The Basic Idea
Imagine you befriend someone who attends a prestigious art school, and go out to a modern art museum with their group of friends. Not long into the museum tour, you find yourself staring up at an artwork that seems to be nothing but a large white canvas containing a single black line. You have never seen this artwork before, nor are you familiar with the artist, but you hear the tour guide say that the value of this work surpasses one million dollars. Your new friends all seem to agree that it is a special piece of work.
Under these conditions, maybe you pretend to ‘get’ it in order to fit in with the group. You don’t want to seem out of touch! Perhaps you go one step further and actually begin to believe that the artwork is brilliant. After all, the group you’re with is more involved in the art world than you and therefore must be better at judging the value of art.
This situation is an example of group conformity, which refers to the way people match their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to group norms, beliefs, and practices. As has been thoroughly documented in psychological literature, individuals have a strong desire to fit in with the groups in which they find themselves, and will often conform not only to their outward behaviour but also their internal beliefs, attitudes, and even identities due to group influence1. While the impact of group conformity can vary depending on factors such as cultural background, age, gender, individual personality and more, group conformity is a universally recognized and powerful influence on human behaviour.
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Conformity: Matching one’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms, beliefs, and practices.
Normative Conformity: Conformity which is driven by the desire to be liked or accepted by a social group. This conformity tends to be produced by either the promise of rewards from compliance or the threat of punishment for non-compliance. It is often external only, not always matching the internal beliefs and values of the person conforming.2
Informational Conformity: This conformity is driven by individuals’ desire to obtain accurate information about reality. It occurs when individuals rely on trusted members of a group to arrive at conclusions about what is true, what action to take, or what opinion to have. This conformity often impacts private beliefs and attitudes, not only external actions.2
Groupthink: Related to informational conformity, the mode of thinking individuals engage in when pursuing consensus, which often can ignore reasonable or rational conclusions.
Social Norms: Collectively held beliefs about what kind of behaviour is appropriate in a given situation.
Although people have long been wary of group conformity, psychological and behavioural research only took off in the first half of the 1900s.
The first popular experiment on the topic was performed by Muzafer Sherif in 1935.2 Sherif’s experiment made use of the autokinetic effect, an optical illusion wherein a dot of light in a dark room would appear to move despite remaining stationary. Sherif found there was large variance in estimates of how much the light moved when asked individually, but once participants had the opportunity to discuss in small groups, there was far less variance in estimates. This suggested that people modified their estimates to be closer to the average estimate of the group.
The most well-known conformity experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch.3 His 1951 experiments asked participants to visually estimate which of three lines was closest in length to a fourth line.
Asch’s 1951 line experiment.
The correct answer was obvious; line C (as seen in Figure 1) was nearly identical to the target line. When asked without the influence of others, participants chose the right answer 98% of the time. However, when placed in groups of confederates who all agreed on the wrong answer, only 63.2% of participants still chose the obviously correct answer, while 36.8% went along with the group consensus and chose the incorrect answer.
Asch’s experiments demonstrated the power of group influence such that people could be made to choose the wrong answer to a straightforward test, just to avoid non-conformity. However, the experiments also demonstrated that many participants could refuse to conform such that conformity with the group is not to be taken for granted from all people.
In 1955, after these famous experiments, Herbert. C Kelman attempted to distinguish between three different types of conformity: compliance, internalization, and identification.2
- In compliance-based conformity, individuals conform their actions to the group they are in to win favour or avoid punishment, even though they may privately disagree.
- In internalization, individuals’ conformity reaches a deeper level as they come to believe the truth claims and values of the group in which they find themselves.
- In identification, individuals conform because conforming defines part of their identity as a member of a group.
However, in modern-day behavioural science, we often use the two categories of conformity coined by Deutsch and Gerrard9 to two primary types of conformity: normative and informational. Normative conformity is motivated by seeking the approval of the social group, whereas informational conformity occurs when an individual relies on the social group as a source of information about reality.
Muzafer Sherif was a Turkish-American psychologist and one of the founders of modern psychology. He was especially known for his contributions to social judgment theory and realistic conflict theory. Sherif’s 1935 experiments were the first popular scientific assessments of group conformity.1
Asch was a Polish-American psychologist in the 1900s. His work focussed on many topics including conformity and impression formation. He is known for his use of Gestalt psychology, a type of psychology which emphasizes the necessity of grasping context for understanding particular actions. His 1951 experiments were the first since Sherif’s to make a large contribution to understanding group conformity.3
Herbert C. Kelman
Kelman is the RIchard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus at Harvard University. He is famous for his contributions to social psychology, as well as his political involvement in conflict resolution in the Palestinian-Isreali conflict. He was one of the first to classify the types of group conformity within a formal framework.5
It is important to remember that conformity can be a good or a bad influence in your life, depending on the social group and situation involved. If you’re in a social group that encourages positive and healthy behaviours, group conformity might increase your wellbeing – you might be more likely to exercise with your hiking club, drink less with your teetotaller friends, or get creative with your local neighbourhood artists. However, for a social group that encourages risky behaviour, such as excessive drug use or abusive behaviour, social conformity can have negative outcomes.
Regarding normative conformity, group dynamics can encourage someone to take actions or say things that they would not on their own. One scenario this can occur in is a toxic work environment. You might feel that you’re not being treated fairly by your manager but refrain from saying something if none of your co-workers express doubts about your boss’ management style.
On the positive side, group conformity can push individuals to minimize their negative traits. A 2010 study by Campbell-Meiklejohn and colleagues showed that people with the ‘dark triad’ personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) were much more fair with money distribution if it was perceived as a group norm for which non-conformity might be punished.4 This goes along with the observation that social norms have arisen out of group agreements about appropriate behaviour.
Informational conformity can also have positive impacts, such as messaging from public health organizations. They’re often trusted by many social groups (although not all) and adhere to rigorous standards in order to ensure accuracy and scientific validity. Recall the rise of public health information during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many conflicting accounts of best safety practices, many benefited from deferring their judgment to trusted, reputable sources.
However, deferring to group judgment can also lead to the silence of contradicting voices. Decisions may be based more on the group consensus than a rational evaluation of alternatives. This type of phenomenon has also been coined groupthink and can lead to disastrous results. A prominent example is the ill-advised launch of the 1986 NASA Challenger spacecraft, which tragically exploded shortly after launch.6 Despite warning signs, the group of scientists involved in the launch were so convinced of their own success that dissent was silenced and the launch was carried out.
While group conformity may seem powerful, it’s important to remember that individuals can and often do refuse to conform to the majority in cases where they believe that the group is incorrect or unethical. Some of history’s most powerful moments come from times where brave individuals have gone against majority norms in order to advocate for minority social groups or individual rights.
Group conformity can be affected by a number of factors, but research has often struggled to pin down which ones are most relevant. Some cultures tend to encourage an attitude of social conformity to a higher degree than others,2 and gender socialization can play a role in attitudes about conformity. It has been hypothesized that, in Western cultures, men are often socialized to be more individualistic, whereas women tend to be socialized with a stronger emphasis on the value of conformity and stronger penalties for non-conformity.10 While there was a large amount of research in the late 20th century that backs up this viewpoint, there has been a lack of recent evidence to validate this. With changing gender roles and cultural shifts, it is difficult to know if gender will play a role in conformity moving into the future.
The size of the social group and the nature of the group are also both factors which have been shown to influence conformity. Recent research has found that less diverse groups tend to have a higher degree of conformity,11 emphasizing the importance of diverse teams for critical thinking. However, the impact of group size on conformity remains unclear. While early studies found that conformity decreases after the group grows larger than three individuals, other findings have shown that the larger the group, the more likely we are to conform.12 Clearly, we have a long way to go before we fully understand what group factors lead to conformity.
Group Conformity and Positive Academic Behaviours
In a 2013 study, Masland and Lease investigated the relationship between elementary school children’s academic behaviour and group conformity. Their study consisted of 455 children in grades three to five.7 While much has been said about the negative influence that social conformity has on children (we’ve all been told to never give into ‘peer pressure’), this study emphasized a positive upshot of group conformity.
The researchers found that children with more academically oriented individuals in their peer group performed better in school and valued academic success more than children without academic peer groups. Although individual capability and personality also had an effect, the researchers were able to isolate the positive effect of group conformity even when controlling for pre-existing individual characteristics.
Group Conformity and Reactions to COVID-19-related Deviance
Group conformity has recently become of great interest in public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation has given an opportunity for us to see how the mechanisms of conformity work not only within a single group, but also between groups.
The decision to follow public health measures is an individual decision, but it is heavily related to group norms. Throughout the pandemic, both deviant and non-deviant groups have been generated between public-health measures such as vaccines, social distancing, and mask-wearing.
While in-group members of those who follow public-health measures generally feel great pressure from other group members to adhere to norms, individuals more closely related to anti-science groups are likely to feel a pressure to disregard the rules. As Dominic J. Packer and his colleagues note, “in polarized contexts, conformity may be as much a matter of not doing what they do as it is about doing what we do”.8 Health communication experts have made use of group conformity in their efforts to promote healthy activities, such as getting vaccinated, by conveying information through respected in-group members. Some may regard high-ranking health officials as outsiders to their own group, but celebrities or influencers as part of their in-group. In short, you have the power of group conformity to thank for star-studded vaccine campaigns.
Related TDL Content
Information overload is another mechanism which can have important and potentially perverse effects on decision making, and can cause us to blindly rely on group conformity rather than rational decision making processes. Read more about this concept here.
Group conformity is only one of several challenges in effectively communicating with others and taking appropriate action related to changing public-health measures. Learn more about communication challenges related to the pandemic here.
- GoodTherapy. 2020. Conformity. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/conformity
- McLeod, Saul. 2016. What is Conformity? Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html
- Wikipedia. 2021. Asch Conformity Experiments. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asch_conformity_experiments
- Sleek, Scott. 2016. The Science of Sameness. Association for Psychological Science.
- Harvard University. Herbert. C. Kelman. https://scholar.harvard.edu/hckelman/home
- Howell, Elizabeth. 2019. Challenger: The shuttle disaster that changed NASA. SPACE. https://www.space.com/18084-space-shuttle-challenger.html
- Masland, L. C., & Lease, A. M. (2013). Effects of achievement motivation, social identity, and peer group norms on academic conformity. Social Psychology of Education, 16(4), 661-681.
- Packer, D. J., Ungson, N. D., & Marsh, J. K. (2021). Conformity and reactions to deviance in the time of COVID-19. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 311-317.
- Deutsch M & Gerard H B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 51:629-36.
- Jhangiani, D. R., Tarry, D. H., & Stangor, D. C. (2014, September 26). Person, gender, and cultural differences in conformity. Principles of Social Psychology 1st International Edition. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/chapter/person-gender-and-cultural-differences-in-conformity/.
- Gaither, S. E., Apfelbaum, E. P., Birnbaum, H. J., Babbitt, L. G., & Sommers, S. R. (2017). Mere membership in racially diverse groups reduces conformity. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(4), 402–410. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617708013
- Bond, R. (2005). Group size and conformity. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 8(4), 331–354. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430205056464