Are You Stuck at the Conformist Stage?

Mar 10, 2015

If you’ve ever found yourself pulling your hair out over someone in your life that you wish would grow up, there’s a good chance they fall within the Conformist Stage.Sticking with my earlier analogy of a twelve-story building, we’re now on the 4th Floor. At the Conformist Stage, the view or perspective gets a little broader.

This is the place where most teens further their development. Because the perspective is still somewhat limited, however, life can prove to be a bit challenging for adults who score within this range.

Let’s first explore the Conformist stage for the adolescent.

The Adolescent Perspective

This is the final shift from “me, myself, and I” to “I need to belong.” My peers regulate my behavior.

I’ll use the example of a Joy Prom I attended last Saturday night to describe the essence of the Conformist Stage. If you’re not familiar with this type of event, let me explain.

It’s a prom specifically designed for people with developmental delays. The point is to give these individuals a chance to enjoy an event that most were excluded from in their early adolescent years.

Regardless of the disAbility, all are included in the dancing, food, games, photos, and, most importantly, interaction with youth outside their own community.

It works. From the perspective of two different developmental groups, here’s why.

The disAbility Dancers:

People with a variety of disabilities attended, and they ranged in age from early 20’s up into the 30’s or 40’s. The evening played out well because the disAbility dancers were given the space to be who they are without judgment.

Some years ago, advocates for person’s with disabilities would have squawked hard and loud at such an event because we wanted our children to only participate in “age appropriate” activities.

Times have changed.

We now know that the age is less appropriate than the developmental level. Many people with disabilities remain at the Conformist Stage of development—if not earlier. They may have “aged” beyond a prom-type event, but because they still need and deserve the experience of community, it all works.

The Conformist Dancers:

The Conformist Dancers were kids who volunteered from the youth group to serve as dates for the disAbility Dancers. This gave both groups the opportunity to experience different life perspectives.

For example, I witnessed a handsome teenage boy escort a disAbled woman in her middle years onto the dance floor. My own twenty-seven-year-old date has a wheelchair. Jonathan wisely abandoned me for three beautiful teenage girls and spent the night dancing and singing karaoke. (My feet are still singing their praises!).

The point is this. The Conformist Dancers, generous to the core, were in perfect alignment with their stage of development.

This particular group of teenagers belongs to a church community that is committed to a disAbility ministry. It is therefore natural for them to conform to the “rules” of the community in sup-port of this effort.

People who fall into the Conformist stage of development—for whatever reason—will move toward the rules of that community.

O’Fallon (2013) reminds us that at this stage, most people want to look the same, own the same things, and go to the same places.

This fact was clearly supported at the Joy Prom. Most of the kids dressed in similar fashion. Their desire to look alike and fit in with similar hairstyles, shoes, dresses, jackets, and ties was evidence of this adolescent stage of development.

Dress and style are, of course, external manifestations of what’s occurring on the inside as each person seeks to fit into a collective experience of life.

The Conformist Stage, however, can get a bit tricky when we find ourselves encountering an adult who lives from this perspective.

The Adult Perspective

Remember, this is an adolescent stage, so there is a need for rules, but they are rules of acceptance. Adults at this stage are fully aware of punishment vs. consequences, and they can also delay gratification. Similar to a teenager, they may have an underdeveloped sense of time.

Time Perspective and Choice

Adults at the Conformist Stage can learn from past mistakes. They basically live in today with a sense of the traditional rules of the past. Unlike the earlier stages, this sense of time can translate to acts of responsibility, concrete planning, and the ability to prioritize.

If such adults have experienced a past of consistent parenting, they probably do these things well and are able to live a robust life. Unhealthy parenting, however, may cause adults to struggle with good decisions in the present because they have witnessed and experienced bad choices in early years of development.

In a recent episode of 60 Minutes, for example, a young gang member who was arrested for drug trafficking stated that a life of crime and destruction was all he ever knew. His mother was a notorious drug lord in the inner city of Los Angeles. As a young child, he was instructed how to run the family business and survive at all costs.

In his desire to be accepted by the collective community, this young man was virtually unable to make better choices for himself.

Of course, we all know of kids who had the best parenting and, for whatever reason, still struggle with healthy choices as adults. Simply note that the view from the 4th Floor of the Conformist is still somewhat limited. In this young man’s world, nothing existed outside the walls of his own ghetto. Even though Beverly Hills and a host of other options are within a twenty-minute drive, he was virtually blind to healthier opportunities.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to our development and why we get stuck as adults. Just remember that it’s impossible to make choices from a 7th Floor perspective when you’re only on the 4th.

We have choices. The goal is to do the work to move ourselves into later stages of development.

The Conformist and Business

If you’re wondering how the Conformist Stage looks in business, think of Enron, Madoff, or any of the recent debacles on Wall Street.

At some level, each of these examples points to leaders at the top who were either at the Conformist stage of corruption or who had people in their midst afraid to rock the boat.

Such behaviors often show up as:

  • Actions consistent with the norm of the identified community
  • Loyalty, duty, and a sense of responsibility to the group at all costs
  • Difficulty giving or receiving feedback/criticism because of a need to look good, be accepted, and respected by the group (form of narcissism)
  • Ethnocentricity—anyone outside the group is suspect and therefore ignored
  • Emotions of guilt and shame as motivators to stay connected to the group
  • Need for hierarchy of the group or some clear authority to tell them what to do

If you’d like to learn more about the StAGES developmental model and how your personal stage of development impacts your life and business, please contact

[callout]This post is part of a series written by Sharon Spano, PhD. The series is titled, The Stages of Human Development. To learn about the stages of human development, read my posts: