Unwilling to conform? That’s what happens as you age.
Updated: May 21
Photo: By Carole Railton (copyright)
Is the “younger generation” conforming to society’s expectations more today than they used to? Does the “older generation” conform less?
We may want to answer “yes” to both these questions but is there any substance to these answers?
It seems that there is. Empirical evidence suggests that students often refrain from debating with their teachers, whether at secondary school or at university, for fear of “standing out from the crowd” and therefore “not conforming”. For the most part, it seems that people from the older generation have less need to please others - whether it’s their peers, university teachers or those younger than themselves.
Over the years, these questions have been posed many times. Every generation seems to believe that the younger generation is more conformist than the one before. Research shows that these problems are not necessarily becoming more acute.
Before I continue, however, it would help to outline what conformity means and some of the ways that it manifests itself. We generally take conformity to mean a type of social influence where a person changes their attitude or behaviour in response to group pressure.
Social psychologists have divided social influence into three areas. The first is compliance, the lowest level of conformity. Here a person changes their public behaviour, the way they act, but not their private beliefs.
The middle level of conformity is identification. Here a person changes their public behaviour and their private beliefs, but only while they are in the presence of the group.
The deepest level of conformity is internalisation where a person changes their public behaviour and their private beliefs. This is often the result of informational social influence (ISI).
A number of studies have been concluded looking at conformity. In 1960 Walter Metzger  carried out a study looking at Youth and Conformity, based on the premise that “the pressures to conform are particularly powerful in America”. Yes, youth were likely to conform- and he spends some discussing what “conformity” means.
There was also a study carried out in 1999 by Monisha Pasupathi at the University of Utah in 1999 which looked at how age affects our response to conformity. The conclusion: “The present findings suggest that older adults are not uniformly rigid and unyielding but that they are selectively resistant to conformity pressure when they feel that they are correct. One of the
benefits of long living may be the freedom to leave, if only under certain circumstances, the
path well-trod by others.”
In July this year, a book was written on the topic of conformity. It is simply entitled “Conformity” and is by best-selling author Cass Sunstein. It looks at the advantages and disadvantages of conforming and concludes that people are really less likely to conform as they get older. So age does make a difference. The willingness to speak your own mind is one of the benefits of getting older.
There are other benefits too, particularly because dissent helps in achieving a more democratic society. He writes: “While dissenters tend to be seen as selfish individualists, dissent is actually an important means of correcting the natural human tendency toward conformity and has enormous social benefits in reducing extremism, encouraging critical thinking, and protecting freedom itself.”
So among the benefits of aging is the ability to speak one’s mind which helps to ensure a more democratic society. What we are learning, therefore, is that it doesn’t always pay to conform.
 W, Metzger. AAUP Bulletin Vol. 46, No. 4, Dec. 1960, pp. 357-360, DOI: 10.2307/40222768 https://www.jstor.org/stable/40222768
 M. Pasupathi, Psychology and Aging, Vol 14, No 4, 1999, pp 170, DOI: 10.1037/0882-79188.8.131.52
 Sunstein, C, NY University Press, May 2019