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What Is Conformity?

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Question: What Is Conformity?

Answer:

Conformity involves changing your behaviors in order to "fit in" or "go along" with the people around you. In some cases, this social influence might involve agreeing with or acting like the majority of people in a specific group, or it might involve behaving in a particular way in order to be perceived as "normal" by the group.

Definitions of Conformity

  • "Conformity is the most general concept and refers to any change in behavior caused by another person or group; the individual acted in some way because of influence from others. Note that conformity is limited to changes in behavior caused by other people; it does not refer to effects of other people on internal concepts like attitudes or beliefs... Conformity encompasses compliance and obedience, because it refers to any behavior that occurs as a result of others' influence - no matter what the nature of the influence."
    (Breckler, Olson, & Wiggins, Social Psychology Alive, 2006)

  • "Conformity can be defined as yielding to group pressures, something which nearly all of us do some of the time. Suppose, for example, you go with friends to see a film. You didn't think the film was very good, but all your friends thought that it was absolutely brilliant. You might be tempted to conform by pretending to agree with their verdict on the film rather than being the odd one out." (Eysenck, Psychology: An International Perspective, 2004)

Why Do We Conform?

Researchers have found that people conform for a number of different reasons. In many cases, looking to the rest of the group for clues for how we should behave can actually be helpful. Other people might have greater knowledge or experience than we do, so following their lead can actually be instructive. In other cases, we conform to the expectations of the group in order to avoid looking foolish. This tendency can become particularly strong in situations where we aren't quite sure how to act or where the expectations are ambiguous.

Deautsch and Gerard (1955) identified two key reasons why people conform: informational influence and normative influence.

Informational influence happens when people change their behavior in order to be correct. In situations where we are unsure of the correct response, we often look to others who are better informed and more knowledgeable and use their lead as a guide for our own behaviors. In a classroom setting, for example, this might involve agreeing with the judgments of another classmate who you perceive as being highly intelligent.

Normative influence stems from a desire to avoid punishments (such as going along with the rules in class even though you don't agree with them) and gain rewards (such as behaving in a certain way in order to get people to like you).

Types of Conformity

As mentioned previously, normative and informational influences are two important types of conformity, but there are also a number of other reasons why we conform. The following are some of the major types of conformity.

  • Normative conformity involves changing one's behavior in order to fit in with the group.

  • Informational conformity happens when a person lacks knowledge and looks to the group for information and direction.

  • Identification occurs when people conform to what is expected of them based upon their social roles. Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment is a good example of people altering their behavior in order to fit into their expected roles.

  • Compliance involves changing one's behavior while still internally disagreeing with the group.

  • Internalization occurs when we change our behavior because we want to be like another person.

Research and Experiments on Conformity

Conformity is something that happens regularly in our social worlds. Sometimes we are aware of our behavior, but in many cases it happens without much thought or awareness on our parts. In some cases, we go along with things that we disagree with or behave in ways that we know we shouldn't. Some of the best-know experiments on the psychology of conformity deal with people going along with the group, even when they know the group is wrong.

  • Jenness' 1932 Experiment: In one of the earliest experiments on conformity, Jenness asked participants to estimate the number of beans in a bottle. They first estimated the number individually and then later as a group. After they were asked as a group, they were then asked again individually and the experimenter found that their estimates shifted from their original guess to closer to what other members of the group had guessed.

  • Sherif's Autokinetic Effect Experiments: In a series of experiments, Muzafer Sherif asked participants to estimate how far a dot of light in a dark room moved. In reality the dot was static, but it appeared to move due to something known as the autokinetic effect. Essentially, tiny movements of the eyes make it appear that a small spot of light is moving in a dark room. When asked individually, the participants' answers varied considerably. When asked as part of a group, however, Sherif found that the responses converged toward a central mean. Sherif's results demonstrated that in an ambiguous situation, people will conform to the group, an example of informational influence.

  • Asch's Conformity Experiments: In this series of famous experiments, psychologist Solomon Asch asked participants to complete what they believed was a simple perceptual task. They were asked to choose a line that matched the length of one of three different lines. When asked individually, participants would choose the correct line. When asked in the presence of confederates who were in on the experiment and who intentionally selected the wrong line, around 75 percent of participants conformed to the group at least once. This experiment is a good example of normative influence; participants changed their answer and conformed to the group in order to fit in and avoid standing out.

Factors That Influence Conformity

  • The difficulty of the task: Difficult tasks can lead to both increased and decreased conformity. Not knowing how to perform a difficult task makes people more likely to conform, but increased difficulty can also make people more accepting of different responses, leading to less conformity.

  • Individual differences: Personal characteristics such as motivation to achieve and strong leadership abilities are linked with a decreased tendency to conform.

  • The size of the group: People are more likely to conform in situations that involve between three and five other people.

  • Characteristics of the situation: People are more likely to conform in ambiguous situations where they are unclear about how they should respond.

  • Cultural differences: Researchers have found that people from collectivist cultures are more likely to conform.

Examples of Conformity

  • A teenager dresses in a certain style because he wants to fit in with the rest of the guys in his social group.

  • A 20-year-old college student drinks at a sorority party because all her friends are doing it and she does not want to be the odd one out.

  • A woman reads a book for her book club and really enjoys it. When she attends her book club meeting, the other members all disliked the book. Rather than go against the group opinion, she simply agrees with the others that the book was terrible.

  • A student is unsure about the answer to a particular question posed by the teacher. When another student in the class provides an answer, the confused student concurs with the answer believing that the other student is smarter and better informed.

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References:

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.

Breckler, S. J., Olson, J. M., & Wiggins, E. C. (2006). Social Psychology Alive. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Eysenck, M. W. (2004). Psychology: An International Perspective. New York: Psychology Press, LTD.

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.

Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27, 187.

 

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