Anti-conformity Research Led to Freud's Best Sarcastic One-Liner

There are plenty of tests that study conformity, but measuring anti-conformity is a tougher proposition. How do you measure something that is only evident after you make your influence felt? Researching this led to some interesting experiments, and the best line ever delivered by Sigmund Freud.

Conformity experiments have revealed some horrible truths about human nature. Anti-conformity experiments have just revealed, for the most part, only the annoying truths. Then again, anti-conformity is tough to measure. Not only has a person got to go against the grain of the group, it has to be shown that their only reason for doing so is to keep themselves from fitting in. How do you set up an experiment to prove that?


Michael Argyle, a psychologist, attempted the first experiment meant to measure anti-conformity in 1957. He had volunteers come in, and pair up, in order to engage in a little art critique. Unbeknownst to one half of each pair, their partner was actually Argyle's assistant. The assistant was there to reject the participant's view of the painting they were evaluating - which, by the way, was The Poet Reclining, by Marc Chagall. (If anyone is wondering about my opinion, I am not a fan, although I like the colors in the sky, and the piggy. Have at me, anti-conformists!)

Whatever view the participant expressed of the painting, Argyle's stooge rejected it. The participant was then given another chance to evaluate the painting. Fifty-eight percent of the participants didn't change their ideas. Around thirty-five percent adjusted their opinions towards those of their partners. Eight percent went the other way. They exaggerated the differences between their opinions and the opinions of their supposed partner. Argyle dubbed these people anti-conformists.


Later scientists weren't so sure. Two psychologists, Richard Willis and Richard Crutchfield, thought that conformity research should be less a continuum and more a kind of triangular space. They proposed that anti-conformists and conformists worked using the same principle - letting the behavior of the group influence their own behavior. Behavior should be judged not as a spectrum between conformity and anti-conformity, but by comparing conformity, anti-conformity, and independence. Willis and Crutchfield also argued that merely measuring how much an individual changes their behavior to fit in with a group isn't always a good representation of how conformist they are. Willis in particular singled out what he called "overconformity" as an example of anti-conformity, and gave the best possible anecdote to illustrate his point.


Sigmund Freud, the prominent Jewish psychiatrist, lived in Austria when the Nazis annexed it. Freud's extreme fame made him somewhat complacent. He believed that he would be able to stay in the country without repercussions. When his daughter Anna was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, and his home was searched, he changed his opinions. Wanting to leave while he still could, he got permission to emigrate to England with his family. There was a catch. Before he could go, he had to sign a statement that neither he nor his family felt any pressure or threat by Nazi authorities. Freud may have had some weird ideas about sex, but he was no fool. He knew he had to sign, and he gamely offered to go the Nazi authorities one better. After he signed, he offered to helpfully write, as a postscript, "I can recommend the Gestapo to anyone."

His kind offer was rejected.

[Via Two Dimensions of Conformity-Nonconformity, Encyclopedia of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.]


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