Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 07, 2019

Conformity is Sometimes an Effort to Escape Meaninglessness

by Andrew Moynihan
Photo of Several identical women dressed the same

How often have you felt that you had no choice but to go along with what other people thought? Did you ever agree with a group just because you felt unable to question its members? Or did you want to avoid being put in the spotlight as the black sheep of the group?

Many psychologists have investigated the reasons that people conform to group pressure. In some cases, conformity increases when people believe that they have no free will. The consequences of not believing in free will aren’t pretty. Early research showed that challenging people’s beliefs in free will made them more likely to cheat on a test or add greater quantities of hot salsa to tortillas when preparing snacks for someone who had recently rejected them from a group. Other consequences of challenging beliefs in free will included increased racism and lower pro-social attitudes.

These findings suggest that when people do not think that they have free will, they may feel less in control of their actions, take less responsibility for their actions, and become less willing to think for themselves. In contrast, believing in free will makes people reflect more on their decisions. For instance, if something increased your belief in free will, you may place more trust in your ability to make choices based on your own thoughts and values. As a result, you may also become more resistant to pressure from others.

Recently, my colleagues and I found that believing in free will can also promote a sense of meaning in life. Much like beliefs in free will, however, people’s beliefs in meaningfulness can also be challenged. Indeed, many everyday experiences threaten people’s sense of meaning in life. Such threats include social exclusion, people’s awareness of their eventual death, and even boredom. People cope with these kinds of existential threats in many ways.

In the early 2000’s, Arnaud Wisman and Sander Koole wanted to see if reminding people of their mortality would lead people to ‘hide in the crowd’—as a way of coping. In their research, people who had recently been led to think about their mortality were more likely to sit with other people among a clustered set of chairs instead of sitting more comfortably, but alone, on the opposite side of a table from other people.

Wisman later incorporated these and other findings into his ‘existential escape hypothesis.’  According to this idea, people who experience threats to meaning in life, such as threats to free-will beliefs, try to reduce their self-awareness by blending in with groups. By doing so, people reduce their capacity to perceive and think about meaninglessness. As a result, people seem to find something comforting about escaping into a group.

In our recent studies, my colleagues and I investigated the relationship between disbelief in free will and conformity, using predictions from the ‘existential escape hypothesis.’  Earlier research showed that challenging people’s free-will beliefs made them conform more to others’ preferences for surrealist paintings. Participants whose free-will beliefs were threatened were also more likely to create new product names for pasta and painkillers that were highly reminiscent of conventional brands. In other words, threats to our sense of free will can reduce our creativity and our desire to go against group norms.  Expanding on these findings, we investigated whether challenging free-will beliefs made people experience less meaning in life and whether these feelings would lead people to conform more to escape this aversive state.

In our first study, we asked one group of participants to read an essay written by Nobel Prize winning scientist Francis Crick that argued against the existence of free will. Compared with a group of participants who read an essay on consciousness, participants who read the essay arguing against free will experienced not only greater threats to their free-will beliefs, but also to their sense of meaning in life.

In our next study, people who experienced greater meaninglessness in life also reported greater tendencies to conform. In particular, meaninglessness was strongly related to forms of conformity that reduced people’s feelings of self-consciousness, consistent with predictions from the ‘existential escape hypothesis.’

In our final study, we asked participants to complete questionnaires that measured their belief in free will, meaninglessness, conformity, and self-awareness. The tendency to not believe in free will produced greater conformity, especially for people who felt very self-conscious, presumably because people high in self-consciousness were more troubled by threats to their free-will beliefs and feelings of meaninglessness. Unfortunately, our research suggests that conformity may be a common escape from feeling like one’s life lacks meaning.

For Further Reading

Moynihan, A. B., Igou, E. R., & Van Tilburg W. A. P. (2019). Lost in the crowd: Conformity as escape following disbelief in free will. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 509-520. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2499

Wisman, A. (2006). Digging in terror management theory: To ‘use’ or ‘lose’ the symbolic self? Psychological Inquiry, 17, 319-327. doi:10.1080/10478400701369468

Wisman, A., & Koole, S. L. (2003). Hiding in the crowd: Can mortality salience promote affiliation with others who oppose one’s worldviews? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 511-526. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.3.511


Andrew B. Moynihan is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Limerick, Ireland and is the first author of “Lost in the Crowd: Conformity as Escape Following Disbelief in Free Will.”

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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