Conformity to Social Roles

What if you went to a school where all the popular kids walk around with hula hoops on their arms? This may sound odd, but I bet you could think of a few odd things at your school that are considered normal that might not be in other places. Have you ever considered why? Chances are, it's because of conformity to social roles of being "popular".

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Contents
Table of contents
    • What is the theory behind conformity to social roles?
    • How can we explain behaviour in terms of conformity to social roles?

    • What are some evaluation studies of conformity to social roles?

    • What are the benefits of conforming to social roles?

    • What are some examples of conformity to social roles?

    Conformity to Social Roles Theory

    Whether people accept or reject social roles and norms, the expectations that society puts on people and how they react to them play a big part in understanding human behaviour in terms of conformity to social roles. This is why it’s an important topic in social psychology. We will now explore the theory and examples of the topic and discuss research into conformity to social roles.

    Social conformity is when individuals change their behaviour to match what is expected of them by a group or within a specific social setting.

    Social norms are appropriate or acceptable behaviour for members of a particular group (‘normal behaviour’).

    Taking off shoes before entering a household is customary in many Asian countries; this is an example of a social norm.

    Social norms can be formal, such as following ethical standards for professions, or informal, such as cultural customs.

    But why do we conform to social roles? Well, Deutsch and Gerard (1955) suggested two types of influences on why people choose to change their behaviour -- informational influence and normative influence.

    • Informational influence is when a person changes their behaviour because they want to be correct. When it comes to social roles, someone might choose their clothes based on what is socially "correct" for their gender to wear.

    • Normative influence is when a person changes their behaviour to avoid some kind of punishment. Have you ever felt like you had to behave a certain way to avoid being made fun of or to seem "cool"? Chances are, this was a normative influence.

    Conformity to Social Roles, line of military soldiers in red, StudySmarterFig. 1. - Conformity to social roles often occurs in the military due to normative influences.

    Behaviour in Terms of Conformity to Social Roles

    The reason that people conform is that they identify with a group. Identification is a type of conformity that means that values are shared with a group that someone wants to be a part of, but the behaviour change isn’t quite as permanent as internalisation.

    Social roles are the patterns of behaviour that members of a group take on, as a part in a film or play. Expectations regarding behaviour accompany these patterns. Some roles are present from birth (e.g. gender, social status), while others are acquired (e.g., profession, marital status). Typical roles could be student, teacher, mother, child, salesperson, or customer.

    The role of ‘child’ would come with the expectation that this person is carefree, dependent, and obedient, whereas, for the role of ‘parent’, the expectation would be for them to be authoritative, responsible, and caring.

    Conformity to Social Roles Evaluation Studies

    Naturally, social psychologists have designed several studies so they can better understand conformity to social roles. There are two evaluation studies of conformity to social roles that are quite notable in the field -- Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, and the BBC Prison Study.

    Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment

    One of the most famous and controversial experiments regarding social conformity was Phillip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which investigated the power of social norms and roles. Here, participants of a study were randomly assigned the role of ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner’ and kept in a simulated jail for six days. The experiment ended with unexpected levels of abuse and distress subjected to the participants by the guards.

    Zimbardo’s main conclusion from the experiment was that anyone could turn abusive, given the right situational circumstances.

    The BBC Prison Study

    An additional study into conformity to social roles took place in 2002. Researchers Haslam and Reicher recreated the Stanford prison experiment for a BBC television series in the BBC Prison Study. Again, participants were randomly assigned a role, but in contrast to the Stanford Prison Experiment, safeguarding measures were implemented. Haslam and Reich’s results differed from Zimbardo’s; the prisoners did not spontaneously take to their assigned roles, and the experiment fell apart.

    Conformity to Social Roles Benefits

    What are the disadvantages and advantages of conformity to social roles? Conforming to social roles benefit people in different ways; it can be seen as protection against social rejection and help the different members of society work together smoothly. This is because it makes it easier to predict the behaviour of others and adjust your behaviour accordingly.

    If you know that everyone on the road will drive on the left-hand side, it makes it safer for you to drive on the left side as well. If you know that a teacher will speak to you calmly and respectfully, it’s easier to concentrate on the subject matter. If you wear skater clothes and go skateboarding, you’re more likely to be accepted by the skateboarding community.

    Unfortunately, conforming to social roles can suppress minorities and uniformity of thought (‘groupthink’), limiting creativity, individuality and innovation. It can even lead to discrimination against groups that don’t conform. For instance, illnesses or disabilities lead to people behaving in ways that are not in keeping with societal expectations of adults.

    People with M.S. (multiple sclerosis) sometimes lose their balance due to their condition. Still, an adult stumbling is mostly associated with anti-social behaviour and intoxication, so often, people with M.S. get mistreated as they’re seen not to be conforming to a social norm.

    Conformity to Social Roles Examples

    Have you ever seen one of those fashion videos that show how men's and women's clothing has evolved over time? Have you ever thought about why that is? Why does one generation generally dress the same? Well, this is a great example of conformity to social roles.

    What are the odds of seeing a picture of a woman from the 1930s wearing distressed jeans or a man from the 1850s wearing a denim jacket?

    Social roles can majorly affect what is considered socially appropriate for a person to wear. Women in the 1930s were generally expected to wear dresses, and men in the 1850s were likelier to wear a vest, a tie and perhaps a top hat to appear of certain status. People often conform to these social roles to fit in and feel accepted. A woman could have worn trousers in the 1930s, but chances are she would have faced a fair amount of criticism.

    Though, as it would seem, someone chose not to conform to the social roles, seeing that women in most countries can now freely choose what's most comfortable for them.

    Conformity to Social Roles, close up picture of yellow kitty sitting on stone ledge, StudySmarterFig 2 - Hello Kitty is the result of conformity to social roles.

    Conformity to social roles can influence so many aspects of a person's behaviour. But luckily, social roles and exceptions can evolve and change as well. Take the following case for example.

    What do Nyan Cat, Pokemon, and Hello Kitty have to do with conformity to social roles? These simplified, cute characters developed out of the cultural phenomenon of ‘Kawaii’ (Japanese for ‘cute’) that started in the late 1970s in Japan as a rejection of social roles and norms. It began when an increasing number of teenage girls started writing school texts with rounded letters, exclamation points, and pictures; so much so that this unorthodox way of writing was banned in schools.

    The simplified, rounded graphic style became the hallmark of the desire of teenagers of the time to rebel against the expectations put on them by society. These expectations included taking life more seriously, getting a job, acting seriously, and starting a family. Instead, this new way of writing allowed young people to express themselves freely and have fun by retaining their playful and childlike innocence. Since then, Kawaii has become mainstream and has influenced much of Japanese culture, from food and entertainment, to how people dress and act.

    Conformity to Social Roles - Key takeaways

    • Social conformity is when individuals change their behaviour to match what is expected of them by a group or within a specific social setting.
    • Social roles are the patterns of behaviour that members of a group take on, as a part in a film or play. Expectations regarding behaviour accompany these patterns.
    • There are two evaluation studies of conformity to social roles that are quite notable in the field -- Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, and the BBC Prison Study.

    • Conforming to social roles benefit people in different ways; it can be seen as protection against social rejection, and help the different members of society work together smoothly.
    • Conformity to social roles can influence so many aspects of a person's behaviour. But luckily, social roles and exceptions can evolve and change as well such as in the phenomenon called "Kawaii".

    Conformity to Social Roles Conformity to Social Roles
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Conformity to Social Roles

    What is behaviour in terms of conformity to social roles?

    Social roles determine what is acceptable behaviour in society and what is not. Depending on which role is assigned to an individual, different behaviours are expected. For example, it’s acceptable for a child to crawl on the floor in a supermarket, but not an adult.

    What are the benefits of conforming to social roles?

    Conformity to social roles makes it easier for people to predict others’ behaviour. When behaving in a conform manner, that can be seen as insurance against social rejection.

    What are some additional studies into conformity to social roles?

    Beyond the Stanford Prison Experiment and the BBC prison study, Carnahan (2007) replicated the Stanford Prison Experiment where he used both the original and an alternative ad to recruit for the study that didn’t mention the word ‘prison’. He found that those responding to the ‘prison’ and, on average, had higher scores in tests on aggression than the other group.

    What is social conformity?

    Social conformity is when individual changes their behaviour to match what is expected of them by a group or within a specific social setting. The reason that people conform is that they identify with a group. Identification is a type of conformity that means that values are shared with a group that someone wants to be a part of, but the behaviour change isn’t quite as permanent as internalisation.

    What is an example of social conformity?

    Conformity to a social role would be acting more authoritatively when you’re the captain of a sports team than you would be if you’re out and about with your friends. This change in behaviour could be explained by you fulfilling the role expected in each group.

    How do social roles influence conformity in society?

    Social roles are the patterns of behaviour that members of a group take on, as a part of a film or play. Expectations regarding behaviour accompany these patterns. Some roles are present from birth (e.g., gender, social status), others are acquired (e.g., profession, marital status). Typical roles could be student, teacher, mother, child, salesperson, or customer.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When travelling to Thailand, it is not acceptable to touch the heads of children. This is because the head is considered sacred. Which of the following terms is this custom an example of?

    When we switch to the autonomous state, we no longer feel personally responsible for our actions.

    Were guards allowed to harm the prisoners during Zimbardo's study?

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