What is Conformity?
Saul McLeod published 2007, updated 2016
Conformity is a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group.
This change is in response to real (involving the physical presence of others) or imagined (involving the pressure of social norms / expectations) group pressure.
Conformity can also be simply defined as “yielding to group pressures” (Crutchfield, 1955). Group pressure may take different forms, for example bullying, persuasion, teasing, criticism, etc. Conformity is also known as majority influence (or group pressure).
The term conformity is often used to indicate an agreement to the majority position, brought about either by a desire to ‘fit in’ or be liked (normative) or because of a desire to be correct (informational), or simply to conform to a social role (identification).
Jenness (1932) was the first psychologist to study conformity. His experiment was an ambiguous situation involving a glass bottle filled with beans. He asked participants individually to estimate how many beans the bottle contained. Jenness then put the group in a room with the bottle, and asked them to provide a group estimate through discussion.
Participants were then asked to estimate the number on their own again to find whether their initial estimates had altered based on the influence of the majority. Jenness then interviewed the participants individually again, and asked if they would like to change their original estimates, or stay with the group's estimate. Almost all changed their individual guesses to be closer to the group estimate.
However, perhaps the most famous conformity experiment was by Solomon Asch (1951) and his line judgment experiment.
Types of Conformity
Kelman (1958) distinguished between three different types of conformity:
Compliance (or group acceptance)
This occurs 'when an individual accepts influence because he hopes to achieve a favourable reaction from another person or group. He adopts the induced behavior because....he expects to gain specific rewards or approval and avoid specific punishment or disapproval by conformity' (Kelman, 1958, p. 53).
In other words, conforming to the majority (publicly), in spite of not really agreeing with them (privately). This is seen in Asch’s line experiment.
Compliance stops when there are no group pressures to conform, and is therefore a temporary behavior change.
Internalisation (genuine acceptance of group norms)
This occurs 'when an individual accepts influence because the content of the induced behavior - the ideas and actions of which it is composed - is intrinsically rewarding. He adopts the induced behavior because it is congruent [consistent] with his value system' (Kelman, 1958, p. 53).
Internalisation always involves public and private conformity. A person publicly changes their behavior to fit in with the group, while also agreeing with them privately.
This is the deepest level of conformity were the beliefs of the group become part of the individual’s own belief system. This means the change in behavior is permanent. This is seen in Sherif’s autokinetic experiment.
This is most likely to occur when the majority have greater knowledge, and members of the minority have little knowledge to challenge the majority position.
Identification (or group membership)
This occurs 'when an individual accepts influence because he wants to establish or maintain a satisfying self-defining relationship to another person or group' (Kelman, 1958, p. 53).
Individuals conform to the expectations of a social role, e.g. nurses, police officers. It is similar to compliance as there does not have to be a change in private opinion. A good example is Zimbardo's Prison Study.
Man (1969) identified an additional type of conformity:
This is when a person conforms to impress or gain favor/acceptance from other people.
It is similar to normative influence, but is motivated by the need for social rewards rather than the threat of rejection, i.e., group pressure does not enter the decision to conform.
Explanations of Conformity
Deutsch and Gerrard (1955) identified two reasons why people conform:
- Yielding to group pressure because a person wants to fit in with the group. E.g. Asch Line Study.
- Conforming because the person is scared of being rejected by the group.
- This type of conformity usually involves compliance – where a person publicly accepts the views of a group but privately rejects them.
- This usually occurs when a person lacks knowledge and looks to the group for guidance.
- Or when a person is in an ambiguous (i.e. unclear) situation and socially compares their behavior with the group. E.g. Sherif's Study.
- This type of conformity usually involves internalization – where a person accepts the views of the groups and adopts them as an individual.
Sherif (1935) Autokinetic Effect Experiment
Aim: Sherif (1935) conducted an experiment with the aim of demonstrating that people conform to group norms when they are put in an ambiguous (i.e. unclear) situation.
It was discovered that when participants were individually tested their estimates on how far the light moved varied considerably (e.g. from 20cm to 80cm).
The participants were then tested in groups of three. Sherif manipulated the composition of the group by putting together two people whose estimate of the light movement when alone was very similar, and one person whose estimate was very different. Each person in the group had to say aloud how far they thought the light had moved.
Results: Sherif found that over numerous estimates (trials) of the movement of light, the group converged to a common estimate. The person whose estimate of movement was greatly different to the other two in the group conformed to the view of the other two.
Sherif said that this showed that people would always tend to conform. Rather than make individual judgments they tend to come to a group agreement.
Conclusion: The results show that when in an ambiguous situation (such as the autokinetic effect), a person will look to others (who know more / better) for guidance (i.e. adopt the group norm). They want to do the right thing, but may lack the appropriate information. Observing others can provide this information. This is known as informational conformity.
Not everyone conforms to social pressure. Indeed, there are many factors that contribute to an individual's desire to remain independent of the group.
For example, Smith and Bond (1998) discovered cultural differences in conformity between western and eastern countries. People from Western cultures (such as America and the UK) are more likely to be individualistic and don't want to be seen as being the same as everyone else.
This means that they value being independent and self sufficient (the individual is more important that the group), and as such are more likely to participate in non conformity.
In contrast eastern cultures (such as Asian countries) are more likely to value the needs of the family and other social groups before their own. They are known as collectivist cultures and are more likely to conform.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburg, PA: Carnegie Press.
Crutchfield, R. (1955). Conformity and Character. American Psychologist, 10, 191-198.
Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The journal of abnormal and social psychology, 51(3), 629.
Jenness, A. (1932). The role of discussion in changing opinion regarding a matter of fact. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27 , 279-296.
Kelman, H. C. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 51–60.
Mann, L (1969). Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27(187) .
Smith, P. B., & Bond, M. H. (1993). Social Psychology Across Cultures: Analysis and Perspectives. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2016). What is conformity? Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html
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Social Influence - Conformity (24-Oct-2002)
- Social Influence is the effect that other people have on our behaviour
- Social norms define what is "normal" in society - they are unwritten rules that govern behaviour.
- Social norms are useful and provide order and organisation - they are the glue that holds society together.
- Social norms change depending on:
- social context - e.g. the way you behave in a pub will be different from the way you behave in church
- culture - e.g. Victorians found it easy to talk about death but not sex; now it's the other way round
- Conformity is defined by Crutchfield as "yielding to group pressure"; or by Zimbardo & Leippe as "a change in belief or behaviour in response to real or imagined group pressure when there is no direct request to comply with the group nor any reason to justify the behaviour change"
- Two reasons for conforming:
- Normative Conformity occurs when we "go along" with a group because of the desire to be liked, or accepted. The result of normative conformity is compliance, where although the behaviour changes to conform with the group, the private opinion remains unchanged.
- Informational Conformity occurs when the group appears more knowledgeable about a situation, and so is assumed to be correct. In this case, the result is internalisation, where both private opinion and public behaviour change to correspond with the group view.
- Some people argue that certain behaviours are contagious (e.g. yawning, laughing) and that this explains conformity
(See Asch study sheet)
Sherif(1935) conducted an experiment where subjects were asked to make a judgement based on an ambiguous task - that is, one which has no definite "right" or "wrong" answer. This is a bit like being asked to estimate how many pebbles are in a jar. Sherif found that when participants could hear each others answers, they tended to converge on a single answer, or group norm, which represented the average of the individual estimates.
Asch(1951) believed that this conformity was due to the fact that the task was ambiguous, and devised an experiment where subjects were given a task which had a definite correct answer. In this experiment, subjects were shown a card with a "standard" line drawn on it, and asked to say which of a set of three lines on another card was the same length as the standard line. They participants were told that this was an experiment into aspects of visual perception.
During the experiment, all but one of the subjects were confederates of the examiner (or "stooges"), and on certain occasions gave deliberately wrong answers. Asch expected that in this case, the participants would not conform with the rest of the group, because to do so would mean giving an answer which was obviously incorrect.
Asch found that in 32% of cases, the participant did go along with the incorrect answers given by the "stooges". During debriefing the participants justified this behaviour by saying:
- they hadn't wanted to be "different"
- they had doubted their own ability/eyesight
- they were worried about messing up the experiment
- they said what they thought the experimenter wanted to hear
- they thought perhaps they were looking at an optical illusion
Most of the participants said that they knew they were giving the wrong answer (i.e. "normative" conformance), but a small proportion insisted that they had been giving the correct answer.
Asch didn't know whether the results were a one-off, and so did follow-up studies, changing certain aspects of the experiment. Some of the important factors turned out to be:
- Group size : for a group with one stooge, the conformance rate was very low (3%). With two stooges, the rate rises to 14%, and with 3, the 32% figure reported in the original experiment. Larger group sizes don't seem to raise the rate of conformance above this figure.
- Unanimity : conformity is most likely to occur when the stooges are unanimous in their answers.
- Task Difficulty : the harder a task, the more conformity rises. This is because the task becomes more ambiguous (like the one used by Sherif).
Since the 1951 experiment, doubt has been cast on the generalisability of Asch's findings. The type of participant (male college student) and cultural climate (McCarthyism) may have influenced the rate of conformity that Asch saw.
Subsequent attempts to repeat Asch's experiment (see Weblinks (1)) have by and large not shown such a large degree of conformity, and seem to indicate that the rate of conformity does depend on the social context and cultural factors. for example, when this type of experiment is performed in countries that might be described as having a collectivist culture (e.g. Japan, Fiji, certain African countries), relatively high rates of conformity are seen. But in societies that are more individualistic such as France, UK in the time of Thatcher, relatively low rates of conformity are seen.
Comments on Asch's study
- Asch's experiment can be said to lack mundane realism. That is to say, it's unlikely that in real life you'd find yourself looking at lines and trying to decide whether they're equivalent. Also, in the experiment there was no opportunity for the participants to reserve judgement - they were required to give an answer.
- Asch's experiment had high experimental realisim. That is to say that the participants believed what they were told about what was going on - they didn't suspect that other participants were confederates of the examiner. We know this because they showed signs of stress when they gave answers that were out of line with the stooges. This raises ethical issues - is it right to put volunteers in this situation?
- Psychology: A New Introduction for A Level (2nd edition), Gross et al : Chapter 6
- Paul Webley's page on "The Asch effect" at www.ex.ac.uk/~PWebley/psy1002/asch.html
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Fill in the Study Sheet for Asch's experiment
Study: Asch 1951
Aims: To establish the extent that group pressure can influence an individual to conform to that group's way of thinking.
Procedure: A set of participants is seated around a table. Each participant in turn is shown a card which has a "reference" line drawn on it, and another card which has three labelled lines. The task of the participant is to state publically which of the three labelled lines matches the reference line. In each case, the task is designed to be easy. In fact, all but one of the participants are confederates of the examiner, and, on a secret signal from the examiner, will deliberately provide an incorrect answer. The test is designed so that the "innocent" participant is the penultimate person to have to answer, and so by the time his turn comes, he will have heard most of the other "participants" answer, and so be subject to pressure to conform with the rest of the group.
Findings: Depending on the size of group, it was found that participants agreed with the incorrect majority answer in 32% of trials. This rate of conformance was lower when the group size (and number of confederates) was smaller, but remained fairly constant when there were three or more confederates in the experiment.
Conclusion: From this experiment alone, we could conclude that a group exerts a strong influence on an individual to conform, especially when the individual is in a minority of one.
Strength: Asch had not expected to see such a high degree of conformity. The fact that the results of the experiment were not what he expected suggests that this was a well-designed and useful experiment: rather than confirming the experimenter's prejudice, it provided information which challenged it.
Criticism 1: It is likely that the high degree of conformance observed by Asch was in part a product of the prevailing social climate (in the time of McCarthyism). Subsequent attempts to repeat the experiment have not shown such high rates of conformance, which casts doubt on the generalisability of the results
Criticism 2: The experiment must have been very time-consuming, since only one "real" participant could be tested on each iteration.