Conformity is powerful and lethal

On Tuesday night in the UK, the BBC broadcast on their Panorama programme, an undercover investigation into how patients are treated at a privately run institution. The patients mostly had some sort of learning disability that meant they could not be cared for by their parents or carers at their own home. The centre they were placed in was meant to be better for them. Sadly, this home that was being investigated was far from being a secure, safe, developmentally rich environment. Sadly, patients were subject to regular and violent abuse, physically and mentally. I do not know one person who watched the programme and did not feel absolute sadness of the way these people were treated, and absolute hatred and anger to the abusers.

Thankfully, since the broadcast, the police were informed, and arrests have been made. I pray that justice prevails in this awful display of human caring.

My post today, though, is about why did the others not intervene? Why did those who were not part of the abuse, let it happen. The senior charge nurses, the other professional carers, the ones whose responsibility it is to first and foremost look after these vulnerable members of society? How can you just idly stand by and do nothing? HOW?

Psychological research has shown some fascinating insights into conformity. It’s a much debated topic, and has been studied for decades. I won’t go into the studies themselves, but the results themselves can bring some insight into human behaviour. I’ll raise questions which I think pertinent to the programme and the answers will hopefully be useful. Those of you who have read ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell will be familiar with some of the below.


Why did no-one step in and say – This is wrong?

Sounds easy, right? You see something wrong happening, and you believe you have the courage to stand against a group opinion and say it’s wrong, or you don’t agree, or you don’t want it to happen. Far from it. Research has shown that if you are with a group of people, and they consistently give one message, you will conform. Even if you think differently, even if you may initially resist and voice something, you will conform. Remember that time your friends wanted to do something you didn’t, but you went along so as not to rock the boat? That was you conforming.


Why did it take so long for someone to do something about it?

Group mentality is hard to break. What’s harder is knowing who to talk to about that group mentality. We all have friends/acquaintances/people we know who stretch beyond your immediate circles. (*fictional situation*) I sit in a team of people who actively take drugs during work hours. They trust that I won’t say anything because they don’t want to lose their jobs as they have families and financial commitments they need to support and honour. But it’s wrong. For their health, for the organisation they work for, for their families. So who do I tell? Their loved ones? A senior manager? A whistleblowing company?

We are all racked with these responsibilities of honouring the relationships of those around us. We don’t want to rock the boat, it makes this uncomfortable, and even downright difficult. That’s why it takes so long. Because we’re all human, and we don’t want to see another human fail.


Surely the people doing it knew they were acting terribly?

Interesting. One case study I will make mention of is the Stanford prison experiment. Zimbardo – a psychologist (bloody psychologists always fucking with our minds) – wanted to understand what happens when you put a group of people into a particular social context. He took a fake prison environment and gave one group the role of prisoners and the other group the role of guards. Within hours of the experiment starting, both groups had fully taken on what they thought their roles should be. Within days the experiment had to stop because it was too much to bear.

It takes no time at all for someone to see an opportunity to act in a certain way and decide this will be their modus operandi. The difficulty is getting them to realise it soon enough that it stops. You know that saying “treat others as you would like to be treated”? Load of bollocks. If people choose to treat others badly in this way, does that mean they want to be treated like this too? No. People lack self-awareness, and because of this they don’t know how they want to be treated, they just think they know.


So, who should have stepped in?

Excellent question. The senior nurse who chose to act, went to his next line of attack. No response, so he went to the next senior level. No response, so he went to the regulator. No response, so he went to the media. It should have been dealt with at stage one. But why wasn’t it?

Even outside of immediate circles, we are faced with people having to conform to other pressures. In this case organisational. Who wants to deal with a report of wrong doing in their department or under their control? The investigations, the paperwork, the cost to the business, the pressure to get it over with quickly, the need for answers, the time it takes to do all this. It’s too much. That’s why.

Also, there’s an element of being complicit. Do you know these things are happening but haven’t raised it yourself? You’re therefore just as culpable as those actually giving the abuse. And you have a good name to protect, you don’t need it being sullied.


I think I’ll stop there. There’s more that can be said about conformity. For a very informative overview of the topic of conformity, watch this excellent video made by TheraminTrees on the topic.



Also, you should read the following posts from Gareth Jones on internal super-injunctions’ and from Rob Jones on ‘the one where it’s about courage’. Both raise very important topics that correlate very highly with today’s post.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

6 thoughts on “Conformity is powerful and lethal”

  1. Powerful stuff indeed. I didn’t see the programme so won’t comment directly on that. It is interesting and worrying to observe how often people choose not to call others bad or unproductive behaviour. I saw it a lot as an employee and regularly got in trouble, and promoted, and hauled in front of the CEO, and loved by colleagues and customers for going against the flow. Now, I run a business which succeeds partly because of calling it when I see it. It works for me and it should work for others. And before you think I’m getting all righteous on you, I get it wrong very often too.

    At the bottom of this lie two rather sad workplace facts (well I think they’re facts so they are now…). People go to work with two things in mind:
    #1 I need to keep this job
    so therefore
    #2 I will keep my head down and stay out of trouble

    1. Thanks for commenting Doug, always good to have your point of view. I’m glad you’ve had the courage to be able to do this in the various roles you’ve had. I’d like to say I’ve been able to do it too, but I don’t think I can stand up to scrutiny of truly doing it. You’re right about your two sad workplace facts though.

  2. I would suggest that the low level of employee and poor pay nature of the care industry adds a lot to the equation (although I did not watch the programme in question).

    As you can no doubt attest, I am not shy and I would have no problem whistle blowing. That said, in your example you mention the following reasoning:

    For their health
    For the organisation they work for
    For their families.

    I would not consider these at all – these are areas which are their own concern and not mine. Certainly there are laws about taking drugs in the work place, but it is not my place to enforce laws. I would only intervene if:

    Someone who could not avoid the situation was being affected (a more junior employee being bullied, for example) or if I felt that this was preventing the job security of others (their work was of so low a standard that it was jeopardising jobs). In both these examples, however, it is a separate element which I would be reporting (the bullying or the poor performance).

    I have worked with a habitual drug taker (not in my current or previous jobs, I should stress) who performed well and was amiable – I accept that I *could* have legitimately reported her, but for myself (and this is subjective) the destruction she was doing to her own body was not my affair and it would have been the height of poor form to have interfered.

    This, of course, does not translate to the systematic abuse of mentally ill patients, but for the most part I believe it is worth remembering that professionalism is about getting the job done, not about fitting in with the perceptions of others. Dreadlocks and no shoes but hitting deadlines always trumps a suit and idleness.

  3. Great observations Sukh. I didnt see the program but i did see the reports afterwards. And i have seen similar programs in the past. They disgust me. I wrote a blog post about this dynamic in organisations:

    It touches on similar issues inside an organisation and how maybe, just maybe, social habits might change things. Its a horrible aspect of our society, but a real one nonetheless.

    Thanks for sharing, great viewpoint.

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