The Q&A: Is Group Conformity Dividing Us? Prof. of Psych Gives His Opinion

professor of psychology
Rhode Island College Impact

RIC Professor of Psychology David Sugarman is known for challenging the thinking of his students. When asked about the political and social divide in our country, he explained the social psychology behind it.

In this Q&A, RIC Professor of Psychology David Sugarman explains the nature of group conformity and compliance and how it plays a part in the divisiveness in American society today.

Sugarman is an expert in social psychology, personality, and psychology and the law. His last publication, “Hate and Violence: Addressing Discrimination Based on Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity” (2018) can be found in the Psychology of Violence Journal.

QUESTION: Dr. Sugarman, please explain the difference between group conformity and group compliance.

SUGARMAN: According to the data, there’s a tendency for people who are alike to come together and for groups to try to maintain a sense of conformity within the group. Group conformity can be defined as doing whatever the group is doing. Group compliance can be defined as doing what you’re told to do by the group’s authority figure. There’s a subtle difference between the two.

QUESTION: In other words, group conformity would be: I march on the Capitol because I’m conforming to what the rest of the group is doing. Group compliance would be: I march on the Capitol because I’m complying with what the president told me to do. Why is there so much hatred and violence displayed amongst differing groups?

SUGARMAN: With violence, there’s a process of depersonalization that occurs along with anonymity. The KKK, for instance, often wear hoods in order to hide themselves. There’s anonymity in war. Killing someone from 1,500 feet in the air by pressing a button and dropping a bomb versus killing someone in front of you offers you anonymity. There’s anonymity in attacking someone on social media. When you’re part of a group, it increases your anonymity and allows you to avoid responsibility.

QUESTION: But why is there such an us-versus-them mentality that seems to come with group conformity?

SUGARMAN: The group feels threatened. There could be an economic threat – you’re taking resources that I can use. A religious threat – I think there’s a God and you say there isn’t. An existential threat – I think a fetus has a soul and you say it doesn’t. It could simply be because you’re different from me. We’ve had an influx of Muslims, Eastern religions and Hispanics in this country. You have the LGBTQ+ community, who are adding to the diversity. All of this serves as a threat to the status quo – the group that is in power – which is white, Christian males.

QUESTION: So, I hate you simply because you’re not like me?

SUGARMAN: Yes. We tend to lump the “out” group into one homogenous stereotype. But when we think about those within our own group – the “in” group – we see a tremendous amount of diversity. For instance, I’m Jewish. I see a lot of diversity within my group. I can make a distinction between reformed Jews, conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews, Hasidic Jews and Jews for Jesus.

But when we talk about someone in the “out” group, there’s a tendency to see them and members of their group as all being the same. You often hear people say that certain groups all look alike. There’s data to support the fact that when someone is looking at someone outside their group, they tend to not see facial features. In their mind, members of that group really do all look alike. The same goes for racial groups, ethnic groups, political parties. Within my political party there’s a tremendous amount of diversity, whereas members of the other political party all look alike, act alike and have the same attitudes. We all stereotype.

QUESTION: Are you saying it’s human nature to stereotype?

SUGARMAN: I’m saying that stereotyping represents fast and effortless thinking. If you see a snake, you’re not going to wait to see if it’s poisonous or not. You’re going to get out of the way. Similarly, if you see someone who isn’t a member of your group, you may instantly choose the safe course and avoid that individual. If the perceived threat increases, the possibility of aggression increases.

QUESTION: Is it possible to stop stereotyping?

SUGARMAN: The problem is we’re not motivated to think more deeply, to think with greater complexity. It would require us to take time, and sometimes our decisions have to be made quickly. For instance, you had to decide quickly if that snake was a danger or not.

QUESTION: If there’s one thing you can suggest to heal the divisions within this country, what would it be?

SUGARMAN: There’s no magic solution. We have to come to see ourselves not as Black or white, American or European, Christian or non-Christian but as humans. We have to see that we’re all in the same mess and that we need to work together.

See the Department of Psychology for information about our program.