had a classmate in high school who was quite popular, a good student
and a star athlete. He seemed destined for success. And indeed he went on to receive scholarships and later
became an FBI agent.
The newspapers from my hometown reported that while on duty, he had
carjacked someone at gunpoint. This activity got back to his
supervisor, who ordered him to come see him in his office at once. But
instead of going back to the office, my classmate shot himself to death.
I thought that he obviously felt embarrassed about what he had done but
could not understand why he would not see his boss, even though it would
likely mean losing his job. What would cause him to take his own life,
which was surely more important?
I wondered if he ever had faced a difficult situation or whether he had
ever done something unpopular or even said anything that the majority
did not agree with. I could easily recall others I knew in high school
facing dilemmas. But not him. He always seemed to be with the "in"
crowd. His lack of experience with looking or feeling different may have
contributed to his suicide.
I learned of another interesting situation about decisions from my uncle,
Steven Hartwell, a University of San Diego law school
professor. He brought in a guest to
explain an assignment about a client with a legal document in a
hypothetical tenant/landlord dispute. The guest went on to say
that the only way for them to win the case would be to lie on the
This is the kind of action that gets attorneys disbarred!
And yet twenty-three of his twenty-four students gave this advice!
People face pressure to win and the pressure intensifies when an
authority figure (like a client) pushes for a certain result that
contradicts established ethical standards.
went to hear Oliver Stone speak recently. He talked about problems
journalists face when they ask questions about the assassination of John
Kennedy. Those who ask, according to Stone, typically find that their
sources "dry up" quickly and they have nowhere to go for information.
People make decisions, sometimes good and sometimes not so good.
Typically, a person must decide between two choices, each of which
represents a different value. Those who value popularity spend less time
evaluating the substance of the decisions they make and lose sight of
what their values are. Those who go against the grain do so at their own peril.
Why do some conform and others do not?
Conformity probably begins at an early age. It is difficult for many of
us to be alone for too long. We need friends, companions and others to
be around us. As a child moves up through the school ranks, they see
that their opinions do matter in terms of landing friends.
A child might hear a question: "Do you like to play football?" and begin
to understand that the question is really a way that the questioner
divides those whom they know. Other questions can make it clear who is
"cool" (i.e. friendly or likable) and who is not: "Do you party?" or
"Did you study for that exam?"
By the time they become adults, those who answer too many of these
questions with the minority find themselves on the "outs" of their
community. And the questions get more tricky.
"What do you think of people who put up signs for same-sex marriage?"
(or people "who support flag-burning" or people "who oppose the death
penalty") or any other topic in an area in which the topic is not
popular. We may say that questions like these are not appropriate at
places such as the work site, but we also know that people ask them and
we know that silence or "No comment" can and will be used against the
person responding in such a manner.
Those who ask such questions communicate what they expect of others.
Those who answer with the crowd likely gain more friends or
acquaintances. But they may also lose their sense of who they are and what
How does the issue of conformity apply to our nation?
Many people are looking for someone or some group to
validate their opinions. The Tea Party, for example, has become a symbol for those
who say they are frustrated with our government. As I have noted
before, the Tea Party focuses much of its "platform" against taxes and
government spending. Many of those who claim to be with the Party also
vent their anger against illegal immigration as well.