Conformity

Did you ever change your mind and follow your friends’ ideas? Maybe you shared an idea with your parents that you didn’t fully believe in just to avoid conflict. This is what conformity refers to. It is the shift of one’s ideas to fit the ideas of a group. Social psychologists have deeply studied this phenomenon in which all individuals engage.

Conformity Conformity

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Contents
Table of contents
    • This explanation offers an introduction to the topic, including the definition of conformity and some real-life examples of the phenomenon.
    • Moving on from this, the three types of conformity are reviewed: Compliance, Internalisation and Identification.
    • Then the explanation will present two explanations for conformity: Normative and Informational conformity.
    • Third, the variables affecting conformity will be explained: unanimity, group size and task difficulty.
    • Last, two well-known studies on conformity are discussed.

    Definition of Conformity

    Conformity - also called conformity bias - is a type of social influence in which individuals change their minds about an idea or belief they have to fit in with the beliefs of a group.

    The Americal Psychological Association defines conformity as "the adjustment of one's opinions, judgments, or actions so that they become more consistent with the opinions, judgments, or actions of other people".

    Conformity in Psychology

    Jenness (1932) pioneered social influence and conformity and conducted one of the first studies on the topic. Jenness’ (1932) study had two different parts. During part one, a glass bottle filled with beans was presented to the participants. Participants would be asked to estimate the number of beans they thought would be in the bottle. In the second part of the experiment, participants were put together in a room and were asked to discuss the number of beans in the bottle and provide one single estimate. After completing the task, participants were interviewed individually and asked whether they would like to change their original estimate. Surprisingly, many participants decided to change their original estimate and guess a number closer to the number they guessed as a group.

    Jenness was one of the first researchers investigating the topic of conformity. And today, there are thousands of psychologists devoting their careers to the topic and conducting research. Before moving on to learn more about conformity, let's consider some real-life examples.

    Explanations of Conformity

    Explaining why people shift their minds toward the group’s belief or not has also been in the spotlight of the research on obedience. In doing so, two explanations for conformity have been suggested that closely relate to the types of conformity: Normative conformity & Informational conformity.

    Normative conformity

    Normative conformity refers to the phenomenon in which individuals accept a different belief to go along with the group majority. Individuals engage in this type of conformity to avoid rejection and disapproval.

    Informational conformity

    Differently, informational conformity refers to the phenomenon in which individuals accept a different belief from their own because the evidence favours such a change in belief.

    An example of normative conformity is compliance, while an example of informational conformity is identification.

    Variables affecting conformity

    Certain characteristics have been identified which are meant to affect conformity. These characteristics are group size, unanimity and task difficulty.

    Evidence of the different characteristics comes from the famous study conducted by Asch in 1951. In his study, Asch investigated conformity thoroughly. He designed a single study with multiple little variations, which allowed him to come up with strong conclusions.

    The central design of the study was the following. Asch made groups of participants and made several confederates in each group. Confederates were participants who no longer were subjects under investigation but had been provided with instructions on what belief to defend. The task involved showing two cards to each participant; one showing three lines of different lengths and the other showing a ‘target’ line. Participants were asked to match the closest of the three lines in length to the ‘target’.

    Unanimity

    Evidence in favour of unanimity came from the scenario where the participant faced a group of all confederates. These confederates were told to argue for a single, wrong answer. Although the participant knew the answer was wrong, the confrontation made it more likely for the participant to conform with the group.

    Group size

    The size of the group was also shown to affect conformity. When the experiment included one confederate, one individual claimed the wrong answer to be right only 3% of the participants conformed with it. These results were different when two confederates were present. In this case, 13% of the participants conformed to the group and gave the wrong answer.

    Task difficulty

    One of the central conclusions that Asch established based on the results of the studies was that, as task difficulty increases, conformity rates also increase. This variation was tested as the similarity between the lines that participants had to judge decreased. The more similar the lines, the harder it was to judgement and the more participants used to conform to the group.

    Although Asch (1951) contributed to the research in conformity, his study is not exempt from limitations. The study has been criticised for:

    • presenting a biased sample. All participants were male and belonged to the same age group. This makes the sample lack of validity and does not allow the generalisation of the results to wider populations.
    • lacking ecological validity given that Asch's experiment involved a fairly artificial task, that is not usual in everyday life.
    • lacking ethical considerations. Participants were in fact deceived by the group, which sets the study to lack protection from harm to the participants.

    Despite the criticism, the results have been replicated in other similar studies, which accounted for the limitations of Asch’s (1051) study.

    Other Studies on conformity

    Zimbardo (1971)

    Zimbardo investigated whether group cruelty resulted from people’s personalities or their environment (situational). Twenty-four paid participants were randomly assigned the role of either ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner’. Prisoners were taken blindfolded to the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department, which was set up to look like a prison. Within a few hours of the prisoners’ arrival, both groups exhibited behaviour typical of their assigned groups. The guards, in particular, became very cruel. Results showed that group cruelty was mainly situational, as the guards only acted this way due to the group they had been assigned to but were otherwise stable, ordinary people.

    This study resembles blind conformity or blind obedience. This type of obedience takes place when someone follows the orders or instructions of a person or group, regardless of whether they think these are right or wrong.

    Sherif (1935)

    Sherif proposed that people were more likely to conform in an unclear or ambiguous situation. He projected an unmoving light onto a screen in a dark room, which appeared to move. This is known as the 'autokinetic effect. Participants were then asked to estimate the light's length in cm, resulting in varied answers. Then, Sherif had participants put into groups of three, deliberately grouping two participants with closer estimates with one with a very different estimate. He found that by asking participants to say their estimates aloud, each group member had similar answers. The group member with the most inaccurate estimate tended to conform to the other two members, making their estimate more similar to the rest of the group's.

    Examples of Conformity

    Conformity is so common in our society that there are numerous real-life examples in which you'll see yourself mirrored.

    • Cueing: You probably cue at a shop before you pay or even before getting on a bus. Cues are an example of conformity that emerged to establish order in societies. These days, if a group of people stand in a cue, you will likely line up and wait for your turn.
    • Marriage: Getting married is also a conformity example. It is generally believed in western societies that a 30-year-old who is married and has a stable job is successful. This, therefore, is why many individuals follow this approach.
    • Eating habits: Something as fundamental as eating can also be subjected to conformity. Individuals may change their eating habits and stop eating meat because many individuals around them decide to do so.
    • Fashion: Wearing a uniform is another example of conformity.

    The examples are numerous, and by this time, you can probably come up with examples of your own. Let's move on to discuss the different types of conformity.

    Types of Conformity

    When investigating conformity, researchers have aimed to explain how people decide to shift their minds toward the group's belief or not. And in doing so, three types of conformity have emerged: Compliance, Internalisation and Identification.

    Compliance

    Compliance is the type of conformity in which individuals conform to the group's beliefs to avoid confrontation or disapproval. This type of conformity usually occurs when the majority's idea is different from the individual's.

    An example of compliance is an individual who agrees with the negative view of homosexual marriage expressed in an elderly home as they visit their family member. In this example, engaging in compliance will avoid disapproval and prevent conflict.

    Conformity, two hands with wedding rings, StudySmarterFig. 1 Compliance can alter our views.

    Internalisation

    Internalisation refers to the type of conformity in which an individual goes with the group's belief because they accept and share it. Usually, individuals are likely to reconsider one's ideas when someone else expresses a conflicting idea. At this moment, someone reconsiders their ideas. Individuals are likely to engage in internalisation.

    An example of internalisation is someone who is against abortion. After watching a debate on ethics and politics, someone may reconsider their ideas and, thus, change their mind about the issue.

    Identification

    Identification is somehow a mix between compliance and internalisation. When engaging in identification, individuals are likely to change their belief for the one stated by the group but are not likely to internalise it and make it their own. This way, the person's opinion may change once they are out of the group.

    A young person may think that technology is key to developing medical treatments. However, they know that their parent's opinions are opposing and have discussed the topic multiple times. The young person may share one belief in front of their parents and another in a different context.

    Conformity bias

    Conformity bias refers to a type of cognitive bias. Cognitive biases are defined as thinking styles that are faulty or inaccurate. Concerning political views, for example, conformity bias can occur if an individual decides to vote for a given party because their closest friends have expressed a favourable opinion about such a political party. This can also happen in recruiting panels where the majority of the panel is interested in a given candidate, making another panel member see the candidate s favourable.

    Individuals engage in cognitive bias unconsciously. However, one needs to try and employ data when available to make judgements as objective as possible.

    Conformity - Key takeaways

    • Conformity is a type of social influence, in which individuals change their minds about an idea or belief they have, to fit in with the beliefs of a group.
    • Researchers have identified three types of conformity: Compliance, Internalization and Identification.

    • Conformity has been suggested to happen either as normative (individuals accept a different belief to go along with the group majority) or informational (individuals accept a different belief to go along with the group majority) conformity.

    • Asch (1951) contributed to the current understanding of conformity by establishing three different variables affecting conformity: unanimity, group size and task difficulty.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Conformity

    What is conformity?

    Conformity is a type of social influence, in which individuals change their minds about an idea or belief they have, to fit in with the beliefs of a group. 


    Is obedience a type of conformity?

    Although obedience is not one of the three types of conformity, obedience has been widely used in psychological research on conformity. A good example of how obedience was used in a study is Zimbardo's (1971) prison study.

    What is blind conformity?

    Blind conformity or blind obedience is when someone follows the orders or instructions of a person or group regardless of whether they think it is right or wrong to do so.

    What is cultural conformity?

    Cultural conformity is when someone changes their behaviour and ideas due to the cultural norms of their environment. In the present-day UK for example, men and women can wear a wide variety of clothes in public, as our society no longer has strict cultural rules for informal clothing. Therefore, people wear whatever they want. In the 1940’s though, people would wear very similar, formal clothing as the cultural norms were different.

    What is the difference between conformity and obedience?

    The main difference between conformity and obedience is power. In conformity, we may change our behaviour to match a group of our peers. Obedience, however, is changing one’s behaviour in response to obey a higher authority.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    People in individualistic cultures are more likely to conform.

    Which study used an ambiguous situation to test conformity?

    Zimbardo (1971) found that...

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