Sometimes people conform even when they are aware that it is not the right thing to do. This essay will explore the reasons and factors that influence conformity. Research into conformity became very important at the end of the World War Two, as many people hypothesised that Germans were born evil. It has since been proven that most people will, at some point in their lives, obey an unjust command. Conformity is a part of social psychology. Social influence involves the exercise of social power by a person or group to change the attitudes or behaviour of others in a particular direction.
Social and cultural factors (Perrin and Spencer 1980) that affect behaviour include: social norms, cultural expectations and upbringing.
The main concern of social psychologists such as Asch (1951) is to understand behaviour in a social context and the ways in which the social context can influence behaviour. Conformity is a type of social influence involving a change or belief in behaviour in order to fit within a group.
Conformity can also be “Yielding to group pressures” (Crutchfield, 1955: 191-198). Conformity can be both desirable and undesirable. The difference between these types of conformity is that desirable conformity is conforming to rules in society such as social norms and law and order, where as undesirable conformity is conforming to something even when the person conforming, knows is it wrong.
For example the case of Rodney King which occurred in 1991 is a prime example of what undesirable conformity is. This case involved four police officers being acquitted for using excessive force against a black motorist named Rodney King.
This case proved to cause major up roar with the black community as 10 of the jurors who acquitted the police officers of the charger, was white. One of the first psychologist to ever study conformity was Jennes (1932). His experiment focused on why people conform using informational social influence which is defined as: conformity due to the perceived superior knowledge or judgement of others, which can change private opinion. This was proven through this experiment which included a glass jar filled with beans. Participants we’re asked individually to estimate how many beans were in the jar.
Shortly after, participants we’re then asked to estimate the number of beans in the jar by means of a group discussion. Towards the end of the experiment, participants were asked to re estimate their guess, and interviewed to see if they would like to change their decision. Almost all of the participants changed their individual estimates, closer to the agreed estimate of the group discussion. Man (1969) identified other types of social conformity: normative and informational conformity. Normative conformity is when a person yield to group pressures because the person wants to fit in with the group.
It can also include individuals conforming to prevent being rejected by a group. This type of conformity usually involves compliance where a person publicly accepts the views of a group but privately rejects them. Informational conformity occurs when a person lacks knowledge and looks to the group for guidance, or when the person is in an ambiguous situation and socially compares their behaviour with the group. This was proven with Sherif (1935) using the auto kinetic affect, where he concluded that individuals answers varied on how far the light moved. He found that after the group converged, they conformed to an estimate they all agreed on.
This experiment showed that people conform, if they think that others know more than them, and they want to follow the group to do the right thing. This type of conformity usually involves internalisation – where a person accepts the views of the groups and adopts them as an individual. However Sherif’s study (1935) lacked ecological validity because we cannot possibly generalise from this to real life situations. The breach of section 3 of the BPS ethical guidelines we’re also a criticism of this study as participants were deceived by being told that the light was moving when clearly, it was not. According to Kelman (1958) he identified three other types of social conformity: compliance, internalisation and identification.
Compliance is when a person publicly changes 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 type of conformity was evident in the line study performed by Asch (1951). This experiment seen an individual (referred to as X), being asked to choose between three lines of which one is the longest. Not knowing that other individuals in the experiment would purposely give an obvious incorrect answer, X conformed and agreed with the incorrect answer obviously knowing that the answer he would give is wrong.
With regards to Asch’s (1951) line study, this experiment was seen as biased due to the fact that all participants involved were male, but also low in ecological validity as it is unlikely to happen in everyday life. Breaches of the ethical guidelines included section 7, because participants were not protected from psychological distress which may occur if they disagreed with the majority. Asch also deceived the participants by telling them they were taking part in a “vision” test (breach of section 3) when really was using them for other reasons. In addition, results do not seem to be consistent over time, as the study later carried out by Perrin and Spencer 1980 in the UK, showed lower results of conformity.
Internalisation is when an individual publicly changes their behaviour but unlike compliance, the individual agrees privately as well as publicly, which can also be seen in Sherif’s study (1935). Identification is when an individual conforms to the expectation of a social role, similarly to compliance there does not have to be a change in private opinion. This was proven in Zimbardo’s prison study carried out by Dr Phillip Zimbardo (1973). Volunteers took part in an experiment where half would be prison guards and half would be prisoners. This experiment proved that individuals conformed dramatically.
Key findings showed changes due to power rather than personality, progressive increase in the guards aggression, stereotypes/expectation of role influenced actions of both guards and prisoners (identification), guards acted similarly to each other, as did prisoners and obedience was evident, with the guards having the power to force prisoners to behave in ways they did not want to. This experiment is a key example of how to explain normative social influence in its entirety. Guards and prisoners we’re given their roles to play, evidently showing that normative social influence was a sign. Guards acted in the same way as each other, to prevent being rejected by the group they we’re involved in. Similarly with the prisoners, they acted like prisoners, by causing a riot.
All members of the prison volunteers took part in this riot which indicates that they we’re influenced by normative social influence. In addition similarly with the guards, prisoners didn’t act differently to their other fellow prisoners, due to the risk of being rejected and possibly physically harmed by them. Zimbardo’s (1973) study received many ethical criticisms, including lack of fully informed consent which is a vital part of the BPS ethical guidelines, and the level of humiliation and distress experienced by those who acted as prisoners.
However consent could not be fully informed as the experiment was unpredictable and would research would not have been valid otherwise. Other breaches of the ethical guidelines included the prevention of physical and psychological harm as numerous individuals were physically and psychologically abused. This was evident after a participant was released after 36 hours in to the experiment due to psychological distress. Not everybody conforms to social pressures. For example Smith and Bond (1998) discovered cultural differences in conformity between western and eastern countries. They found that people from western cultures such as America and Britain, are more likely to be individualistic and don’t want to be seen as the same as everyone else.
In contrast eastern cultures such as Asian countries, are more likely to value the needs of the families and other social groups before their own. Despite many studies giving us an invaluable understanding of what causes conformity and how people conform, numerous studies regarding conformity have been found to have breached the ethical guidelines on unaccountable occasions, as stated below each experiment. Sections of the BPS include: General consideration of ethics first (1), Deception of participants (3), protection from physical and psychological harm (7) and advice offered freely to participants (9).
Many of these have been breached in numerous experiments. Finally, all members of society are inevitably going to conform at some stage in their lives. We even conform unconsciously knowing that we are doing it, we conform in society and quite obviously conformity is a vital part of our lives. It is fair to say that some conformists conform for the wrong reasons, but from carrying out extensive research in to the studies stated above, it has allowed us to understand the different types of conformity, the effects of conformity but most imperatively the reasons for conformity.
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Jenness, A. (1932). The role of discussion in changing opinion regarding a matter of fact. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27 , 279-296. Kelman, H. C. (1958). “Compliance, identification, and internalization: three processes of attitude change”. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 51–60. Mann, L (1969). Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27(187) . Smith, P.B. and Bond, M.H. (1993). Social Psychology Across Cultures: Analysis and Perspectives. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.