Conformity: Wikis


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Conformity is the process by which an individual's attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are influenced by other people. This influence occurs in both small groups and society as a whole, and it may be the result of subtle unconscious influences, or direct and overt social pressure. Conformity also occurs by the "implied presence" of others, or when other people are not actually present. For example, people tend to follow the norms of society when eating or watching television, even when they are at home by themselves.

People often conform from a desire to achieve a sense of security within a group—typically a group that is of a similar age, culture, religion, or educational status. Any unwillingness to conform carries with it the very real risk of social rejection. In this respect, conformity can be seen as a safe means of avoiding bullying or deflecting criticism from peers. Conformity is often associated with adolescence and youth culture, but it affects humans of all ages.

Although peer pressure may be viewed as a negative trait, conformity can have either good or bad effects depending on the situation. Driving safely on the correct side of the road is a beneficial example of conformity. Conformity influences the formation and maintenance of social norms and allows society to function smoothly and predictably.

Because conformity is a group phenomenon, such factors as group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, prior commitment, and public opinion all help to determine the level of conformity an individual will display.[1]



Harvard psychologist, Herbert Kelman identified three major types of social influence:[2]

  1. Compliance is public conformity, while keeping one's own private beliefs.
  2. Identification is conforming to someone who is liked and respected, such as a celebrity or a favorite uncle.
  3. Internalization is acceptance of the belief or behavior and conforming both publicly and privately.

Although Kelman's distinction has been very influential, research in social psychology has focused primarily on two main varieties of conformity. These are informational conformity, or informational social influence, and normative conformity, otherwise known as normative social influence.[1] Using Kelman's terminology, these correspond to internalization and compliance, respectively. There are naturally more than two or three variables in society influential on human psychology and conformity; the notion of "varieties" of conformity based upon "social influence" is ambiguous and undefinable in this context.


Informational influence

Informational social influence occurs when one turns to the members of one's group to obtain accurate information. A person is most likely to use informational social influence in three situations: When a situation is ambiguous, people become uncertain about what to do. They are more likely to depend on others for the answer. During a crisis when immediate action is necessary, in spite of panic. Looking to other people can help ease fears, but unfortunately they are not always right. The more knowledgeable a person is, the more valuable they are as a resource. Thus people often turn to experts for help. But once again people must be careful, as experts can make mistakes too. Informational social influence often results in internalization or private acceptance, where a person genuinely believes that the information is right.

Informational social influence was first documented in Muzafer Sherif's autokinetic experiment.[3] He was interested in how many people change their opinions to bring them in line with the opinion of a group. Participants were placed in a dark room and asked to stare at a small dot of light 15 feet away. They were then asked to estimate the amount it moved. The trick was there was no movement, it was caused by a visual illusion known as the autokinetic effect. Every person perceived different amounts of movement. Over time, the same estimate was agreed on and others conformed to it. Sherif suggested that this was a simulation for how social norms develop in a society, providing a common frame of reference for people.

Subsequent experiments were based on more realistic situations. In an eyewitness identification task, participants were shown a suspect individually and then in a lineup of other suspects. They were given one second to identify him, making it a difficult task. One group was told that their input was very important and would be used by the legal community. To the other it was simply a trial. Being more motivated to get the right answer increased the tendency to conform. Those who wanted to be most accurate conformed 51% of the time as opposed to 35% in the other group.[4]

Which line matches the first line, A, B, or C? In the Asch conformity experiments, people frequently followed the majority judgment, even when the majority was wrong.

Economists have suggested that fads and trends in society form as the result of individuals making rational choices based on information received from others. These informational cascades form quickly as people decide to ignore their internal signals and go along with what other people are doing.[5] Cascades are also presumed to be fragile because people are aware that they are based on limited information. This is why fads often end as quickly as they begin.

Normative influence

Normative social influence occurs when one conforms to be liked or accepted by the members of the group. It usually results in public compliance, doing or saying something without believing in it. Solomon E. Asch was the first psychologist to study this phenomenon in the laboratory. He conducted a modification of Sherif’s study, assuming that when the situation was very clear, conformity would be drastically reduced. He exposed people in a group to a series of lines, and the participants were asked to match one line with a standard line. All participants except one were secretly told to give the wrong answer in 12 of the 18 trials. The results showed a surprisingly high degree of conformity. 76% of the participants conformed on at least one trial. On average people conformed one third of the time.[6]

Normative influence is a function of social impact theory which has three components.[7] The number of people in the group has a surprising effect. As the number increases, each person has less of an impact. A group's strength is how important the group is to a person. Groups we value generally have more social influence. Immediacy is how close the group is in time and space when the influence is taking place. Psychologists have constructed a mathematical model using these three factors and are able to predict the amount of conformity that occurs with some degree of accuracy.[8]

Baron and his colleagues conducted a second "eyewitness study", this time focusing on normative influence.[4] In this version, the task was made easier. Each participant was given five seconds to look at a slide, instead of just one second. Once again there were both high and low motives to be accurate, but the results were the reverse of the first study. The low motivation group conformed 33% of the time (similar to Asch's findings). The high motivation group conformed less at 16%. These results show that when accuracy is not very important, it is better to get the wrong answer than to risk social disapproval.

An experiment using procedures similar to Asch's found that there was significantly less conformity in six-person groups of friends as compared to six-person groups of strangers.[9] Because friends already know and accept each other, there may be less normative pressure to conform in some situations. Field studies on cigarette and alcohol abuse, however, generally demonstrate evidence of friends exerting normative social influence on each other.[10]

Minority influence

Although conformity generally leads individuals to think and act more like groups, individuals are occasionally able to reverse this tendency and change the people around them. This is known as minority influence, a special case of informational influence. Minority influence is most likely when people are able to make a clear and consistent case for their point of view. If the minority fluctuates and shows uncertainty, the chance of influence is small. However, if the minority makes a strong, convincing case, it will increase the probability of changing the beliefs and behavior of the majority.[11] Minority members who are perceived as experts, are high in status, or have benefited the group in the past are also more likely to succeed.

Another form of minority influence can sometimes override conformity effects and lead to unhealthy group dynamics. A 2007 review of two dozen studies by the University of Washington found that a single "bad apple" (a lazy or inconsiderate group member) can substantially increase conflicts and reduce performance in work groups. Bad apples often create a negative emotional climate that interferes with healthy group functioning. They can be avoided by careful selection procedures and managed by reassigning them to positions that require less social interaction.[12]


Societal norms often establish gender differences. In general, this is the case for social conformity, as females are more likely to conform than males.[13],[14],[15],[16].

There are differences in the way men and women conform to social influence. Social psychologists, Alice Eagly and Linda Carli performed a meta-analysis of 148 studies of influenceability. They found that women are more persuasible and more conforming than men in group pressure situations that involve surveillance. In situations not involving surveillance, women are less likely to conform.

In a study by Sistrunk and McDavid at a private university, a public junior college, and at a high school, overall, females were more susceptible to social pressures than males. In fact, females conformed more than males 3 out of 4 times when they were presented masculine questions. Males conformed more than females 2 out of 4 times when they were presented feminine questions.[17]

The composition of the group plays a role in conformity as well. In a study by Reitan and Shaw, it was found that men and women conformed more when there were participants of both sexes involved versus participants of the same sex. Subjects in the groups with both sexes were more apprehensive when there was a discrepancy amongst group members, and thus the subjects reported that they doubted their own judgments.[16]

Eagly has proposed that this sex difference may be due to different sex roles in society. Women are generally taught to be more agreeable whereas men are taught to be more independent.[16]

Normative social influence explains women's attempt to create the ideal body through dieting, and also by eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Men, in contrast, are likely to pursue their ideal body image through dieting, steroids, and overworking their bodies, rather than developing eating disorders. Both men and women probably learn what kind of body is considered attractive by their culture through the process of informational social influence.[17]


Neuroimaging identifies the anterior insula and anterior cingulate as key areas in the brain determining whether people conform in their preferences in regard to its being popular with their peer group.[18] This conformity effect of ones peer group upon is strongest during adolescence.[19]

See also


  1. ^ a b Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2007). Social Psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  2. ^ Kelman, H. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1, 51-60.
  3. ^ Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. New York: Harper Collins.
  4. ^ a b Baron, R. S., Vandello, J. A., & Brunsman, B. (1996). The forgotten variable in conformity research: Impact of task importance on social influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 915-927.
  5. ^ Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D., and Welch, I. (1992), "A Theory of Fads, Fashion, Custom, and Cultural Change as Informational Cascades," Journal of Political Economy, Volume 100, Issue 5, pp. 992-1026.
  6. ^ Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193, 31-35.
  7. ^ Latane, B. (1981). The psychology of social impact. American Psychologist, 36, 343-365.
  8. ^ Latane, B. & Bourgeois, M. J. (2001). Successfully simulating dynamic social impact: Three levels of prediction. In Forgas & Williams (Eds.), Social influence: Direct and indirect processes. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
  9. ^ McKelvey, W. & Kerr, N. H. (1988). Differences in conformity among friends and strangers. Psychological Reports, 62, 759-762.
  10. ^ Urberg, K. A., Degirmencioglu, S. M. & Pilgrim, C. (1997). Close friend and group influence on adolescent cigarette smoking and alcohol use. Developmental Psychology, 33, 834-844.
  11. ^ Moscovici, S., & Nemeth, C. (1974). Minority influence. In C. Nemeth (Ed.), Social psychology: Classic and contemporary integrations (pp. 217-249). Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.
  12. ^ Rotten To The Core: How Workplace 'Bad Apples' Spoil Barrels Of Good Employees, Science Daily, Feb. 13, 2007
  13. ^ Applezweig, M. H., & Moeller, G. conforming beahvior and personality variables. Tech. Rep. 8, Contract Nonr 996 (02), Connecticut College, New London, 1958
  14. ^ Beloff, H. Two forms of social conformity: Acquiescence and conventionality. J. Abn. & Soc. Psychol., 1957, 54, 172-175.
  15. ^ Coleman, J. F., Blake, R. R. & Mouton, J. S. Task difficulty and conformity pressures. J. Abn. & Soc. Psychol., 1957, 57, 120-122.
  16. ^ a b Reitan, H. T. & Shaw, M. E. (1964). Group membership, sex-composition of the group, and conformity behavior. The Journal of Social Psychology, 64, 45-51.
  17. ^ Sistrunk, F. & McDavid, J. W. (1971). Sex variable in conforming behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 200-207.
  18. ^ Berns GS, Capra CM, Moore S, Noussair C. (2010). Neural mechanisms of the influence of popularity on adolescent ratings of music. Neuroimage. 49:2687–2696. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.10.070 PMID 19879365
  19. ^ Steinberg L, Monahan KC. (2007). Age differences in resistance to peer influence. Dev Psychol. Nov;43(6):1531-43. PMID 18020830

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