All I wanted for Christmas was the corrosion of conformity

I was at a Christmas lunch a few weeks back*, chatting away to temporary lunch neighbours and talk eventually went the way of work.  Turned out two of them really hated their jobs and also struggled with money from month to month.

My Frugal-Zombie senses had already tingled, picking up on Apple watches and earlier talk of how expensive car repayments are (bloody finance companies ripping the public off for money they don’t have…grrrr).

The irony of the situation sailed merrily over their heads as did their Apple Watch adorned hands, signalling another bottle of wine.

Their absurd spending was hiding in plain sight, camouflaged because those around them were engaging in the same mindless excrement of money.  Two new cars per household was the norm to them, anything less would feel like deprivation.   I shuddered to think what they might of done to me, had they found out I got my weekly shopping done on a bike.

Conformity is a powerful thing
In the 1950s a Polish psychologist called Solomon Asch devised an experiment on group conformity, devious in it’s simplicity.

Applicants were provided with a piece of card that had three lines of differing length drawn on it and asked to say which of these matched another line drawn on a separate piece of card.  The experiment was conducted in groups, with groups of varying size.

In a sneaky twist, Solomon Asch made each applicant unknowingly perform the experiment with groups of actors, rather than other participants.

The experiment was designed so the answer was painfully obvious and the success rate was expected to be nearly 100%, as it was with control groups.

The test was designed to be easy, like to picture above.  Obviously the answer is 1.  Or am I just an actor?

In yet another dastardly twist Solomon told the actors purposefully all give the same incorrect answer.  Despite this being obviously wrong, in many of the groups the applicant then gave the same answer as the actors.

By having a group of actors publicly giving the same wrong answer, pressure was placed on the poor applicant, who in a surprising amount of cases knowingly gave the wrong answer in order to conform to the group.  Pretty amazing. Even though candidates knew the answer the group was giving was incorrect, they would still change their answer to be the same.

Around one third of all answers given by the applicants were wrong, but matched with the groups consensus.   And 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer out of their 12 critical trials, i.e. those where the actors purposely chose the wrong answer.

It’s like being asked “What is one plus one?“.  Followed by seven people saying “Three“.  Then looking around sheepishly before looking at your feet and saying “Yeah.  Three“.

Or a salesman offering you a brand new car, one you don’t have the money to buy, and providing a mechanism to buy the car that makes it cost even more.  You might think “Wait a second, I’m not sure I even need a brand new 7 litre truck”  Then you look around see plenty of smiling nodding faces, high fives and other punters signing on the dotted line.  So you smile and ask for the contract.

Three is the magic number
Another interesting outcome from the study was that it only took two or three actors for the pressure of conformity to arise.  Two to three people is a barely a group, yet having just two people with an answer contrarian to the applicants created enough pressure to force some to change their answer.

In day to day life there is more than two or three people influencing our decisions, and impacting our saving and spending behaviours.  Not only is there the army of friends, colleagues, family and the general populace applying pressure, but we must also deal with the tag-team of corporate marketing and advertising.

Many find themselves in friendship groups that actually revolve around spending.  Spending just becomes part of the background, part of the environment that we put ourselves in to socialise.

That’s a shit load of pressure being applied to the decisions that drive our saving and spending behaviours, crowbarring us the way of the mindless consumer.  It takes some serious Eddie Hall like resolve to lift away the pressure and see clearly.

Taking a leaf out of Solomon Asch’s book, Mr Z likes to get a all sneaky himself and tip the odds slightly in his favour.  Pre-empt the weekend get together with friends, take up position of leader and invite friends round yours for some home-cooked food and beers.  With just a couple of people on board you have suddenly harnessed the power of conformity.  You have created the group standards by which others feel they need to conform to.  Sneaky.

Going public
The experiment also found that if the applicant was asked to privately write their answer down, instead of  publicly saying an answer, then the conformity rate reduced drastically.

Having a privately different opinion to the group is easier than publicly being different.  Seems over the last 35 duoquadragintillion** years of evolution we have evolved the desire to conform with a group.  Pretty good for learning not to poke a sleeping bear with a stick, not so good in the personal finance world and in the battle against the writhing beast-group of consumers.

We can be surrounded by peers buying bigger houses, newer cars and cracking new blouses.   In this environment buying ridiculous houses and new cars seems reasonable, because others are doing it and we have evolved to want to conform.  In contrast, by saving more than average and not making ridiculous purchases we are making a public statement of non compliance, a filthy act of non conformity.

The actual act of spending less and saving more isn’t difficult, it’s ignoring the desire to conform to the wider group that’s tough.


If we can recognise these behaviours or reactions in ourself, we can question why a decision feels wrong.  Is it actually wrong, or does it just feel wrong because it’s not what everyone else is doing?

There’s a good reason that everyone isn’t dropping breeze blocks on their feet over and over again or taking a beginners class in high voltage circuit building whilst in the bath.  There’s not necessarily a good reason why most people are struggling to save more than 5% or constantly buying new shit they don’t actually need.

Another conclusion of the experiment was that there is two main reasons why the participants wanted to conform;

1 – Wanting to fit in with the group (“normative influence”)

2 – Belief that the group was better informed with them (“informational influence”)

Use conformity to your advantage, you’ll naturally want to align yourself with a group and if that group just happens to be non-spendy saving bad asses then the normative influence in this case makes you want to hammer your spending down and raise your savings rate.  And that’s a good influence in my book.

There’s not too many people that are willing to save 60% of their income and even less that shout about it… so the internet is certainly a huge help here.  There is a plethora of financial wizards out there, reaching for the stars with stellar savings rates. The internet gives you a direct connection to them, so why not take advantage of it and make them your normative influence, rather than ol’ Spendy Keith down the road.

We might not always be able to shift our sphere of influence from a negative group to another more positive one.  If this is the case then we have to batten down the hatches, weather the storm of influence and resist following the group consensus.  That’s not always easy because it’s natural to assume that if a large group are all doing the same thing then there must be a good reason for it.  They must know something that we don’t, that’s the informational influence kicking in.

“Everyone else seems to be struggling to save more than 5%…I suppose how could you, a new SuperDry jumper every month doesn’t come cheap”

Group behaviour isn’t always the best or the most informed one, for what ever reason it has risen to the top as the most popular.

So….read, read, read.  Educating helps layer up a suit of armour capable of bolstering self-confidence and resisting the wrong kind of informational influence.

It doesn’t take much research to realise the basics of personal finance are painfully simple, spend less than you earn and save/ invest the excess.  The majority of your wins will come right there.  Any thing more is really the fancy icing on the finance cake.

Yet, sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to learn.  I know that it took me plenty of research, trying to understand some complicated financial mathematics and more reading to come to the conclusion that a world wide equity tracker was really all I needed.  But all the research that I did gave me the information to come to my own conclusions.  Looking back, I needed to do this. it reinforced my decisions with some handy steel girders of resolve for resisting that informational influence of the group.

Knowledge really is power, and mightier than the sword in the world of personal finance.

And it boils down to
Initially, spending less and saving more than your peers and friends can feel like a difficult choice.  Or even the wrong one.

Riding your bike to the shops, slinging your shopping in some pannier bags and a rucksack can feel wrong if you’re not aware of Mr Solomon’s findings.  You are seemingly the only person in the shop not using the acreage of concrete to store a vehicle for a few minutes.

There’s a whole plethora of actions and behaviours that feel wrong simply as they go against the status quo, inside and outside the world of personal finance.   Realising that part of the difficulty is because we want to conform, not because the decision is wrong, helps make these choices easier to stick with.

Cycling back from the hardware store on Monday night with a massive bow saw in my hands I got plenty of strange looks…perhaps the group was right on that one.  But they’re wrong on savings rates, saving more than 50% of your income is achievable and liberating.

Mr Z

*That’s how long it’s taken me to write this.  I started it on an iPad at my parents house.  They had just got a new puppy.  Turns out puppies are a lot of fun.

** Google it.

5 thoughts on “All I wanted for Christmas was the corrosion of conformity

  1. DW

    Great article!

    I'm amused by the two reasons people want to conform, as it totally reinforces why I've not found it that difficult to save.
    1. I've never really *wanted* to fit into any group. Mob logic seemed dangerous to me right from the age of about 8, so I wanted to avoid becoming part of one.
    2. I think I know better than most people, especially those in groups (see previous!). I've also educated myself heavily before making any decisions so I'm used to standing by my own convictions in the face of alternative views from family and friends.

    I don't think being a 'bit different' is uncommon amongst those seeking FI. Chicken and egg perhaps. Have we learnt to be self-sufficient through being different, or is wanting to be self-sufficient what makes us not part of the crowd?

  2. Mr Zombie

    Thanks DW! 🙂

    Same here on point 1, it's never really bothered me to 'fit in'. I don't actively try to be different, but make sure I frame decisions around myself and not just others.

    Good question…perhaps more the first?


  3. Paul

    This is on point. I think it could be argued that the most difficult aspects of personal finance are not mathematical, but rather behavioral.


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