Have you ever been in a situation when you’ve anticipated feeling negatively threatened, only to be surprised to experience the positive invigorating experience of challenge instead? Most of us have, whether it’s before a test, a competition, social interaction, public speaking or speaking up. New research from Associate Professor Mark D. Seery from the University of Buffalo, suggests that whether you feel threatened or challenged is dependent on the hierarchy of your goals and values in a given situation.

Imagine yourself in the situation of speaking up to a unanimous and disagreeing group to which you belong. Do you anticipate feeling threatened or challenged? How will you evaluate your personal resources of goals, values and beliefs versus the demands of the situation?

A long history of research in psychology has studied the consequences of such social pressure which typically results in conforming to a group’s opinion. Conforming is one of the most powerful forces of social influence. However, relatively little research has attempted to measure and understand an individuals’ internal reaction during such disagreement.

Turns out that facing the prospect of a disagreeing group need not necessarily result in the negative experience of threat with the resultant conformity, as external behaviours mask a range of internal states.

When you experience a situation as challenging, arteries in the body dilate on the whole, which facilitates the pumping of a relatively greater volume of blood. In contrast, experiencing the same situation as a threat results in arteries constricting with relatively less blood being pumped, despite comparable increases in the heart’s activity.

The threat of rejection is a powerful driver to conformity.  Therefore, it’s important to understand the psychology that steers us toward conforming. Psychology research has identified three primary goals which lead to conformity, in no specific order –

to fit in with other people,
to be accurate,
to maintain a positive self-concept

Anticipating the potential negative consequences (rejection) of failing to meet any single one of these goals is alleviated by conforming to the group.  However, the desire to fit in and conform is only likely to predominate unless an alternative goal is identified. Although goals for accuracy, affiliation, and positive self-concept can move in concert to encourage conformity other conflicting goals can also exist.

The goal of differentiating ourselves from others, expressing individuality and being true to one’s own opinions and core values is also desirable and might be a part of maintaining a positive self-concept. How we balance such opposing goals and motivations in the moment shapes the way and extent to which we express agreement or disagreement with the group.

As an example, alongside fitting in and staying true to our values, we may also be induced to feeling accountable in a decision making process by having to justify our decision to someone else, for example stakeholders, wider society, the next generation, our children. Priming the accuracy goal can help to override a default tendency to fit in.

Experiencing the psychology and physiology of threat occurs only when a goal to fit in is active in tandem with the context of a unanimous disagreeing group. However, facing such a group does not necessarily lead to experiencing threat.  Injecting the goal of accuracy and/or a desire to be true to yourself mitigates the feeling of threat and can transform it into a feeling of challenge.

The identification and activation of alternative goals mitigates the experience of threat, by de-emphasising the need to fit in and conform to the group. You may have to work hard to reach an alternative goal, but when you experience challenge, it is more like feeling invigorated than overwhelmed. It is consistent with seeing something to gain rather than focusing on what can be lost.

Additionally, being able to expand your vision beyond a given moment supports the internal change from experiencing threat into feeling challenged. For example, a goal to express individuality that is hindered in a given moment could still be meaningfully satisfied in a different environment or situation after the current situation is over. In contrast, the pain of being rejected for deviance cannot be undone in the same way. Considering the timeframe of having your goals met and in which order can influence whether you experience feeling threatened or challenged.

Conformity behaviour can mask a range of internal states. Participants in Professor Seery’s research who prioritised their goal as fitting in when explaining their opinion to their disagreeing group experienced cardiovascular reactivity similar to being threatened. These readings were significantly greater than the participants who prioritised their goal as individuality, who exhibited cardiovascular responses relative to being challenged.

There can be a clear divergence between what people do and say and how they feel. Observing external conforming behaviour alone is a poor indicator of internal states.  People can show conformity, but going along with the group doesn’t mean they’re going along happily.


If group members in the majority rely only on expressed opinion, they may fail to accurately understand both the experience and the opinion of minority members.

If you’re a leader, I suggest explicitly introducing goals that counter fitting-in or being liked (e.g., individuality or expression goals) which can reduce the experience of negative states such as threat among a minority of team members who disagree with the rest of the group.

Remind yourself of alternative goals and values. This shapes the situation into a better experience, challenging instead of threatening, invigorating instead of overwhelming.