Conformity

The Basic Idea

Your best friends invite you to a music festival with their favorite artists. After looking through the lineup, you realize you are not familiar with the artists playing. You proceed to listen to their songs, and can’t help but notice you aren’t a fan of this genre of music. Despite your concerns, you convince yourself it’s not bad. In fact, you tell yourself, “it’s pretty good!” You don’t want to be left out. Ultimately, you conform and buy a ticket and join your friends at the festival.

Conformity refers to an individual aligning their behavior, perception, or opinion with those of another person or group.1 An individual may consciously or unconsciously act in a certain way due to influence from others. We have a natural tendency to unconsciously mirror the behaviors of those we interact with, such as language, gestures, and talking speed.2 Researchers say that mimicking individuals subconsciously do can increase our connection to those we interact with, allowing interactions to flow more effortlessly.3

There are two main explanations provided by social psychology for conformity1:

  • Informational conformity refers to an individual aligning with the view of others as a result of an assumption that others hold knowledge about a situation or topic.
  • Normative conformity refers to an individual giving in to the expectations or opinions of others, such as friends or co-workers, in an effort to be liked or accepted.

Part of the prevalence of conformity in human behavior can be explained by reinforcement learning.1 Being liked or accepted by a certain group is, in itself, a reward.

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.

– Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 book, Walden

Key Terms

Informational Conformity: A type of conformity in which an individual looking to acquire correct information looks to others they perceive as knowledgeable and aligns their behaviors and opinions with them.

Normative Conformity: A type of conformity where an individual aligns their perspective and behavior with others in order to be accepted, potentially due to a fear of rejection.

History

Muzafer Sherif, a Turkish-American social psychologist, was an early contributor to the idea of conformity. Sherif designed an experiment which involved  participants being placed in a dark room, where they would stare at a dot of light. Despite the dot never moving, due to an illusion known as the autokinetic effect it would appear to shift. Participants were asked to estimate the amount  the light moved. They shared their estimates out loud. Repeated trials found that each group of three participants converged towards an estimate.4 Sherif’s results, published in 1935, highlighted the way that different groups converged towards their respective estimates, which occurred naturally without any discussion or prompts.

When the groups returned one week later to perform the same test individually, they repeated their groups’ converged estimates. Sherif concluded the participants had adopted their respective groups’ way of thinking.4 This experiment provided early evidence on the social effects of individuals’ perceptions.

Building on the significance of Sherif’s 1935 study, Solomon Asch designed a modified version of Sherif’s experiment. Asch, a Polish-American social psychologist, argued Sherif’s experiment had a key problem: researchers could not be absolutely sure the participants had conformed, especially when there was no correct answer to Sherif’s ambiguous experiment.5

The line judgement task in Solomon Asch’s 1951 experiment.The line judgement task in Solomon Asch’s 1951 experiment.

Asch proceeded to design his now-famous line experiment. Participants were shown a target line, and then asked to choose one of three lines which most closely resembled the target. When participants performed the task individually, they chose the correct answer almost all the time. However, when placed in a room of actors, who were told beforehand to choose an incorrect answer, roughly 75% of participants conformed at least once by choosing a clearly incorrect answer. Only an approximate 25% of participants never conformed.6

When asked, most participants who conformed said that even though they did not believe they were selecting the correct response, they did so out of fear of being ridiculed. Some conforming participants believed they were choosing the correct response.6

Following these experiments, a 1958 publication by Harvard Professor of Social Ethics, Herbert Kelman, formally described three main types of conformity:7

  • Compliance:  A type of public conformity which involves keeping one’s initial beliefs, but not disclosing them to others due to the fear of rejection or the pursuit for approval.
  • Identification: Involves conforming to an individual one looks up to, such as a family member or a celebrity. This can be a result of attraction, and Kelman describes identification as a deeper version of conformity than compliance.
  • Internalization: Adopting beliefs and perceptions publicly and privately. This is the deepest type of conformity and has long term effects.

Kelman’s articulation of three distinct types of conformity were highly influential in social psychology. Social psychology research today has streamlined Kelman’s ideas into the two types of conformity, informational and normative, explained above.

People

 

Muzafer Sherif

A Turkish-American social psychologist whose work was important in developing modern social psychology. Sherif was an early contributor to the idea of conformity with his 1935 publication, A Study of Some Social Factors in Perception, involving an autokinetic experiment which provided evidence for the behavior of conformity in humans.4

Solomon Asch

Born in Warsaw, the Polish-American social psychologist contributed to literature on conformity by developing a renowned experiment involving a line judgement task. Based on Muzafer Sherif’s 1935 publication, Asch was able to further provide evidence for the effects of conformity on human behavior.6

Herbert Kelman

An American Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. Kelman is renowned for his work on international and intercommunal conflict resolution, specifically on the subject of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.8 Kelman influenced the modern interpretation of conformity by formally articulating three types of conformity in his 1958 publication, Compliance, Identification, and Internalization Three Processes of Attitude Change.

Consequences

Knowledge of conformity can be applied by marketing managers to design effective promotions and advertisement campaigns. Themes of normative conformity can be used to better target a young audience, who tend to display a desire to be accepted. A promotion targeting this group may take advantage of referrals to induce normative conformity.9

Similarly, knowledge of conformity can be applied to choose the appropriate source for an advertising message. If an informational conformity response is desired by marketing managers, they can design a promotion to ensure the message is delivered by a source that the target audience perceives to be credible.9

Controversies

Some individuals may say conformity is undesirable, as it prevents individuals from expressing themselves. However, conformity is not inherently positive or negative. Returning your shopping cart, not picking your nose in public, and acting respectful at a funeral can all be considered acts of conformity. On the road, respecting lane etiquette is an act of conformity that contributes to a society with fewer driving accidents.

Nevertheless, conformity to social pressure in a group setting can also have adverse effects which lead to groupthink. When people prioritize cohesion and agreement in a group, decisions may be reached without critical evaluation of the consequences. Though there are many other factors that contribute to groupthink, normative conformity can cause groupthink if individuals are afraid their ideas would be rejected. Informational conformity can also cause groupthink when individuals who falsely perceive group members to be more intelligent and thus conform to their ideas without the necessary critical evaluation.13

Another point of controversy around conformity is whether its prevalence is that much more common than the prevalence of deviance. Some researchers argue  deviance is as prevalent as conformity and suggest the appearance of deviance appearance is minimized.10 Though Solomon Asch’s line judgement task is considered as a classic piece of evidence supporting conformity, an often overlooked finding is the frequency in which a lone participant continued telling the truth in the midst of incorrect responses by the research actors. Researchers argue Asch’s  publication, considered a classic example of evidence that supports conformity, should also be used to support the idea that individuals often do not conform.11

There are important factors which can influence an individual’s desire to not give in to social pressures. Though oversimplified, cultural patterns can explain why some individuals prefer not to conform. Individualistic cultures tend to prefer being different from the group. This culture values independence and self-sufficiency, prioritizing the needs of themselves over those of the group. In contrast, collectivist cultures are generally more likely to conform as this culture prioritizes the needs of family and friends before their own.12

Case Study

Conforming to a government’s COVID-19 recommendations.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals were overwhelmed with information from public health officials, politicians, news outlets, and social media. During this time, we could see that the public could be influenced by informational conformity. Trusted and popular politicians, in addition to credible public health services, were constantly updating recommendations and restrictions. At the same time, the public could also be influenced by normative conformity, with pressure from their family and friends to respect or defy certain behaviors, such as downplaying the dangers of the virus.14

Some individuals perceived differences between the guidance of government officials and the opinions of their social group. When individuals notice that a significant number of people are not respecting certain regulations, it can negatively affect the level of trust in government officials and other credible sources. This can result in the dangerous undermining of critical institutions’ validity.14

Related TDL Content

Social Norms: Why do we follow the behavior of others? Social norms can range from general rules to specific customs, such as the Western custom of shaking hands with somebody when you meet them for the first time. This TDL piece explores the way social norms can influence our behavior around others.

Three Thought Patterns That Let Advertisers Influence You on Social Media: This piece explores how modern advertising uses informational and normative conformity to influence our behavior and provides tips on how we can resist these “mind games.”

Social Proof: How “smart,” or how “casual” is the smart casual dress code for tonight’s company dinner? Do you ever ask your closest colleagues what they will be wearing to an event? Attempting to conform to the behavior we believe fits the situation is a phenomenon known as social proof. Read this article to learn more about the power of this phenomenon and how it can be applied in public health responses and e-commerce.

Sources

  1. Stallen, M., & Sanfey, A. G. (2015). The neuroscience of social conformity: implications for fundamental and applied research. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2015.00337
  2. Burger, J. (2019, June 28). 3 conformity and obedience – Introduction to psychology. OPENPRESS.USASK.CA. https://openpress.usask.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/conformity-and-obedience/
  3. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(6), 893-910. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.76.6.893
  4. Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology (Columbia University), 187,
  5. Mcleod, S. (2018, December 28). Asch conformity experiment. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html
  6. Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men; research in human relations (pp. 177–190). Carnegie Press.
  7. Kelman, H. C. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2(1), 51–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/002200275800200106
  8. Herbert C. Kelman. (n.d.). Scholars at Harvard. https://scholar.harvard.edu/hckelman/home
  9. Lascu, D., & Zinkhan, G. (1999). Consumer conformity: Review and applications for marketing theory and practice. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 7(3), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/10696679.1999.11501836
  10. Hodges, B. H. (2014). Rethinking conformity and imitation: divergence, convergence, and social understanding. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 726–726. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00726
  11. Hodges, B. H., & Geyer, A. L. (2006). A nonconformist account of the Asch experiments: Values, pragmatics, and moral dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(1), 2-19. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr1001_1
  12. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences : comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Sage Publications.
  13. Group behavior. (n.d.). Lumen Learning. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wmopen-psychology/chapter/conformity-compliance-and-obedience/#:~:text=Conformity%20to%20group%20pressures%20can,inhibiting%20performance%20on%20difficult%20tasks
  14. 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. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430220981419

Read Next