Conformity in Psychology


Imagine yourself in the following situation: You sign up for a psychology experiment, and on a specified date you and seven others whom you think are also subjects arrive and are seated at a table in a small room. You don’t know it at the time, but the others are actually associates of the experimenter, and their behaviour has been carefully scripted. You’re the only real subject. The experimenter arrives and tells you that the study in which you are about to participate concerns people’s visual judgments.

She places two cards before you. The card on the left contains one vertical line. The card on the right displays three lines of varying length. The experimenter asks all of you, one at a time, to choose which of the three lines on the right card matches the length of the line on the left card.

The task is repeated several times with different cards. On some occasions the other “subjects” unanimously choose the wrong line.

It is clear to you that they are wrong, but they have all given the same answer. What would you do? Would you go along with the majority opinion, or would you “stick to your guns” and trust your own eyes? This is the situation in conformity. People tend to conform in situations such as that stated above either by a desire to ‘fit in’ or be liked (normative) or because of a desire to be correct (informational) or simply to conform to a social role (identification).

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This study is going to be focused on human beings, their tendency to conform and the reasons why they conform.

Conformity in psychology

Conformityis the act of matching attitudes, beliefs and behaviour to group norms. It is the type of social influence involving a change in belief or behaviour in order to fit in with a group. . Norms are implicit rules shared by a group of individuals, that guide their interactions with others and among society or social group. People tend to conform when in small groups and/or society as a whole. It is as a result of subtle unconscious influences or direct and overt social pressure. People could even conform when they are alone i.e. eating or watching television. This change is in response to real (involving the physical presence of others) or imagined (involving the presence of social norms and/or expectations) group pressure. According to Crutchfield (1955), conformity can be defined as “yielding to group pressures” which could take the form of bullying, criticism, persuasion, teasing etc.

Conformity is also known as majority influence (or group pressure). It is often brought up by a desire to ‘fit in’ or to ‘be liked’ (normative) or because of a desire to be correct (informational), or simply to conform to social role (identification).

Though peer pressure could manifest negatively, conformity can have a bad or good effect depending on the situation. Driving on the correct side of the road could be seen as a beneficial conformity. Conformity influences formation and maintenance of social norms, and helps societies function smoothly and predictably via the self-elimination of behaviours seen as contrary to written rules. In this sense, it can be perceived as (though not proven to be) a positive force that prevents acts that are perceptually disruptive or dangerous.

The term conformity is often used to indicate an agreement to the majority position, brought about either by a desire to ‘fit in’ or be liked (normative) or because of a desire to be correct (informational), or simply to conform to a social role (identification). There have been many experiments in psychology investigating conformity and group pressure. What affects Conformity?


Berry studied two different populations: the Temne (collectivists) and the Inuit (individualists) and found that the Temne conformed more than the Inuit when exposed to a conformity task. Bond and Smith compared, (1996) 134 studies in a meta-analysis and found that Japan and Brazil were two nations that conformed a lot whereas Europe and the United States of America did not as much.


Societal norms often establish gender differences.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 persuadable and more conforming than men in group pressure situations that involve surveillance. In situations not involving surveillance, women are less likely to conform. 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.

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. Sistrunk and McDavid made the hypothesis that women conformed more because of a methodological bias. They argued that because stereotypes used in studies are generally male ones (sports, cars…) more than female ones (cooking, fashion…), women are feeling uncertain and conformed more, which was confirmed by their results.

Size of the group

Milgram and his colleagues found that if one individual stops and stares at the sky, only 4% of the people would stop as well and 40% would look at the sky, whereas if fifteen confederates do it, those numbers become respectively 40% and 90%.

Psychologist view on Conformity

Jenness (1932) was the first psychologist to study conformity. His experiment was an ambiguous situation involving a glass bottle filled with beans. He asked participants individually to estimate how many beans the bottle contained. Jenness then put the group in a room with the bottle, and asked them to provide a group estimate through discussion. Participants were then asked to estimate the number on their own again to find whether their initial estimates had altered based on the influence of the majority. Jenness then interviewed the participants individually again, and asked if they would like to change their original estimates, or stay with the group’s estimate. Almost all changed their individual guesses to be closer to the group estimate.

Another experiment performed on conformity was the Sherif Autokinetic Effect Experiment. Sherif (1935)

Autokinetic Effect Experiment

Aim: Sherif (1935) conducted an experiment with the aim of demonstrating that people conform to group norms when they are put in an ambiguous (i.e. unclear) situation. Method: Sherif used a lab experiment to study conformity. He used the autokinetic effect – this is where a small spot of light (projected onto a screen) in a dark room will appear to move, even though it is still (i.e. it is a visual illusion).

It was discovered that when participants were individually tested their estimates on how far the light moved varied considerably (e.g. from 20cm to 80cm). The participants were then tested in groups of three. Sherif manipulated the composition of the group by putting together two people whose estimate of the light movement when alone was very similar, and one person whose estimate was very different. Each person in the group had to say aloud how far they thought the light had moved. Results: Sherif found that over numerous estimates (trials) of the movement of light, the group converged to a common estimate.

As the figure below shows: the person whose estimate of movement was greatly different to the other two in the group conformed to the view of the other two. Sherif said that this showed that people would always tend to conform. Rather than make individual judgments they tend to come to a group agreement. Conclusion: The results show that when in an ambiguous situation (such as the autokinetic effect), a person will look to others (who know more / better) for guidance (i.e. adopt the group norm). They want to do the right thing but may lack the appropriate information. Observing others can provide this information. This is known as informational conformity.

Types of Conformity

Man (1969) states that “the essence of conformity is yielding to group pressure”. He identified three types of conformity: Normative, informational and ingratiational. Harvard psychologist HerbertKelman (1958) distinguished between three different types of conformity: Compliance, Internalization and identification. Compliance is public conformity, while possibly keeping one’s own original beliefs for yourself . Compliance is motivated by the need for approval and the fear of being rejected Identification is conforming to someone who is liked and respected, such as a celebrity or a favourite uncle. This can be motivated by the attractiveness of the source,[11] and this is a deeper type of conformism than compliance. Internalization is accepting the belief or behaviour and conforming both publicly and privately, if the source is credible. It is the deepest influence on people and it will affect them for a long time. Although Kelman’s distinction has been influential, research in social psychology has focused primarily on two varieties of conformity.

These are informational conformity, or informational social influence, and normative conformity, also called normative social influence. In 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 indefinable in this context. For Deutsch and Gérard (1955), conformity results from a motivational conflict (between the fear of being socially rejected and the wish to say what we think is correct) that leads to the normative influence, and a cognitive conflict (others create doubts in what we think) which leads to the informational influence.

Informational influence

Informational social influence occurs when one turns to the members of one’s group to obtain and accept accurate information about reality. A person is most likely to use informational social influence in certain situations: when a situation is ambiguous, people become uncertain about what to do and they are more likely to depend on others for the answer; and 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 influence seems to be what happened during Sherif’s study.

Normative influence

Normative social influence occurs when one conforms to be liked or accepted by the members of the group. This need of social approval and acceptance is part of our state of humans. In addition to this, we know that when people do not conform with their group and therefore are deviants, they are less liked and even punished by the group. Normative influence usually results in public compliance, doing or saying something without believing in it. The experiment of Asch in 1951 is one example of normative influence In a reinterpretation of the original data from these experiments Hodges and Geyer (2006) found that Asch’s subjects were not so conformist after all: The experiments provide powerful evidence for people’s tendency to tell the truth even when others do not.

They also provide compelling evidence of people’s concern for others and their views. By closely examining the situation in which Asch’s subjects find themselves they find that the situation places multiple demands on participants: They include truth (i.e., expressing one’s own view accurately), trust (i.e., taking seriously the value of others’ claims), and social solidarity (i.e., a commitment to integrate the views of self and others without deprecating either). In addition to these epistemic values, there are multiple moral claims as well: These include the need for participants to care for the integrity and well-being of other participants, the experimenter, themselves, and the worth of scientific research. Deutsch & Gérard (1955) designed different situations that variated from Asch’ experiment and found that when participants were writing their answer privately, they were giving the correct one Normative influence, a function of social impact theory, has three components.

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. Baron and his colleagues conducted a second eyewitness study that focused on normative influence. In this version, the task was easier. Each participant had 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. 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.

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 can 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, a minority that makes a strong, convincing case increases the probability of changing the majority’s beliefs and behaviours.

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” (an inconsiderate or negligent 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.

All these are illustrated in the table below:

Normative ConformityInformational Conformity

•Yielding to group pressure because a person wants to fit in with the group. E.g. Asch Line Study. •Conforming because the person is scared of being rejected by the group. •This type of conformity usually involves compliance – where a person publicly accepts the views of a group but privately rejects them.•This usually occurs when a person lacks knowledge and looks to the group for guidance. •Or when a person is in an ambiguous (i.e. unclear) situation and socially compares their behavior with the group. E.g. Sherif Study. •This type of conformity usually involves internalization – where a person accepts the views of the groups and adopts them as an individual.


•Publicly changing behaviour to fit in with the group while privately disagreeing. •In other words, conforming to the majority (publicly), in spite of not really agreeing with them (privately). •This is seen in Asch’s line experiment.

•Publicly changing behavior to fit in with the group and also agreeing with them privately. •This is seen in Sherif’s autokinetic experiment.

Ingratiational ConformityIdentification

•Where a person conforms to impress or gain favor/acceptance from other people. •It is similar to normative influence but is motivated by the need for social rewards rather than the threat of rejection, i.e., group pressure does not enter the decision to conform.•Conforming to the expectations of a social role. •Similar to compliance, there does not have to be a change in private opinion. •A good example is Zimbardo’s Prison Study.

Source: Mann, L (1969). Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27(187) .

However, perhaps the most famous conformity experiment was by Solomon Asch (1951) and his line judgment experiment.

Solomon Asch’ Paradigm/Experiment

The Asch experiment or paradigm

It is closely related to the Stanford prison and Miligan experiment, in that it tries to show how perfectly normal human beings can be pressurized into unusual behaviour by authority figures, or by the consensus of opinions around them. The Asch paradigm was a series of laboratory studies published in the 1950s that demonstrated a surprising degree of conformity to a majority opinion. Solomon Asch attributed his research on group conformity based on an experiment he had as a child while growing up in Poland. It was Passover and he stayed up late to participate, his grandmother set out an
extra glass of wine on the table and when he asked who the wine was for, his uncle answered him that it was for the prophet Elijah. Asch was “filled with the sense of suggestion and expectation” and believed that he even saw the level of the wine slightly decrease.

At the beginning of the Second World War (WWII), Asch began studying the effects of propaganda and indoctrination at Brooklyn College. According to the Encarta dictionaries, propaganda means “misleading publicity: deceptive or distorted information that is systematically spread”. Indoctrination on the other hand is simply “to cause to believe something: to teach somebody a belief, doctrine or ideology thoroughly and systematically, especially with the goal of discouraging independent thought or the acceptance of other opinions”

Social Pressure and Perception

In 1951 social psychologist Solomon Asch devised this experiment to examine the extent to which pressure from other people could affect one’s perceptions. In total, about one third of the subjects who were placed in this situation went along with the clearly erroneous majority. Asch showed bars like those in the Figure to college students in groups of 8 to 10. He told them he was studying visual perception and that their task was to decide which of the bars on the right was the same length as the one on the left.

As you can see, the task is simple, and the correct answer is obvious. Asch asked the students to give their answers aloud. He repeated the procedure with 18 sets of bars. Only one student in each group was a real subject. All the others were confederates who had been instructed to give two correct answers and then to some incorrect answers on the remaining ‘staged’ trials. Asch arranged for the real subject to be the next-to-the-last person in each group to announce his answer so that he would hear most of the confederates incorrect responses before giving his own. Would he go along with the crowd?

Solomon Asch far right – real subject – third from right.

To Asch’s surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed themselves to the ‘obviously erroneous’ answers given by the other group members at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the ‘staged’ trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean subject conformed on 4 of the ‘staged’ trials. Asch was disturbed by these results: “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.”

Real subject leans forward to get a better view of the lines being displayed. This particular individual insisted that “he has to call them as he sees them” and disagreed with the consensus over each of ‘staged’ trials. Why did the subjects conform so readily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought “peculiar.” A few of them said that they really did believe the group’s answers were correct. Asch conducted a revised version of his experiment to find out whether the subjects truly did not believe their incorrect answers.

When they were permitted to write down their answers after hearing the answers of others, their level of conformity declined to about one third what it had been in the original experiment. Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to be liked by the group and because they believe the group is better informed than they are. Suppose you go to a fancy dinner party and notice to your dismay that there are four forks beside your plate. When the first course arrives, you are not sure which fork to use. If you are like most people, you look around and use the fork everyone else is using. You do this because you want to be accepted by the group and because you assume the others know more about table etiquette than you do.

Conformity, group size, and cohesiveness

Asch found that one of the situational factors that influence conformity is the size of the opposing majority. In a series of studies he varied the number of confederates who gave incorrect answers from 1 to 15.

The subjects’ responses varied with the level of ‘majority opinion’ they were faced with. He found that the subjects conformed to a group of 3 or 4 as readily as they did to a larger group. However, the subjects conformed much less if they had an “ally” In some of his experiments, Asch instructed one of the confederates to give correct answers. In the presence of this nonconformist, the real subjects conformed only one fourth as much as they did in the original experiment. There were several reasons: First, the real subject observed that the majority did not ridicule the dissenter for his answers. Second, the dissenter’s answers made the subject more certain that the majority was wrong.

Third, the real subject now experienced social pressure from the dissenter as well as from the majority. Many of the real subjects later reported that they wanted to be like their nonconformist partner (the similarity principle again). Apparently, it is difficult to be a minority of one but not so difficult to be part of a minority of two. Some of the subjects indicated afterward that they assumed the rest of the people were correct and that their own perceptions were wrong. Others knew they were correct but didn’t want to be different from the rest of the group. Some even insisted they saw the line lengths as the majority claimed to see them. Asch concluded that it is difficult to maintain that you see something when no one else does. The group pressure implied by the expressed opinion of other people can lead to modification and distortions effectively making you see almost anything.

Conclusion and Comparison
Public conformity vs. social influence

The Asch conformity experiments are often interpreted as evidence for the power of conformity and normative social influence. That is, the willingness to conform publicly in order to attain social reward and avoid social punishment. Others have argued that it is rational to use other people’s judgments as evidence. Along the lines of the latter perspective, the Asch conformity experiments are cited as evidence for the self-categorization theory account of social influence. From that perspective the Asch results are interpreted as an outcome of depersonalization processes whereby the participants expect to hold the same opinions as similar others. Social comparison theory

The conformity demonstrated in Asch experiments is problematic for social comparison theory, which predicts that social reality testing, or informational influence, will arise when physical reality testing yields uncertainty. The Asch conformity experiments demonstrated that uncertainty can arise as an outcome of social reality testing. Relatedly, this inconsistency has been used to support the position that the theoretical distinction between social reality testing and physical reality testing is untenable.


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