Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. Norms are implicit, specific rules, shared by a group of individuals, that guide their interactions with others. This tendency to conform occurs in small groups and/or society as a whole, and may result from subtle unconscious influences, or direct and overt social pressure. Conformity can occur in the presence of others, or when an individual is alone. For example, people tend to follow social norms when eating or watching television, even when alone.
People often conform from a desire for security within a group—typically a group of a similar age, culture, religion, or educational status. This is often referred to as groupthink: a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics, which ignores realistic appraisal of other courses of action. Unwillingness to conform carries the risk of social rejection. Conformity is often associated with adolescence and youth culture, but strongly affects humans of all ages.
Although peer pressure may manifest negatively, conformity can have good or bad effects depending on the situation. Driving on the correct side of the road could be seen as beneficial conformity. With the right environmental influence, conforming, in early childhood years, allows one to learn and thus, adopt the appropriate behaviours necessary to interact and develop correctly within one's society. Conformity influences formation and maintenance of social norms, and helps societies function smoothly and predictably via the self-elimination of behaviors seen as contrary to unwritten rules. In this sense it can be perceived as a positive force that prevents acts that are perceptually disruptive or dangerous.
Some adolescents gain acceptance and recognition from their peers by conformity.
According to Donelson Forsyth, after submitting to group pressures, individuals may find themselves facing one of several responses to conformity. These types of responses to conformity vary in their degree of public agreement versus private agreement.
When an individual finds themselves in a position where they publicly agree with the group's decision yet privately disagrees with the group's consensus, they are experiencing compliance or acquiescence. In turn, conversion, otherwise known as private acceptance, involves both publicly and privately agreeing with the group's decision. Thus, this represents a true change of opinion to match the majority.
Another type of social response, which does not involve conformity with the majority of the group, is called convergence. In this type of social response, the group member agrees with the group's decision from the outset and thus does not need to shift their opinion on the matter at hand.
In addition, Forsyth shows that nonconformity can also fall into one of two response categories. Firstly, an individual who does not conform to the majority can display independence. Independence, or dissent, can be defined as the unwillingness to bend to group pressures. Thus, this individual stays true to his or her personal standards instead of the swaying toward group standards. Secondly, a nonconformist could be displaying anticonformity or counterconformity which involves the taking of opinions that are opposite to what the group believes. This type of nonconformity can be motivated by a need to rebel against the status quo instead of the need to be accurate in one's opinion.
To conclude, social responses to conformity can be seen to vary along a continuum from conversion to anticonformity. For example, a popular experiment in conformity research, known as the Asch situation or Asch conformity experiments, primarily includes compliance and independence. Also, other responses to conformity can be identified in groups such as juries, sports teams and work teams.
Sherif's experiment (1936)
Muzafer Sherif was interested in knowing how many people would change their opinions to bring them in line with the opinion of a group. In his experiment, participants were placed in a dark room and asked to stare at a small dot of light 15 feet away. They were then asked to estimate the amount it moved. The trick was there was no movement, it was caused by a visual illusion known as the autokinetic effect. On the first day, each person perceived different amounts of movement, but from the second to the fourth day, the same estimate was agreed on and others conformed to it. Sherif suggested this was a simulation for how social norms develop in a society, providing a common frame of reference for people.
Subsequent experiments were based on more realistic situations. In an eyewitness identification task, participants were shown a suspect individually and then in a lineup of other suspects. They were given one second to identify him, making it a difficult task. One group was told that their input was very important and would be used by the legal community. To the other it was simply a trial. Being more motivated to get the right answer increased the tendency to conform. Those who wanted to be more accurate conformed 51% of the time as opposed to 35% in the other group.
Asch's experiment (1951)
Solomon E. Asch conducted a modification of Sherif’s study, assuming that when the situation was very clear, conformity would be drastically reduced. He exposed people in a group to a series of lines, and the participants were asked to match one line with a standard line. All participants except one were accomplices and gave the wrong answer in 12 of the 18 trials.
The results showed a surprisingly high degree of conformity: 74% of the participants conformed on at least one trial. On average people conformed one third of the time. A question is how the group would affect individuals in a situation where the correct answer is less obvious.
After his first test, Asch wanted to investigate whether the size or unanimity of the majority had greater influence on test subjects. "Which aspect of the influence of a majority is more important – the size of the majority or its unanimity? The experiment was modified to examine this question. In one series the size of the opposition was varied from one to 15 persons." The results clearly showed that as more people opposed the subject, the subject became more likely to conform. However, the increasing majority was only influential up to a point: from three or more opponents, there is more than 30% of conformity.
Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman identified three major types of conformity.
- 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 favorite uncle. This can be motivated by the attractiveness of the source, and this is a deeper type of conformism than compliance.
- Internalization is accepting the belief or behavior 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 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.
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.
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.
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 behaviors. 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.
Stanley Milgram found that individuals in Norway (from a collectivistic culture) exhibited a higher degree of conformity than individuals in France (from an individualistic culture). Similarly, 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 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. Bond and Smith also reported that conformity has declined in the United States over time.
Societal norms often establish gender differences and researchers have reported differences in the way men and women conform to social influence. For example, 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. 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 argument 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.
Research has noted age differences in conformity. For example, research with Australian children and adolescents ages 3 to 17 discovered that conformity decreases with age. Another study examined individuals that were ranged from ages 18 to 91. The results revealed a similar trend – older participants displayed less conformity when compared to younger participants.
In the same way that gender has been viewed as corresponding to status, age has also been argued to have status implications. Berger, Rosenholtz and Zelditch suggest that age as a status role can be observed among college students. Younger students, such as those in their first year in college, are treated as lower-status individuals and older college students are treated as higher-status individuals. Therefore, given these status roles, it would be expected that younger individuals (low status) conform to the majority whereas older individuals (high status) would be expected not to conform
Researchers have also reported an interaction of gender and age on conformity. Eagly and Chrvala examined the role of age (under 19 years vs. 19 years and older), gender and surveillance (anticipating responses to be shared with group members vs. not anticipating responses being shared) on conformity to group opinions. They discovered that among participants that were 19 years or older, females conformed to group opinions more so than males when under surveillance (i.e., anticipated that their responses would be shared with group members). However, there were no gender differences in conformity among participants who were under 19 years of age and in surveillance conditions. There were also no gender differences when participants were not under surveillance. In a subsequent research article, Eagly suggests that women are more likely to conform than men because of lower status roles of women in society. She suggests that more submissive roles (i.e., conforming) are expected of individuals that hold low status roles. Still, Eagly and Chrvala's results do conflict with previous research which have found higher conformity levels among younger rather than older individuals.
Size of the group
Although conformity pressures generally increase as the size of the majority increases, a meta-analysis suggests that conformity pressures in Asch's experiment peak once the majority reaches about four or five in number. Moreover, a study suggests that the effects of group size depend on the type of social influence operating. This means that in situations where the group is clearly wrong, conformity will be motivated by normative influence; the participants will conform in order to be accepted by the group. A participant may not feel much pressure to conform when the first person gives an incorrect response. However, conformity pressure will increase as each additional group member also gives the same incorrect response.
In 1961 Stanley Milgram published a study in which he utilized Asch's conformity paradigm using audio tones instead of lines; he conducted his study in Norway and France. He found substantially higher levels of conformity than Asch, with participants conforming 50% of the time in France and 62% of the time in Norway during critical trials. Milgram also conducted the same experiment once more, but told participants that the results of the study would be applied to the design of aircraft safety signals. His conformity estimates were 56% in Norway and 46% in France, suggesting that individuals conformed slightly less when the task was linked to an important issue. Stanley Milgram's study demonstrated that Asch's study could be replicated with other stimuli, and that in the case of tones, there was a high degree of conformity.
Evidence has been found for the involvement of the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) in conformity, an area associated with memory and decision-making. For example, Klucharev et al. revealed in their study that by using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation on the pMFC, participants reduced their tendency to conform to the group, suggesting a causal role for the brain region in social conformity. In another study, the mPFC was linked to normative social influence, whilst the activity in the caudate was regarded as an index of informational influence.
The amygdala and hippocampus have also been found to be recruited when individuals participated in a social manipulation experiment involving long-term memory. Several other areas have further been suggested to play a role in conformity, including the insula, the temporoparietal junction, the ventral striatum, and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortices.
More recent work stresses the role of orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in conformity not only at the time of social influence, but also later on, when participants are given an opportunity to conform by selecting an action. In particular, Charpentier et al. found that the OFC mirrors the exposure to social influence at a subsequent time point, when a decision is being made without the social influence being present. The tendency to conform has also been observed in the structure of the OFC, with a greater grey matter volume in high conformers.
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