So, Your Child’s a Conformist. Here’s Why That’s Okay.

You can measure it at home, if scarring your entire family doesn’t bother you.

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We want our children to be brave. To never fear speaking out when injustice strikes; to go against the grain and swim upriver — especially when the masses are being, well, asses. Unfortunately, most of us are spineless conformists, and our kids are too. We’d be lucky to raise children who don’t buckle to peer pressure and stay away from drugs, alcohol, and other risky behaviors.

Scientists have taken great pains to measure how likely individuals are to follow the crowd even when the crowd is dead wrong, and their experiments are predictably hilarious. If you want to test whether your child is a conformist or marches to the beat of his own drum, perhaps try staging a replica of psychologist Solomon Asch’s 1956 experiment in your living room. Here’s how.

How To Measure Conformity In Your Kids

When Asch first attempted to measure conformity, he invited college students to his lab and asked them to look at four lines drawn on a sheet of paper. When he asked them to identify which two lines were the same length as one another, he couldn’t have run a more straightforward experiment. Two of the lines were clearly the same length; the other two were preposterously different. The students all made the right call. Until, that is, he put several students in a room together. Asch had deviously coached some of the students to vigorously defend the wrong answer. Seventy-five percent of the time, the students were swayed by their obviously wrong confederates. We kid you not.

Replicating the trial at home is simple enough. Draw up your own version of Asch’s line test, and then ask your spouse and some friends to loudly defend a clearly wrong answer. Then ask your child to weigh in. If the line test is too old-fashioned for your sensibilities, try the experiment with that viral dress photo from 2015. If Asch is right, odds are you’ll trick your kid almost every time.

My Kid Fell For It. Is All Lost?

Probably not. There’s a method to mob mentality. Social psychologists sort conformity into two categories: informational influence and normative influence. Informational influence is the good kind of peer pressure. It’s when you follow the crowd because it is reasonable to assume that the crowd knows something that you don’t. As the immortal xkcd comic put it: “Which scenario is more likely? Every single person I know, many of them levelheaded and afraid of heights, abruptly went crazy at the exact same time … or the bridge is on fire?” Normative influence is far more insidious and includes the most dangerous types of peer pressure. Since societies are built on group cohesion, we’re wired to reward those who stick to the party line and shun those who buck the system.

The conformity that comes from informational influence is almost always a good thing. You want your children to second-guess themselves when there’s a good chance that others have more information than they do. It’s how they’ll learn and challenge their preconceived notions. In truth, Asch’s test mainly detects this healthy type of conformity — one’s willingness to admit that one is wrong because it seems reasonable that other, wiser people have proprietary information.

But if you suspect that your child is particularly susceptible to normative influence, that represents a more serious problem. This type of conformity is the hive mentality that causes kids to cave to peer pressure and normalize their worst behaviors, just because everyone else is poorly behaved. 

How Do I Protect My Kids From The Bad Kind Of Conformity?   

First of all, educate your children that attempts to influence them are everywhere. Teach them to recognize that commercials and the media are constantly trying to sell them on things that aren’t necessarily good for them. This will help them learn to be savvy about just saying no.

Once children have learned to identify peer pressure, it can help to use roleplaying to teach them creative ways of saying no without losing face.

“It’s much easier to resist influence if you’ve thought about your strategy beforehand,” suggests Brett Laursen, a psychologist at Florida Atlantic University. “It’s a teen going to a party and there’s going to be somebody drinking there…what are your strategies for if the person who was driving decides to drink? What are your strategies for not getting in the car? What is your strategy for finding a way home that won’t involve driving with somebody who has been drinking?” The key is recognizing that influences are out there, and arming your children with the tools necessary to make smart, independent decisions … even when the entire world says the dress is white and gold.

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