Conformity does not equal co-operation

2011

If you follow the pack are you more likely to co-operate with others in it? The answer, it seems, is 'no'. Contrary to what you might expect, non-conformists are more likely to be team players while conforming to social norms can actually make people less likely to co-operate.

That's according to new research by psychologist Dr Piers Fleming and economist Prof Daniel Zizzo, of the Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social Science at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

Their study, published in the August issue of the journal "Personality and Individual Differences", shows that people who do not conform are most likely to work together for the greater good.

In an experiment, the researchers first measured participants' conformity levels and then let them play a game where they could choose whether to contribute financially to the public good. The twist was that although co-operation was mutually beneficial, being unco-operative could produce greater personal gains because of other people's generosity.

They expected to find that those who conformed to 'social norms' were more likely to co-operate with others. But contrary to their predictions, conformity did not appear to lead to co-operation.

"Social desirability has an impact on behaviour in that it doesn't actually lead to people co-operating more," said Dr Fleming.

The findings could have an impact on how we view co-operation at work, he added.

"Here we've got a measure of people's co-operation, which could apply to any situation where you've two or more people who are trying to co-operate in an activity. For example in a work setting, if you are part of a team working on a project you expect everyone to put the same effort in to the task.

"The expectation is that people who are high in social desirability will conform to the effort other people are putting into the task, but actually the conforming people may be less helpful because they take their cue from the less helpful members of the team. They are conforming to the person who is not necessarily working that hard.

"If someone is less conformist they may take a lead and put in more effort, so then others may be prepared to put in more effort themselves, and the individuals and the team benefit. Conformity can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you are conforming to."