Weirdo for a Day: adventures in non-conformity

(photo: vecteezy)

After the scale of the Nazi atrocities of World War II became known, a keen focus of experimental psychology in the West was this question: Are we all just sheep? How could so many people blindly follow orders, when their very souls must have been screaming objections?

The psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who would devote much of his career to investigating conformity, dipped his own oar in in 1971 with his famous Stanford Prison Experiment.

In it, student volunteers were randomly assigned the roles of jailers or prisoners. The experiment quickly got out of hand—and had to be shut down—when the jailers showed rather too much commitment, abused their fictional authority and cruelly suppressed the powerless inmates.

Zimbardo, like Stanley Milgram before him, seemed to have revealed a kind of evil lurking in the hearts of humans. But Zimbardo became convinced these experiments told only one side of the Story of Us, and he pivoted toward coaxing out our better angels. To strengthen our conformity-busting muscle, he hatched an experiment called “Deviant for a Day.”

Your mission, he explained to his Stanford psychology students who signed up, is to fly your freak flag. Today you’re going to do something that makes you stand out in a strange way. Maybe you wear pink bunny slippers around campus. Or maybe you draw a square on your forehead. “‘What happens is, very quickly you find that people are putting pressure on you to get rid of it,” Zimbardo later explained. “You know you’re not different in any way—it’s just a little mark on your face. But it soon becomes very difficult to resist the temptation to wipe it off.”

Hanging in there, feeling the subtle but relentless pressure to be like everybody else and resisting, is a surpringly stiff test of will. If you can last the whole day, “then suddenly you realize you have this inner power to be your own person.”

(A footnote: devising the “Deviant for a Day” experiment seemed to unlock something in Zimbardo, and emboldened him to confront a bigger looming fear of his own. The psychologist sensed a midlife crisis coming. To get out in front of it, he decided to start experiencing it immediately, in very small instalments. “I resolved to have a “little midlife crisis” each day of my life … in the hope of avoiding a larger one once I reached forty.”)

Over on the East Coast, the psychologist Albert Ellis had been prescribing his own version of “Deviant for a Day” for years. Ellis, father of Rational Emotive Therapy, called these “shame-attacking exercises.” He coached his clients to deliberately draw embarrassing attention to themselves—say, by shouting out the time in a crowded department store—to condition themselves to tolerate the social discomfort.

Of course, both these fellows had been scooped by the Stoics. Those ancient Greek philosophers flew their freak flag 2,000 years ago, for the same reasons. Seneca used to pick a day to wear a ridiculously unfashionable tunic, and walk through the crowded marketplace in it. When folks tittered at his bad taste, he let the judgment roll off him. Eventually he kind of didn’t hear the jeers; he’d developed an immunity to other people’s stupid opinions. The Cynic philosopher Crates likewise got into the act. He coached his pupil Zeno to walk around in public with a pot full of lentil soup — which apparently was an embarrassing thing to do back then. Self-conscious Zeno tried to keep the pot hidden. When it was spotted, he took off, mortified. (“Why run away, my little Phoenician?” Crates called out after him. “Nothing terrible has befallen you!”)

Again, the idea here was to feel the eyes of the tribe on you and … hold your ground. Why care what they think? You know who you are. Don’t let them shame you. Especially for something that isn’t actually shameful. You were, and remain, made of stronger stuff.

And anyway, people aren’t judging you as harshly as you think. The social science bears this out. Turns out our galloping insecurities distort the truth about how we’re coming across to others. There’s a big disconnect between what we think they’re thinking of us and what they actually are. Psychologist Erica Boothby dubbed this “the liking gap.”

“People are much kinder than you imagine,” echoed the Canadian Jason Comely, inventor of “rejection therapy,” which he turned into a popular card game. The rules are simple: you pick a mission card and go out there and slay that particular dragon — whether it’s asking a stranger for a ride across town or requesting a discount before you buy something. Just actively violating some small social rule proves how silly the rule is—and how courageous you are, little Phoenician. “You’re going to feel great after,” said Comely. “You’ll be like, Wow, I disobeyed fear!”

The endgame of all of this is simply living, free and clear.

“If you want a good life, then you need to be (relatively) unconcerned with other people’s opinions for two reasons,” said the SUNY philosopher Sebastian Purcell, who has found a niche applying ancient wisdom for modern life. “First, you will otherwise end up living the life they think you should have, not yours. Second, you will otherwise end up playing a game — the recognition game — that you cannot win.” In the social-media age, when people routinely fang it out online, protected by anonymity, we’re losing the muscle to face others’ disapproval in real life. And for proudly displaying who we believe ourselves to be.

Not long ago I was reflecting with an old friend about why our high-school experience sucked so badly. We decided it was because we never really stuck our necks out. What holds most teenagers back, I believe, are two things: shyness, and trying to be cool. Those are the Two Horsemen of the Social Apocalypse. In adolescence, they overpower us. In adulthood, we may start getting the upper hand. When we’re old(er) we crush the horsemen because we no longer give a damn — it’s too late to be cool and it’s pointless to be shy. Shyness comes from self-consciousness, which comes from keeping up appearances. And that’s a false god we toppled long ago.

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