Conformity

Conformity refers to adaptation of one's behavior or beliefs to match those of the other members of a group.

Conformity describes the adaptation of behavior that occurs in response to unspoken group pressure. Another description of conformity is the “yielding to group pressures.” It differs from compliance, which is adaptation of behavior resulting from overt pressure. Individuals conform to or comply with group behavior in an attempt to fit in or to follow the norms of the social group. In most cases, conforming to social norms is so natural that people are not even aware they are doing it unless someone calls it to their attention or violates the norms. Conformity is a product of majority influence, group pressure, or peer pressure.

Researchers have studied conformity using controlled experiments. Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif (1906–1988) carried out an early experiment in conformity in the 1930s. The experiments made use of an optical illusion called the autokinetic phenomenon—the fact that a small stationary point of light in a darkened room will appear to move. The autokinetic phenomenon affects individuals differently; that is, the amount of movement experienced by different people varies. In Sherif's experiment, several human subjects were placed together in a room with a stationary light. Each was asked to describe its movement aloud. As the individuals listened to the descriptions of others, their answers became increasingly similar as they unconsciously sought to establish a group norm. The power of social norms was demonstrated even more strikingly when the subjects continued to adhere to the norm when they were later retested individually. Sherif's experiment demonstrates one of the important conditions that produces conformity: ambiguity. There was no clear-cut correct answer to the question asked of the subjects, so they were more vulnerable to reliance on a norm.

In that same decade, Arthur Jenness also conducted experiments on conformity. For instance, a typical experiment carried out by Jenness might entail asking participants to estimate how many beans a glass container contained. He would first ask the subjects individually and then place them together in a room and ask them as a group to decide the number of beans they thought were inside the same glass bottle. Jenness concluded the experiment by asking all subjects individually if they would like to change their original estimate or use the estimate found by the group. He found that nearly all subjects changed their individual guesses so it was more in line with the group estimate.

In the 1950s, another researcher, American Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch (1907–1996), devised conformity experiments that eliminated the ambiguity factor found in Sherif's experiments. This series of laboratory experiments are called the Asch conformity experiments, the Asch Paradign, or simply the line judgment experiments. For instance, subjects were asked to match lines of different lengths on two cards. In this experiment, there was one obvious right answer. However, each subject was tested in a room full of “planted” peers (sometimes also called “confederates” or actors) who deliberately gave the wrong answer in some cases. About three-fourths of the subjects tested knowingly gave an incorrect answer at least once in order to conform to the group. In all, the Asch experiments tested the effects of conformity on such topics as age, culture, gender, and task importance.

In 1958, Austrian-American social ethicist and psychologist Herbert C. Kelman (1927–) identified three types of conformity: compliance, internalization, and identification. He defined compliance as the changing of one's behavior in public to fit in with what others are saying even though the individual privately disagrees with them. Internalization was defined by Kelman as, like compliance, involving changing one's behavior in public to fit in with that of others but with internalization the individual privately agrees with the group. Kelman stated that identification means the individual does conform with the behavior of the group but does not have to change their private opinion while agreeing with them.

Asch's experiment revealed other factors—notably unanimity and size of the majority—that influence conformity even when ambiguity is not an issue. Unanimity of opinion is extremely powerful in influencing people to go along with the group. Even one dissenter decreases the incidence of conformity markedly. Individuals are much more likely to diverge from a group when there is at least one other person to share the potential disapproval of the group. People who follow the lead of an initial dissenter may even disagree with that person and be dissenting from the group for a very different reason. However, knowing there is at least one other dissenting voice makes it easier for the person to express the separate opinions.

SOLOMON ASCH CONFORMITY EXPERIMENTS

Social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted experiments in the 1950s to test humans’ tendency to conform. He found that when faced with a popular opinion, the desire to conform to the majority will take precedent even when it is opposition to what a person believes to be true. Asch published the results in his 1955 paper Opinions and Social Pressure.

The 123 male subjects of the study were told it was an experiment dealing with visual perception. They were each put individually into groups along with five to seven “confederates” (associates of the researchers who were posing as other volunteer subjects). They were presented with one card with a line on it, followed by another card with three lines labeled A, B and C. They were then asked which of the lines on the second card were the same length as the line on the first card. The experiment was set up so that the confederates would answer before the subject, allowing the subject to be influenced by their responses. The confederates were instructed to respond correctly the first few times, and then to respond unanimously with the same incorrect answer. Out of the total 18 trials, confederates were instructed to answer incorrectly 12 times. The incorrect responses were obviously wrong, yet all of the confederates answered identically. Asch wanted to test whether this would lead the subject to alter their response in order to conform even though they knew the majority answer was wrong.

Asch found that when everyone before an individual gives a clearly incorrect answer, it is extremely difficult for the individual to resist conformity. Subjects conformed to the majority giving incorrect responses 36.8% of the time. By contrast subjects in the control group, in which there was no pressure to conform to majority, answered incorrectly less than 1% of the time.

When subjects were interviewed at the end of the experiment they gave different reasons for conforming to the majority. Some assumed that they were wrong and that the majority must have been right, some said they conformed so as not to spoil the results of the experiment. Many of the subjects who yielded to majority said that they suspected that the majority were mistakenly going along with the first incorrect responder, or that they were suffering from an optical illusion. However, this did not stop them from going along with the majority even though they believed the answer to be wrong. Some of the subjects interpreted the discrepancy as a sign of something wrong with them and felt that they must hide this from the researchers.

Asch replicated the experiment with some differences in order to test conformity in the presence of some variations. He found that if a “true partner” was added to the group (i.e. another non-confederate subject or an actor instructed to give correct answers) the level of conformity on the part of the subject decreased. However, if this partner was removed halfway through the experiment, the level of conformity increased once again. Asch also found that the size of the majority influenced conformity. The smaller the group of confederates, the lower the level of conformity and vice versa. Another variation of the experience allowed the subject to write their response while the confederates still gave their responses verbally. This was found to decrease conformity somewhat as well.

Solomon Asch's work demonstrated the degree to which humans’ opinions are influenced by those of the majority group. This was shown to be true even when it is clear that the majority is wrong, as in the original experiment in which 76% of participants conformed at least once.

In 1969, Australian psychological researcher Leon Mann stated that “the essence of conformity is yielding to group pressure.” He used three terms to distinguish major differences within the act of conformity: normative, informational, and ingratiational. Normative conformity involves being scared of being rejected by a group and therefore conforming to its views. Informational conformation was defined as not having sufficient knowledge to make an informed decision or feeling ambiguous in a certain situation and, therefore, assuming the view of the group. With ingratiational conformity, an individual wants to impress the members of a group so the person accepts the group viewpoint as his own.

Individual differences also determine the degree to which conformity will occur. Although the ambiguity and unanimity of the situation are powerful contributors to the incidence of conformity, they are not the sole determinants. Personal characteristics and the individual's position within the group play a role as well. Individuals who have a low status within a group or are unfamiliar with a particular situation are the ones most likely to conform. Thus, students who are new to a class, new members of a study or activity group, or new residents to a community are more likely to be affected by the pressure to conform. Personality traits, such as concern with being liked or the desire to be right, also play a role.

KEY TERMS

Social norm
—The customs, traditions, and values that represent an individual's general knowledge of what other people do and say and what other people think they should do.

Nonconformity can lead to bullying. It can happen anywhere, in small rural towns, suburbs, cities, and large metropolitan areas. Anyone can be bullied, too, both males and females and those from different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs. However, some groups are more at risk of bullying when they do not conform to social norms. For instance, preteens and teenagers who consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are at increased risk for bullying from other youth who see such orientation as undesirable. Youth who do not conform to the generally accepted social norms or are unable to conform due to special health needs or disabilities should be surrounded by supportive environments in school and at home in order to reduce the risk of bullying.

See also Peer acceptance ; Peer pressure .

Resources

BOOKS

Bond, Michael. The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do. London: Oneworld, 2015.

Ginsburg, Kenneth. Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015.

Savage, Lorraine, ed. Peer Pressure. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2009.

PERIODICALS

Hommel, Bernhard. “An Event-Based Account of Conformity.” Psychological Science 26, no. 4 (2015): 484–89.

WEBSITES

Psychology Today. “Conformity: The Pull of Conformity.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/conformity (accessed July 23, 2015).

SimplyPsychology.org. “Conformity.” http://www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html (accessed July 23, 2015).

StopBullying.gov. “Who Is at Risk?” http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/index.html (accessed July 23, 2015).

Zimbardo, Philip, and Cindy X. Wang, “Why We Conform: The Power of Groups.” LuciferEffect.com. http://www.lucifereffect.com/guide_conform.htm (accessed July 23, 2015).

ORGANIZATIONS

StopBullying, 200 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20201, http://www.stopbullying.gov .