Conformity to Agency
In my September Principals Perspective, I referred to a recently published book, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, written by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. In her book, Blakemore presents brain-based evidence that adolescents are often concerned with how others, especially their peers, view them. Concern with how their peers view them can lead to conformity behaviors, and those behaviors can contribute to who they are and who they are becoming. Writing in September, I suggested that repeated acts of empathy may be a valuable step in helping a teenager to gradually gain the self-assuredness needed to combat conformity. To explain, I quoted the writing of David Brooks in The Road to Character. In his words, “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself.” It may be that the “strength within yourself,” I suggested, comes from a change in brain circuitry that results from repeated instances of true focus on others.
Sharing that evidence and reasoning, I was thinking of conformity to social pressures. The subject matter of social pressures can range from preferences for a certain musical group or type of pizza, to teasing or taunting another adolescent, to engaging in unsafe driving or the use of alcohol or drugs. In other words, while conformity around social issues may be relatively harmless, there is potential for it to have deleterious and/or overtly dangerous results.
Conformity also comes into play with the interpretation of information. This phenomenon was highlighted by Solomon Asch’s program of research conducted in the 1950’s (an overview appeared in Scientific American in November, 1955). At first blush, Asch’s research may seem contrived and far removed from the realities of life for CESJDS high schoolers in 2019, but I believe it provides valuable insight for us. As described by Asch:
A group of seven to nine young men, all college students, are assembled in a classroom for a “psychological experiment” in visual judgment. The experimenter informs them that they will be comparing the lengths of lines. He shows two large white cards. On one is a single vertical black line--the standard whose length is to be matched. On the other card are three vertical lines of various lengths. The subjects are to choose the one that is of the same length as the line on the other card. One of the three actually is of the same length: the other two are substantially different, the difference ranging from three quarters of an inch to an inch and three quarters.
One of the young men in the classroom was a genuine subject, unaware of the true purposes of the experiment. In Asch’s words, “What the dissenter (genuine subject) does not know is that all the other members of the group were instructed by the experimenter beforehand to give incorrect answers in unanimity at certain points. The single individual who is not a party to this prearrangement is the focal subject of our experiment.” There were multiple trials for 123 genuine subjects. Taken together, they “swung to acceptance of the misleading majority’s wrong judgments in 36.8 percent of the selections.”
Those who conformed in the Asch experiments may have done so because they lacked the wherewithal to give a dissenting answer (knowing full well that others were incorrect). That scenario might occur in one or more of our high school classrooms, but my sense is that our students usually speak up if they feel strongly that they have the correct answer or a sound contribution to make (even if it puts them in the position of being a dissenter). More likely applicable for us is that some subjects in the Asch experiments conformed because they sincerely questioned their perceptions (some reported this in post-experiment interviews). Our high school students don’t judge the lengths of lines in their classrooms, but they regularly form opinions, construct logical arguments, and ascertain steps and procedures to successfully solve problems. And in doing so, to the extent that they lack confidence in their abilities, they may be swayed by classmate’s comments and input, even when they are on the right track and their classmates are not. An antidote to this, and a primary goal of education in our high school, is skill development.
The skills we guide our students to develop are various: problem solving skills, research skills, thinking skills, skills in supporting points with evidence, and more. Developing these skills takes time, it often occurs in fits and starts, and is as much, if not more, about process than outcome. The process leads to higher competency and higher competency leads to greater confidence. Then, as some of our high school students already demonstrate, they harness the ability to incorporate the comments and input of others to the extent that it is valuable, and otherwise, politely disregard it. Having earned a sense of agency, others’ presence and comments and input become overwhelmingly additive to the student’s learning process.
That’s a foundation upon which our students can build for years to come. A safeguard against needlessly confirming down the road. A source of strength that creates boundless opportunity.
Previous Principal's Perspectives from Dr. Lindner: