.

Will they find that under the guise of individuality we are actually succumbing to pressure to conform?

Will they view the “block” and “unfriend” featured of this social media landscape to be a benefit? Or a tool of creating a landscape of ideas and connections which reinforces our self serving biases, to our own detriment?

I am surrounded by evidence that we are becoming increasingly dependent on the opinions of online connections for validation- even I catch myself feeling a surge of happiness when someone “likes” my post, and investing emotional energy into whether a blog I write will be well received by the online community, or met with the virtual equivalent of crickets…

I hear people speaking of others’ social media responses to their opinions as if it were proof of a fact- when the response is favorable to their viewpoint, or evidence of their unworthiness when a line is cast into the cyberworld and no one bites at the e-worm.

And I think of my recent exploration of group think and cult mentality. One of the biggest protective factors, historically, had been the presence of a community which the individual could rely on as a sounding board.

An individual who was isolated, alienated and vulnerable to manipulation of personal insecurities, was more vulnerable to group influence in the form of brainwashing, especially when the message, repeated again and again, seemed to speak to a core wound the individual had not healed and was, likely, oblivious to.

While this raises other fundamental questions regarding conformity (who says the status quo is correct, for example?) a protective factor remains. If an individual hears the diverse opinions of those who favor and challenge their ideology, it potentially slows them down.

Maybe it isn’t a good idea to drink the proverbial Kool Aid, or maybe the masses are asses and have not caught on to the ideals espoused by the fringe influence.

Either way, an individual would have a buffer.

Conform to the status quo? Or conform to the new (perhaps radical, perhaps idealistic, perhaps toxic?) influence on the fringe?

In a social media driven society we have a reinvention of what community means, and the “baseline” is relative. The sounding board of family, friends, or community is now eclipsed by the excitement of new communities to which one may belong, for better or worse.

Add to this the ability to self select members of one’s online community and therefore prune one’s social landscape to validate one’s own beliefs, again for better or worse.

We have an e-scape of naked Emperors who may, at will, block and unfriend any who dare challenge their new clothes.

Let that sink in for a moment.

It may seem simple and insignificant, but I consider it a game changer.

So how do we extract the benefits of our new channels of connection while protecting ourselves from the influence of group think which are really not in our personal or collective best interests?

Know Yourself

This is more essential now than ever. Know your values. Know your strengths.

Of equal importance- know your weakness. Know the wounds you carry which have not been tended to.

This is because we all have unresolved stuff, but we often aren’t aware that the core of our wounds are correlated to the triggers we are most susceptible to.

For example, if I never found a way to feel secure and deserving, I could be susceptible to the message of a manipulative leader telling me how “special” I am (validation) and how my hardships have been caused by an adversary (scapegoat playing off of my insecurities).

Regardless of evidence to the contrary, this leader will speak to my wounded self, who will answer by surpassing logic and responding to the pain I feel.

Sound familiar?

Know Your Value and Values

If you solidly accept and appreciate your worth as a person you will not need the validation of another to boost you. The validation of a lover, family member, religious leader, politician, sales person, will feel good, as positive attention always does, but it will not feel like a lifeline from which we must be fed or else feel insignificant.

Know your values. Because “experts”, sales people, politicians, religious leaders, gurus and people of all kinds with a full spectrum of intentions from humanitarian and philanthropic, to subversive and self serving, are lining up to tell us how to think and feel.

“Everyone KNOWS that the right way to do X is Y…”

when we hear these messages enough, it works like an affirmation. Suddenly, it seems, yes, this IS the way right way and YES everyone DOES know it…

Unless it isn’t true.

Unless it goes against your values.

Relearn to Listen

I say “Relearn” because I like to think most of us did learn this skill at one time, but it has been increasingly difficult to practice in our hurried current culture.

Learn to Listen to Your Intuition

When I wrote Discover Your Inner Queen (which would later become Queen Up) it was based on my experience recovering from a major crisis which required me to reinvent myself in connection to my intuition. I had great support from professionals and loved ones, but there were aspects of my path which took turns away from guidance of others.

Think of this as a tight rope walk, carefully balancing between status quo or expert opinion as ‘sounding board’ and guidance on one side, internal, higher Spiritual guidance (or internal compass, or Spirit Guides, or Inner Queen or whatever you would like to call it…) on the other side.

Engaging in a regular practice of balancing diverse external opinions and guidance with a healthy dose of internal reflection and Spirit connected guidance can we balance these various influences and remain true to our path, protecting ourselves against the detrimental effects of group think while being receptive to the beneficial role that community can play in our development.

But don’t take my word for it, I could be wrong. You’ll have to know and trust yourself on this one!