The Power of Social Norms: A Study of Conformity and Peer Pressure

Phillip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment studied how individuals respond to assigned roles in a simulated prison environment, highlighting the impact of social norms on behavior and the significance of conformity and peer pressure.

The experiment highlighted the prevalence of external attribution over internal attribution in individuals, causing them to display behavior that differs greatly from their typical patterns. These intertwined ideas frequently collaborate, with social influence being a crucial factor in molding personal beliefs, emotions, and thoughts through external elements such as social norms and conformity.

Conformity occurs when individuals adjust their behavior to match a group's beliefs or actions (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004), influenced by the real or perceived influence of others (Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969). In social settings, individuals often fear rejection and reduce this fear by mimicking the behaviors of those around them (Giles & Oxford, 1970). Kelman (1958) categorized three attitudes that arise from social influence: compliance, identification, and internalization.

Obedience to authority, a form of social influence, occurs when individuals respond to direct orders from figures of authority.

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Obedience is characterized by a power hierarchy, where lower ranking individuals comply with higher ranking individuals, while conformity is driven by social norms and pressures from the majority (McLeod, 2007). People often rely on attribution to explain changes in behavior, with external and internal attributions being two main types.

According to the American Psychological Association (2004), external attribution is connected to situational inducements, while internal attribution is associated with an individual's personality, morals, and genetics. The Stanford Prison Experiment illustrates the significance of situational factors by showing how participants assigned as prison guards or prisoners quickly conformed to their roles.

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For instance, guards collectively made prisoners chant "Prisoner 819 did a bad thing!" in an effort to shift blame and undermine a disobedient prisoner.

The prisoners' compliance with instructions was a result of the prevailing social norm within the group, where obeying orders was mandatory to avoid collective punishment. Social norms encompass implicit or explicit guidelines governing acceptable behavior, values, and beliefs within a group (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Miller & Prentice, 1996), establishing expectations and norms for individuals to follow. Nonconforming individuals are often labeled as deviants.

Deviants may face ridicule, isolation, or rejection from their group due to their non-conforming actions (Miller & Anderson, 1979; Kruglanski & Webster, 1991), as seen in the example where Prisoner 819 was ostracized by the other prisoners for his actions. The group chose to comply with the guards' authority to avoid further mistreatment (Zimbardo, 2007), highlighting how individuals conform to norms to avoid scrutiny or oppression.

Normative social influence, as defined by Nail, MacDonald, & Levy (2000) and Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno (1991), leads to public compliance with group norms without necessarily accepting the group's beliefs privately. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, prisoners complied with guard behavior publicly but did not agree with their beliefs individually (Zimbardo, 2007). The presence of two distinct groups (prisoners and guards) led to ingroup-outgroup bias and intergroup conflict, increasing intragroup cohesiveness. This resulted in group attribution error, double standard thinking, and moral exclusion, particularly among the guards (Forsyth, 2006). Each group justified their own actions as fair while condemning the actions of the other group (Forsyth, 2006).

Dehumanization of the outgroup led to severe mistreatment by the ingroup, including inhumane actions such as guards abusing prisoners based on their higher status. This behavior was rationalized by the guards as necessary to establish authority. The attribution of situational factors to behavioral change was a key finding in the Stanford Prison experiment (Forsyth, 2006; Zimbardo, 2007).

The Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib POW Prison abuse incidents are closely compared due to the transformation of relatively nice people into sadistic individuals. Participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment and guards at Abu Ghraib who had previously exemplary records were involved in the abuse of prisoners, resulting in injuries and even death.

Despite the initial intentions, the participants in the prison experiment ended up treating the prisoners in an extremely perverse and humiliating manner due to the situational factors of the environment. Zimbardo (2007) concluded that the pathologies exhibited were a result of the continuous pressure from the environment, leading to The Lucifer Effect which explains how exposure to negative conditions can turn individuals towards evil. This situational perspective is evident in other well-known experiments such as the Milgram experiment of 1961.

Several factors in the situation contribute to the guards' disturbing behavior: laissez-faire leadership, psychological stressors, and ambiguous rules and regulations (Bass & Avolio, 1994). Zimbardo (2007) argued that experts often focus too much on individual traits and overlook situational factors, leading to the fundamental attribution error. This issue is also important in an Asian context, where conformity plays a significant role.

Conformity is a significant aspect of Asian culture, particularly in Japan, where social interactions and perceived similarity among individuals play key roles (Abrams, Wetherell, Cochrane, Hogg, & Turner, 1990). In Japan's collectivist society, group needs are prioritized over individual needs, leading to negative attitudes towards non-conforming behaviors as seen in the saying "The nail that sticks out is hammered down." The belief in respecting authority figures like the sensei (teacher) without questioning is prevalent, resulting in enthusiastic students being deemed disruptive and possibly receiving lower grades (Brightman, 2006). Surprisingly, Japanese individuals in Asch conformity tests displayed high levels of non-conformity, with 76% providing correct responses.

One possible reason for this phenomenon is that the average Japanese person only feels a sense of obligation to conform within groups they have a strong connection with (Mann, 1980). In conclusion, the Stanford Prison Experiment has helped us gain a deeper insight into how people behave in response to social pressure to conform, as well as adapt to the circumstances and surroundings they find themselves in.

Despite research suggesting that conformity and situational attribution are universal concepts, further studies need to be done in various Asian countries to confirm this. People often generalize behaviors based on cultural stereotypes, but in-depth analysis like the Asch test conducted in Japan can debunk these myths.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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The Power of Social Norms: A Study of Conformity and Peer Pressure. (2016, Oct 29). Retrieved from

The Power of Social Norms: A Study of Conformity and Peer Pressure essay
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