top of page

Conformity Killing Creativity

Conformity Killing Creativity

“For non-conformity, the world whips you with its displeasure” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The definition of a non-conformist is a person who refuses to adhere to established social orders or to fulfill the expectations placed on him by custom or society. In accordance with Merton (2000), school conformity can be defined as adaptation to cultural objectives and the institutionalised means to achieve these objectives.

In the 1950s Asch’s conformity experiment looked at the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.

Having a ‘maverick’ personality, I have the propensity to push against the grain, challenge illogical reasoning and, or just be contrary. I am perhaps sometimes seen as difficult and unruly for challenging where others would argue “just go with it”. I have and still do struggle to conform to social pressures and find I push against majority groups, only to avoid social constraints and feeling like herded cattle. With this perspective and being lucky enough to have the confidence and self-efficacy to stick to my beliefs, I would certainly be part of the 25% of participants who 'never conformed' in Asch’s experiment.

It should be noted, that being a non-conformist does not mean being a rule-breaking, disobedient anarchist, however those authoritarian ‘leaders’ who worry about losing control of their authority may disagree. Student nonconformity is defined as a student’s deviation from school norms. The focus is not on the non-conforming students, but rather on student’s acts of nonconformity that represent partial non-adaptation, mainly to norms or the teacher who represents those norms. Student nonconformity is understood as a specific social practice.” Lojdova (2016).

Non-conformists can reject things, just out of a desire to be ‘different’, but will still conform in their life, like that of a typical conformist. For me personally, I lean against things that go viral or are popularised by society just to be different. I have never watched a single episode of Squid Game, one of the highest streamed series on Netflix. I have never owned an Apple device purely to boycott its commercial strategies and their ongoing new product development in order to maximise on its customers’ conformity to have the latest release. In these instances, I don’t conform or buckle to curiosity and social pressures. I will always look for an alternative route rather than sit ideally in a long stream of traffic, which may involve an illegal turn in order to be relieved from the social constraint. At school, I challenged authority, not as a rebel, but in order to question decisions and thought processes or challenge injustice where authority was being misused, landing me in a number of lunch time detentions. I was never excluded from school. Mainly due to understanding boundaries and adopting socially accepted reasoning as I understood their utility. So even as a non-conformist, I was still able to conform to majority of the school rules and expectations.

In schools, there is an expectation to conform to its culture, its policies and procedures to create order. Order being “a state in which everything is in its correct or appropriate place”. To be clear, policies and guidelines are important to create clarity and expectations, and these create safety, especially for those with SEMH difficulties and/or for neurodiverse pupils. However, this can also restrain and refrain children and young people from exploring themselves, their personality, their individualism as well as their creativity as they are less likely to be in the “correct or appropriate place” if these were to occur. In terms of defining social norms, a minority controls a majority, which applies in school as well as in society (Schostak, 2012). Social control creates a complex of the controlling and the controlled, including those who enter into resistance, which can be viewed as part of the power relations (Lojdová, 2015). From this perspective, there can also be two competing ideologies at school (Pace & Hemmings, 2006): individual freedom (the purpose of school for children) and group cohesion (the purpose of school for society). These competing ideologies open up the question of whether school conformity is more useful to a student or the entire society.

In a study, Corsaro (2015) found that nursery school children attempt to avoid adult rules through ‘secondary adjustments’, which enable children to gain a certain amount of control over their lives in these settings. Children produced a wide variety of secondary adjustments in response to school rules. In the study, “teachers ignored minor transgressions because the nature of the secondary adjustment often eliminates the organisational need to enforce the rule”. For example, if children always played with forbidden personal objects in a surreptitious fashion, there would be no conflict and hence no need for the rule forbidding the objects. Whilst many would overlook minor levels of non-conformity as it is likely to cause more issues to challenge (picking your battles), there are settings where zero tolerance approaches are enforced, where staff themselves are expected to conform by instilling the school rules and expectations regardless of the severity or inconvenience to the daily operations.

With modern technology and social media, conformity is no longer primary enforced by single communities, but rather through online networks, people from all over the world can ostracise, shame and ridicule those who fail to hold beliefs or display behaviours that are not considered socially acceptable. This is even more implicated for an adolescent brain processing social and emotional information and are more susceptible to victimisation for being different.

Key regions of the brain network which comprise of the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex (Nelson et al.2005) have been implicated in many aspects of social processing most relevant to this section being social judgments (appraisal of others, Ochsner, et al., 2002; judging attractiveness, Aharon, et al., 2001; social reasoning (Rilling et al., 2002), and many other aspects of social processing.

A study of adolescents engaged in a task in which peer acceptance and rejection were observed (Nelson et al., 2007) revealed greater activation when subjects were exposed to peer acceptance, relative to rejection, within brain regions implicated in reward importance. These same regions have been implicated in many studies of reward-related affect (cf., Berridge, 2003; Ikemoto & Wise, 2004; Waraczynski, 2006), and findings suggest that, at least in adolescence, social acceptance by peers may be processed in ways similar to other sorts of rewards, including non-social rewards. An overlap between the neural circuits that mediate social information processing and reward processing helps to explain why so much adolescent risk-taking occurs in the context of the peer group.

Adolescents are therefore naturally 'wired' to seek acceptance from their peers and therefore conform to their own ‘social norms’ developing ‘group nonconformity’ and less likely to be conformists to those in authority, hence why we see more challenging behaviours within adolescents within the school environment, at home or within the community. “Some social norms or rules will be accepted while others will be questioned, doubted, or even rejected by students (Thornberg, 2008). However, this level of non-conformity is challenged as disobedience and results in operant conditioning punishment. Foucault (1975) discusses a series of procedures used at school as a punishment: mild deprivation, slight humiliation, and light corporal punishment. Such penalties relate to such areas as time (delays, absences), activities (inattention, recklessness), and behaviour (incivility, disobedience). Foucault’s perspective draws attention to generally rigid conformist behaviour at school and resonates with the traditional concept of school. Student nonconformity thus results from the interaction between the institution of school and the developmental period of childhood or adolescence. As many authors (Manke, 2008; Pace & Hemmings, 2006; Winograd, 2005) have noted, this is natural because teachers and students are in a natural conflict. School attendance is mandatory, the status of teachers and students is unequal, and their culture and objectives often differ.

After Asch’s experiment, those who were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being “ridiculed” or thought "peculiar”.

However, it is those non-conformists and those in society that look to push against ‘social norms’ who bring new ideas, innovations and ways of living which society benefit from.

Without non-conformists, civilisation would not evolve, by offering different perspectives and challenging or questioning authority and laws. Non-conformists, create new fashion trends, broaden our artistic minds, design innovative constructions that defy the laws of physics, send man into space, create new technologies (regardless of my boycott of Apple), develop new medicines and are environmental activists. All not conforming to social norms regardless of the likelihood of being ridiculed or having their ideology rejected.

  • On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks rejected bus driver James F. Blake's order to vacate a row of four seats in the "coloured" section in favour of a White passenger, once the "White" section was filled. Parks's act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott became important symbols of the movement and she became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation.

  • When Marie Curie, née Skłodowska, was a girl in Poland, she excelled at scientific studies, but was prevented from attending a traditional university by the restrictive, sexist educational policies of the occupying Russian Empire. Rather than accept her fate, however, she enrolled in an illegal underground institution: Warsaw’s Flying University. The informal college was operated in secret, with ever-changing locations to avoid detection. Here, Curie was able to continue the foundations of her education.

  • Galileo Galilei was forced to disavow his views on the nature of the universe as his views contradicted that of the church. He died under house arrest nine years later.

  • The Suffragette Movement and their campaign became increasingly militant, over a thousand Suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, received prison sentences for their actions.

Civilisation and societal expectations continue to change year on year. Whilst there continues to be significant issues, without non-conformists and those continually challenging societies “norms” more people would be victim of racism, sexism, homophobia, Xenophobia, ageism or any other forms of discrimination or prejudice.

Homosexuality remained illegal until 1967 in England and Wales and 1980 in Scotland. Although only half a century ago, the majority of modern day society now looks back and cannot contemplate the same degree of persecution towards a basic human right.

I am a non-conformist with the current education system as I don’t conform to other people's ideas of how things should be. Not all non-conformists are right, just as much as not all conformists are right either. However there needs to be a healthy acceptance that difference is positive and can bring so much societal and system change.

Yet we still see Bohemianism as unusual and negatively different to social norms. Bohemianism is simply the practice of an unconventional lifestyle. This lifestyle creates musical, artistic, literary, or spiritual pursuits. In this context, bohemians may be considered as wanderers, adventurers, unsettled or drifter. Something that many schools may see as a negative when it comes to lacking focus. Is it that, just like Bohemianism they have no interest in the topic and that it doesn’t relate to their personal interest and purpose and that their energy would be better suited to something that nurturers and favours their own pursuits?

“What is one’s true talent, his secret gift, his authentic vocation? In what way is one truly unique, and how can he express this uniqueness, give it form, dedicate it to something beyond himself?” Ernest Becker.

Let’s therefore create an education system that allows “non-conformists” to be seen as visionary, creative and inventive rather than destructive, disobedient, troublesome or a disturbance of order. Non-conformists are arguably feared by conformists, in that a “unique individual plant seeds of doubt into the minds of the conformists regarding the significance of their social roles, and thus the significance of their very existence”. Therefore, society tend to discourage the cultivation of one’s uniqueness and such with education can pressure them back into conformity, creating a lack of belonging and acceptance within the child or young person. Whilst individual schools and their culture promote an all-inclusive environment and seek to see the unique values in each one of their children, the current education system is set towards conformity which ultimately creates a culture where children and young people are looking at others to understand how to behave and what to believe. Therefore, conformity creates a sense of meeting the desires of others, rather than the desires of oneself.

“such a person…does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too risky to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, a part of the crowd” Soren Kierkegaard

Whilst education and its approaches have changed somewhat over the years, much of Foucault's observations from the 1970s remain in today's education system. A great deal of similar views towards “dysfunction” and old-fashioned behaviourist approaches continue. Consider what further successes or influence those individuals would have had on the world if there perceived non-conformist attitudes were nurtured and explored and were viewed as simply unorthodox or an independent-minded person. We therefore owe it to current children and young people and future generations to offer them an education system that doesn’t hinder their ideas, abilities, beliefs and talents, just because it appears different and doesn’t necessary conform with the idealistic (conformist) pupil.

Richard Bell


  • Katerina Lojdova (2016) Student Nonconformity at School. Studia paedagogica vol. 21, n. 4,

  • Steinberg L. (2008). A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking. Developmental review

  • The Pyschology of Confirmity (2017) Academy of Ideas

  • Joe Mander (2020) A History of Mental Asylums

1,541 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page