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Essay Paper Conformity

Many people imagine themselves as unique individuals unlike anyone else; indeed, we all possess specific characteristics that distinguish us from the crowd. However, despite our imaginations and wishful thinking, the majority of human beings comply with some set of societal rules most of the time. Cars stop at red traffic lights; children and adults attend school and go to work; policemen are paid to protect our communities. These are examples of conformity for obvious reasons; without compliance with certain rules of society, the entire structure would break down. Why, though, do individuals give in to less important reasons to conform? Why do college students play drinking games and elementary school children shun the outcast child? A very promising model proposes five main motivations for conforming; according to this model, we conform to be correct, to be socially accepted and avoid rejection, to accomplish group goals, to establish and maintain our self-concept/social identity, and to align ourselves with similar individuals (Nail, MacDonald, & Levy, 2000).


Simply put, individuals strive to be accurate and correct in their judgments and observations; they often rely on social cues around them to aid in interpreting a given situation. An important study examined how an individual's motivation to be accurate was influenced by the social pressure created by a group of inaccurate individuals. It was observed that when a task of low difficulty (a task with an obvious solution) was presented to a subject, the subject's motivation to perform the task correctly lessened the impact of social pressure created by a group who answered the task incorrectly. In other words, even though everyone else answered differently, the subject knew the correct answer to the task with confidence and therefore felt less pressure to agree with the incorrect group. However, when the difficulty of the task was increased considerably, the subject looked to the group for cues on how to answer. Again, the group answered incorrectly on purpose; it appears that when we are unsure of how to perform a task or how to behave, we may take comfort in agreeing with a large number of other people. In a second study, confidence of the group was manipulated; the individual was again given a difficult task where the group answered incorrectly. This time, the group expressed very low or no confidence in their answer to the task. It was observed that the group's lack of confidence had no significant effect on the individual subject's reliance on the group for social cues. This implies that as long as there is agreement among the members of a group, this consensus will outweigh any doubt created by low confidence (Baron, Vandello, & Brunsman, 1996).

Another study examined levels of conformity across age groups; it was predicted that older adults would feel less impact from social pressure than would young adults. Subjects were asked to judge geometric shapes (an unemotional stimulus) and facial expressions (an emotional stimulus) by providing them with labels from a set given to them such as circle or square for the shapes, and anger or fear for the facial expressions. The question addressed by the researchers was whether or not the two age groups would be affected by surrounding social pressure when asked to judge the stimulus. For instance, if a 20 year old female was shown a picture of a rectangle, and the other members of her group all labeled it �square', would the subject give in to social pressure and mislabel the object? The hypothesis was confirmed; older adults showed less reliance on social pressure to make their judgments. It would appear that as individuals age, they gain a better sense of judgment and independence, which is augmented by their growing experience (Pasupathi, 1999). In the case of this study, both age groups were concerned with being correct, but the younger group seemed to rely more on each other when making decisions. It is clear from these experiments that people are very concerned with being correct, leading to conformity across many situations.

Social Acceptance

There have been numerous studies that illustrate the ways in which human beings strive to be accepted as part of--or at least avoid being rejected by--a social group. One such study was conducted to examine multiple reasons that college students engage in the risky behavior of playing drinking games. It was hypothesized that college students often engage in these drinking games because of an anticipated outcome, or rather, an outcome that some individuals intend to induce by participating such as new friendships, relationships, and greater popularity. Unsurprisingly, pressure to socialize, fit in, and conform proved to be a major motivator in the decision to engage in this risky behavior; it appears that our desire for group acceptance is so strong that we may temporarily disregard our own well-being simply to be perceived as one of the group (Johnson & Sheets, 2004).

Another fascinating study examined the human fear of rejection; it was predicted that when people were asked to express their opinion on a particular topic, those who perceived themselves as holding the minority opinion would be slower to express that opinion than would the people who perceived themselves as holding the majority opinion. Not only was this prediction found to be true, but as the perceived size of the minority group decreased, the minority individual expressed even more hesitancy in the expression of their opinion. Interestingly, this slow response did not appear to be affected by the strength of the attitude being expressed nor the knowledge that the subject would have to make their opinion publicly known. It appears that when people feel they belong to the minority of a group they become reluctant to express their own opinions because they can foresee negative consequences of not fitting in with the majority. This demonstrates how social influence can be a powerful force affecting the expression of opinions (Bassili, 2003).

An interesting study was conducted to measure peoples' reactions to deviant behavior and how these reactions contributed to the maintenance of culture stereotypes. Participants were set up to lose a competition with either a "typical" or an "atypical" man or woman. In this particular study, gender deviance was the measure of typicality; if males and females behaved in accordance with what was expected of their gender and were therefore considered "typical", researchers believed there would be relatively little backlash from the loser subject. For instance, if a male subject lost a computer game to a female, the female would be viewed as having behaved "atypically" for her gender, and would receive greater backlash from the male subject than if he had lost to another male. Participants were then given the opportunity to thwart these individuals so that they would be unsuccessful in future competitions. It was found that people were more willing to undermine the atypical individuals, an action ultimately resulting in the increased self-esteem of the subjects; this behavior seems to imply psychological rewards for punishing deviant behavior. The study is also suggestive of how atypical behavior is frequently punished and is therefore less likely to grow and influence the established cultural norms (Rudman & Fairchild, 2004). People want to preserve social order; the consequences of atypical behavior are unfavorable, so we conform--and are rewarded--for doing so.

Another study conducted on the influences of social pressure on acceptance or rejection was a study in which it was hypothesized that perception of increased social pressure would weaken the connection between a person's attitude and their resulting behavior. It was found that under conditions of no social pressure from a surrounding group, participants' attitudes appeared to be fairly good predictors of their behavior. However, as perceived social pressure was raised, it was found that attitudes were less able to predict behavior accurately. For instance, if a subject had no objections to smoking cigarettes, in the absence of any social pressure, the subject would smoke. However, in the presence of several individuals who expressed negative views towards smoking and its effects, the smoker may decide not to smoke while surrounded by the group (Wallace, Paulson, Lord, & Bond, 2005). From these four experiments, it is reasonable to conclude that many times we choose to conform because--whether consciously or subconsciously--we all desire to fit in somewhere, with someone.

Group Goals

Another reason for conforming would appear to be the desire to accomplish group goals, which has been illustrated in several studies. In one study, subjects were first given a stimulus story to read and interpret on their own. The subjects were then exposed to the feedback of other participants and were allowed to change their attitudes if desired. Subjects were strongly influenced by the group opinion for some stories; however, for an emotional story involving relevant attitudes, the subjects seemed less willing to conform without question and only did so after lengthy discussions of the content of the story with other subjects (Buehler & Griffin, 1994). It appeared that the subjects worked towards a common goal together through discussion, eventually coming to mutual agreement and conforming.

In a study on cooperation in sports teams, it was found that the perception of one's own sacrifice and the sacrifices of other team members contributed to a feeling of togetherness and equity which, in turn, contributed to the team members' notion of conforming to the group norms. For the study, state-level sports teams were chosen because of the high degree of competitiveness in game play. Members of the teams were asked to complete questionnaires with scales ranging from �strongly agree' to �strongly disagree' regarding different types of sacrifices that individuals perceived themselves and other members of the team making for the advancement of the team. Such sacrifices included items such as those made in competition and training, at work and at home, and social sacrifices (such as giving up time with friends/giving up relationships). The study implies that personal sacrifice is an integral part of how a group functions as a whole; when a group functions well, there appears to be more conformity (Prapavessis & Carron, 1997). From these studies it can be concluded that accomplishing group goals is a relevant reason for conforming within the past several decades.

Social Identity

In terms of establishing and maintaining a self-concept and social identity, there appears to be much evidence supporting cultural and sex-typed reasons for conforming. An examination of the history of conformity in America and Eastern Asian cultures over the past few decades revealed that individuals' decisions to conform and to what extent are largely a product of culture. It is thought that uniqueness in America is often associated with the positive outcomes of freedom and independence. In Eastern Asian cultures, however, conformity implies the positive outcomes of harmony and connectedness. In the study, conformity was represented in the targets most preferred by East Asians and uniqueness was represented in the targets preferred by Americans. From these observations it was concluded that the choices we make are those relevant and appropriate to our own culture (Kim & Markus, 1999). Overall, the study showed that even simple and mundane preferences, such as the choice between a pattern of squares or a pattern of circles and squares, are heavily influenced by culture.

Another study involving the effects of culture on conformity looked at the change in conformity in the United States over the past five decades as well as the difference in conformity across different countries. It was found that levels of conformity have steadily decreased in the past five decades in the U.S. Also, the U.S. remains an individualistic country while other countries remain collectivistic. In individualistic countries, personal goals are regarded with higher importance and priority than group goals whereas the opposite is true of collectivistic countries (Bond & Smith, 1996). This study also illustrated how important an influence someone's culture can be in their decision to conform.

In addition to culture, another manner in which we form a social identity is that of conforming to sex-typed norms. In a study that described the construction of the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI), eleven factors were found that contributed to the sex-typed norm of a masculine person including traits such as dominance and self-reliance. One of the hopes of the researchers for this study was to identify particular attributes, such as risk-taking behavior, that may be detrimental to men's health. Ultimately, the researchers were looking for information that would aid in improving men's health and lifespan. In identifying these eleven traits, the researchers demonstrated that there are established masculine norms to which men are encouraged to follow (Mahalik, et al., 2003).

A second study of this kind looked at sex-typed norms in the individual's social world and the role that these norms play in developing a self-concept. The study mentioned that standard norms associated with men are dominance, power, and aggression, and those associated with women are intimacy, emotions, and nurturance. It was found that when a member of either gender associated themselves with their respective sex-typed norms and were involved in a relationship which incorporated these standards, positive and motivational feelings resulted (Wood, Christensen, Hebl, & Rothgerber, 1997). From this study it would seem that the rewards of conformity depend on one's self-concept concerning sex-typed norms; if these are viewed as part of the social identity then positive feelings will result when the norms are expressed as part of a relationship. As demonstrated, these articles show how conformity and developing a social identity can depend largely on one's culture and one's interpretation of the sex-typed norms.

Alignment With Similar People

One final aspect of conformity involves incorporating ourselves into certain groups, or in other words, aligning ourselves with similar individuals and forming an in-group. In a study on behavioral consequences, it was found that when tested for prosocial behavior, people reacted more positively to in-group members (people they identified with). Also, fellow in-group members were more readily approached than out-group members. In addition, it was observed that the in-group members were reluctant to assign human emotion to the out-group; the members of the in-group saw the out-group as so dissimilar to themselves that it was difficult to even think of them as completely human (Vaes, Paladino, Castelli, Leyens, & Giovanazzi, 2003). From this study it appears that we often identify so closely with a certain group that we can form large, unsupported prejudices against an out-group.

In a final experiment in which in-group and out-group norms concerning discrimination and fairness were manipulated, in-group norms were found to be important in both natural and experimental groups. A group of participants were told they were detailed perceivers after reporting their estimation of the number of dots on a page. The detailed perceivers were then asked to allocate money between other detailed perceivers (the in-group) and a group of global perceivers (the out-group). The findings of the study included an in-group bias; there was a tendency to favor the in-group in terms of distributing a reward. Also, the in-group was evaluated more positively than the out-group on an evaluative scale; the participants were asked, with a 100-point scale, to describe the likelihood of detailed and global perceivers to exhibit behaviors such as creativity, intelligence, and irritability. This study emphasizes the significance of conformity to in-group norms as an influence on members' willingness to express their in-group bias (Jetten, Spears, & Manstead, 1996). Again, this study illustrates how one can become so closely identified with a particular group that unfair bias and preferences can emerge. The social advantage to conforming to an in-group is that one does not become part of an outcast group that receives a negative bias from another in-group.

Clearly, much research has been conducted over the past several decades to determine why individuals choose to conform and why they choose to conform to a certain degree. This research fits into the five main motivations for conformity: correctness, social acceptance and avoidance of rejection, the accomplishment of group goals, the establishment and maintenance of a self-concept/social identity, and the alignment of the self with similar people (Nail, MacDonald, & Levy, 2000). This model is a promising structure for the explanation of conformity and group mentality. Possible future research might include longitudinal research involving many countries concerning conformity as a cultural norm, and closer examination of individual people and their reasons for choosing to conform in specific situations.


Bassili, J. N. (2003). The minority slowness effect: Subtle inhibitions in the expression of views not shared by others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 261-276.

Barresi, J. D. (1996). Group selection and 'the pious gene.' Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19, 777-778, 786-787.

Baron, R. S., Vandello, J. A., & Brunsman, B. (1996). The forgotten variable in conformity research: Impact of task importance on social influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 915-927.

Bond, R., & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch's (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 111-137.

Brewer, M. B., & Caporael, L. R. (1990). Selfish genes vs. selfish people: Sociobiology as origin myth. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 237-243.

Buehler, R., & Griffin, D. (1994). Change-of-meaning effects in conformity and dissent: observing construal processes over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 984-996.

Jetten, J., Spears, R., & Manstead, A. S. R. (1996). Intergroup norms and intergroup discrimination: Distinctive self-categorization and social identity effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1222-1233.

Johnson, T. J. & Sheets, V. L. (2004). Measuring college students' motives for playing drinking games. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18, 91-99.

Kiesler, C. A., & Kiesler, S. B. (1969). Conformity. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kim, H., & Markus, H. R. (1999). Deviance or uniqueness, harmony or conformity? A cultural analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 785-800.

Mahalik, J. R., Locke, B. D., Ludlow, L. H., Diemer, M. A., Scott, R. P. J., Gottfried, M., & Freitas, G. (2003). Development of the conformity to masculine norms inventory. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 4, 3-25.

Nail, P. R., MacDonald, G., & Levy, D. A. (2000). Proposal of a four-dimensional model of social response. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 454-470.

Pasupathi, M. (1999). Age differences in response to conformity pressure for emotional and nonemotional material. Psychology and Aging, 14, 170-174.

Prapavessis, H., & Carron, A. V. (1997). Sacrifice, cohesion, and conformity to norms in sport teams. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1, 231-240.

Rudman, L. A., & Fairchild, K. (2004). Reactions to counterstereotypic behavior: The role of backlash in cultural stereotype maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 157-176.

Vaes, J., Paladino, M. P., Castelli, L., Leyens, J. & Giovanazzi, A. (2003). On the behavioral consequences of infrahumanization: The implicit role of uniquely human emotions in intergroup relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1016-1034.

Wallace, D. S., Paulson, R. M., Lord, C. G., & Bond, C. F. (2005). Which behaviors do attitudes predict? Meta-analyzing the effects of social pressure and perceived difficulty. Review of General Psychology, 9, 214-227.

Wood, W., Christensen , P. N., Hebl, M. R., & Rothgerber, H. (1997). Conformity to sex-typed norms, affect, and the self-concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 523-535.

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According to Leon Mann, conformity means "yielding to
group pressures". Everyone is a member of one group or
another and everyone expects members of these groups to
behave in certain ways. If you are a member of an
identifiable group you are expected to behave
appropriately to it. If you don"t confirm and behave
appropriately you are likely to be rejected by the group.
Like stereotypes, conforming and expecting others to
conform maintains cognitive balance.

There are several kinds of conformity. Many studies of
conformity took place in the 1950"s which led Kelman to
distinguish between compliance, internalisation and
identification. Compliance is the type of conformity where
the subject goes along with the group view, but privately
disagrees with it. Internalisation is where the subject comes
to accept, and eventually believes in the group view.
Identification is where the subject accepts and believes the
group view, because he or she wants to become associated
with the group.

Leon Mann identifies normative conformity which occurs
when direct group pressure forces the individual to yield
under the threat of rejection or the promise of reward. This
can occur only if someone wants to be a member of the
group or the groups attitudes or behaviour are important to
the individual in some way.

Apart from normative conformity there is informational
conformity which occurs where the situation is vague or
ambiguous and because the person is uncertain he or she
turns to others for evidence of the appropriate response.

Thirdly, Mann identifies ingratiational conformity which
occurs where a person tries to do whatever he or she
thinks the others will approve in order to gain acceptance
(if you make yourself appear to be similar to someone else,
they might come to like you).

The first major research into conformity was conducted in
1935 by Sherif who used a visual illusion, known as the
auto-kinetic effect. Sherif told his subjects that a spot of
light which they were about to see in a darkened room was
going to move, and he wanted them to say the direction
and distance of the movement. In the first experimental
condition the subjects were tested individually. Some said
the distance of movement wasn"t very far in any directio,
others said it was several inches. Sherif recorded each
subjects response. In the second experimental condition,
Sherif gathered his subjects into groups, usually of three
people, and asked them to discribe verbally the movement
of light. He gave them no instructions as to whether they
needed to reach any kind of agreement among themselves
but simply asked them to give their own reports while being
aware of the reports that other members gave. During the
group sessions it became apparent that the subjects reports
strarted to converge much nearer to an average of what
their individual reports had been. If a subject who had said
that the light didn"t move very far when tested individually
said "I think it is moving 2 inches to the left" then another
who had reported movement of 4 inches, when tested
individually, might say "I think it may have been 3 inches".
As the number of reported movements continued the more
the members of the group conformed to each others

This spot of light was in fact stationary so whatever reports
were made was the consequence of the subject imagining
they saw something happen. So they were not certain
about the movement they observed and so would not feel
confident about insisting that their observations were wholly
correct. When they heard other reported judgements they
may have decided to go along with them.

The problem with this study, for understanding of
conformity, as one aspect of social psychology is that it is a
total artifical experimental situation - there isn"t even a right
answer. Requested reports of imaginary movements of a
stationary spot of light in a darkened room when alone, or
with two others, hardly reflects situations we come accross
in our every day lives. Generalising from its conclusions to
real life might be innacurate. However, some of them do
have a common sense appeal.

Ash was a harsh critic of Sherifs experimental design and
claimed that it showed little about conformity since there
was no right answer to conform to. Ash designed an
experiment where there could be absolutely no doubt about
whether subjects would be conforming or not and it was
absolutely clear what they were conforming to. He wanted
to be able to put an individual under various amounts of
group pressure that he could control and manipulate and
measure their willingness to conform to the groups
response to something that was clearly wrong. Ash
conducted what are now described as classic experiments
in conformity. This is not to say they aren"t criticised today
or that its conclusions are wholly acceptable now - they
showed the application of the scientific method to social
psychology and we used as models of how to conduct
psychological research.

In an early experiment Ash gathered a group of seven
university students in a classroom. They sat around one
side of a large table facing the blackboard. On the left side
of the board there was a white card with a single black line
drawn vertically on it. On the right of the board there was
another white card with three vertical lines of different
lengths. Two of the lines on the card on the right were
longer or shorther than the target line. Matching the target
line to the comparison line shouldn"t have been a difficult
task however for these seven students, all but one was a
confederate of Ash and they had been instructed to give
incorrect responses on seven of the twelve trials. The one
naive subject was seated either at the extreme left or next
to the extreme left of the line of students so that he would
always be last (or next to last) to answer. He would have
heard most of the others give their judgements about which
comparison line matches the target line before he spoke.
The naive subject was a member of a group he didn"t
know and might never see again who suddenly and for no
apparent reason started saying something which directly
contradicted the evidence of his own eyes.

In subsequent experiments Ash used between 7 and 9
subjects using the same experimental procedure. In the first
series of experiments he tested 123 naives on 12 critical
tests where 7 were going to be incorrect. Each naive
therefore had 7 opportunities to conform to something they
could see to be wrong. One third of the naives conformed
on all 7 occasions. About three quarters of them
conformed on at least one occasion. Only about one fifth
refused to conform at all.

Just to be certain that the result was due to the influence of
the confederates responses and not to the difficulty of the
task Ash used a control group. Each control subject was
asked to make a judgement individually - there were no
pressures at all. Over 90% gave correct responses.

Hollander and Willis give some criticisms of the early
research into conformity. Firstly the studies do not identify
the motive or type of conformity. Do the subjects conform
in order to gain social approval? Are they simply
complying? Do they really believe that their response is
correct? Secondly Hollander and Willis claim that the
experiments do not identify whether the subjects are
complying because they judge that it"s not worth appearing
to be different, or because the actually start to believe that
the groups judgement is correct. Hollander and Willis also
claim that the studies cannot show whether those who do
not conform do so because they are independant thinkers
or because they are anti-conformists. And Lastly, they
claim that the studies seem to assume that independance
has to be good and conformity has to be bad. However
conformity is often benificial.

Sherif and Asch have each conducted fairly artificial
laboritory experiments which showed that about 30% of
responses can be explained by the need or desire of the
subjects to conform. These experiments may not accurately
reflect real life when conformity might be benificial and
sometimes contribute to psychological well-being.

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