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Conformity is when a person changes their behaviour or beliefs because of perceived social pressure. This social pressure can come from society itself, individuals or groups, and is often driven by a desire to fit in with what the majority considers correct. Conformity can be positive or negative.

Examples of positive conformity include:

  • Queuing in public places.

  • Following rules and the law.

Examples of negative conformity include:

  • Picking up harmful habits from your friends, such as smoking.

  • Picking on someone because your friendship group is doing it.

Conformity [+] StudySmarterConformity,

Some Famous Studies on Conformity

A number of studies have looked at conformity. Let’s discuss some of the most prominent:

Asch (1951)

Asch investigated whether participants would change their answer to a simple question if influenced by the answers given by a majority group. He divided participants into groups of eight (of whom seven were confederates, meaning participants who are secretly part of the research team) and showed them two cards, one showing three lines of different lengths and the other showing a ‘target’ line. Participants were asked to match the closest of the three lines in length to the ‘target’. Even though the answer was obvious (two of the lines were much longer or shorter), the confederates were instructed to give the wrong answer. This led to the actual participants changing their answers to an incorrect one, showing the effects of conformity.

However, Perrin and Spencer (1980) thought that the conformity experienced in Asch experiment was due to American 1950s culture at the time which was very conformist. They replicated Asch experiment with British students and found in only 1 out of 396 trials did the participant conform to the majority.

Bond and Smith (1996) conducted a meta-analysis of studies from different countries that used the Asch experiment procedure. They found that collectivist countries had higher levels of conformity than individualist countries. Thus, it seems culture has an influence on conformity.

Zimbardo (1971)

Zimbardo investigated whether group cruelty was a product of people’s personalities (dispositional), or a product of their environment (situational). 24 paid participants were randomly assigned the role of either ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner’. Prisoners were taken blindfolded to the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department, which was set up to look like a prison. Within a few hours of the prisoners’ arrival, both groups exhibited behaviour typical of their assigned groups. The guards, in particular, became very cruel. Results showed that group cruelty was mainly situational, as the guards only acted this way as a result of the group they had been assigned to but were otherwise stable, ordinary people.

Sherif (1935)

Sherif proposed that people were more likely to conform when in a situation that felt unclear or ambiguous. He projected an unmoving light onto a screen in a dark room, which appeared to move. This is known as the ‘autokinetic effect’. Participants were then asked to estimate the length that the light moved in cm, resulting in varied answers. Then, Sherif had participants put into groups of three, deliberately grouping two participants with closer estimates with one that had a very different estimate. He found that by asking participants to say their estimates aloud, each member of the group ended up with similar answers. The group member with the most inaccurate estimate tended to conform to the other two members, making their estimate more similar to the rest of the group’s.

What are the Three Types of Conformity?

Kelman (1958) proposed that conformity can be split into three distinct subtypes: Compliance, identification, and internalisation.

What Is Compliance?

Compliance is when someone alters their behaviour but retains their private beliefs. In Asch’s conformity experiment (1951) this was exhibited by participants who knew their answer to be correct but changed it after seeing the group’s answers. This is the ‘shallowest’ form of conformity.

An everyday example of compliance would be pretending to like a TV show because your friends talk about it.

What Is Identification?

Identification is when someone changes their behaviour and beliefs when around a group they identify with but reverts to their original behaviour and beliefs when alone or with a different group. This is ‘deeper’ than compliance but not as ‘deep’ as internalisation.

Your teacher probably acts differently at school compared to at home.

What Is Internalisation?

Internalisation is when social influence leads someone to change both their behaviour and private beliefs in the long term or even permanently. In Asch (1951), an example of this would be when participants who changed their answer genuinely believed that the group was correct. This is the ‘deepest’ form of conformity.

An everyday example of internalisation would be someone changing their religious beliefs due to a friend’s influence.

How Does Social Influence Cause Conformity?

Social influences are prominent factors in psychology. It asks the question why do we do what we do?

Why Do People Conform?

The dual-process theory (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955), proposes that we conform for two major reasons: we wish to be correct (informational social influence) and we wish to be liked (normative social influence). Let’s take a look at what these two terms mean.

What Is Informational Social Influence?

Informational social influence is when someone changes their behaviour as a response to new information that is held by other people. In this type of social influence, a person assumes that others are correct and wants to be correct, too. Imagine, for example, you’re starting at a new college and you’re unsure of where to go for your first psychology class. You overhear a group of students talking about the subject and follow their lead to the classroom, assuming they must know the right way.

Sometimes informational social influence can happen on a large scale and ‘spread’ from person to person. This is known as an information cascade.

An example of an information cascade is the ‘Waiting Room Example’. In this experiment, a woman visits her optometrist and sits in the waiting room with a few other patients (confederates in the experiment) who were already there. There is suddenly a beep and the confederates stand up and sit down upon hearing it. After this happens a few times the woman also begins to stand and sit too. She even continues to do so after the confederates leave. Eventually, real patients start to enter the waiting room and soon start standing and sitting every time there is a beep too, along with the woman.

Neither the woman nor the patients know why they are doing this, but each of them assumes there is a reason behind it that the other patients must know. As you can see from the example, an information cascade is very similar to standard informational social influence. The main difference is that the influence spreads across many people like a domino effect.

What Is Normative Social Influence?

Normative social influence refers to the extent to which people conform to social norms. Social norms are the ideas, beliefs, and feelings held by the majority of people. Social norms can differ depending on who the majority group is and where you are. What is expected of you in an office is going to be very different from what is expected of you with your friends at home. Social norms allow us to form groups, understand and predict each other better, and generally allow us to live in a functional society.

Normative Social Influence is when someone changes their behaviour to match what they perceive to be the social norms of their current environment and company.

We do this because we wish to be liked, trusted and accepted by others. An example of this would be how people sometimes change their fashion sense and what they wear when they make new friends.

How do Normative Influence and Informational Influence interact?

While the dual-process theory (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955) proposes that behaviour is changed either by normative or informational social influence, it could be said to be a mixture of both. In Asch (1940, 1965) it was found that when the participant was given a supporting confederate who had the same answer as the participant, the participant was less likely to conform and change their answer. This could be because the supporting confederate provides social support to the participant, and therefore gives them more confidence to resist normative social influence. Alternatively, it could be because having a second opinion or source of information puts into question the other confederates’ information, therefore reducing the effects of informational social influence.

Which Variables affect Conformity?

Some variables affect conformity. Let’s quickly go over them before going into more detail:

  • Group size: Asch experimented with using different amounts of confederates to see how group size would affect conformity.

  • Unanimity: Asch would plant a dissenting confederate in the group who would give the correct answer.

  • Task difficulty: Asch would make the task harder by making the lines more similar to each other to see how this affected conformity.

  • Individual differences: McGhee and Teevan proposed that differences in the participants' personalities would make them naturally more or less likely to conform.

How does group size affect conformity?

Asch found that when the number of confederates increased, the participant was more likely to conform. He also found that this effect was strongest when there were more than three confederates, but adding more than that didn’t make much of a difference. Group size affects conformity because we wish to follow the group’s actions and beliefs, but also because we may assume that if an increasing number of people give a different response, they may know something we don’t.

How does unanimity affect conformity?

When a confederate gave the correct answer instead of an incorrect one, conformity decreased. This is because the confederates no longer unanimously agreed. If all the confederates were to pick the same answer, it would seem more likely that they might be correct.

How does task difficulty affect conformity?

Asch found that when the line task was made harder, participants were more likely to conform and believe that the confederates could be right. This is because they would have less confidence in their own answer, so they would look to the majority for guidance. In another study, Lucas et al. (2006) asked participants to answer some mathematical questions, and also found that when the task became harder, conformity increased.

How do Individual differences affect conformity?

Some people are simply more or less conformist than others, which will lead to different results. McGhee and Teevan (1967) proposed that the research at the time neglected to mention how the need for affiliation (a wish to ‘belong’ to a group and gain their approval) was a big factor in how conformist someone would be. The hypothesis was that participants who had a higher need for affiliation (nAFF) would be more likely to conform than those with a lower nAFF. The results of the study indicated that the hypothesis was correct.

Conformity - Key takeaways

  • Conformity is when someone changes their behaviour or beliefs because of perceived social pressure.

  • Conformity comes in three forms: compliance, identification, and internalisation, and can have good, neutral, or bad outcomes.

  • Compliance is when someone publicly changes their behaviour but does not change their actual inner beliefs. Identification is when somebody publicly and privately changes their behaviour and beliefs, but only while in a certain group. Internalisation is when somebody permanently changes their public behaviour and private beliefs, even when alone.

  • People conform due to informational social influence, normative social influence and their social roles.

  • Normative social influence occurs when we feel social pressure to conform, while informational social influence occurs when we have limited information and look to others for guidance. When people are assigned roles in society (e.g. guard or prisoner in Zimbardo, 1971), they may change their behaviour to match that role.

Frequently Asked Questions about Conformity

Yes, it could be argued that social media does encourage conformity. For example, according to Pew Research, people are more willing to discuss and post about topics if they think their audience will agree with them and will refrain from posting topics that they feel their audience might not agree with.

Cultural conformity is when someone changes their behaviour and ideas due to the cultural norms of their environment. In the present-day UK for example, men and women can wear a wide variety of clothes in public, as our society no longer has strict cultural rules for informal clothing. Therefore, people wear whatever they want. In the 1940’s though, people would wear very similar, formal clothing as the cultural norms were different.

Blind conformity or blind obedience is when someone follows the orders or instructions of a person or group regardless of whether they think it is right or wrong to do so.

In the case of normative social influence, the social pressure to fit into a group causes people to conform. Informational social influence occurs when people conform due to a lack of information or a lack of confidence in the information they have, so they look to others for guidance. People also conform to their social roles, taking on characteristics associated with those roles.

The main difference between conformity and obedience is power. In conformity, we may change our behaviour to match a group of our peers. Obedience, however, is changing one’s behaviour in response to obey a higher authority.

Final Conformity Quiz


Which factors affect conformity according to Asch’s line study?

Show answer


The factors affecting conformity are group size, the difficulty of task and unanimity.

Show question


What are the three types of conformity?

Show answer


Compliance, identification and internalisation.

Show question


According to Deutsch and Gerard (1955) what are the two reasons people conform?

Show answer


The wish to fit in and be liked and the wish to be correct.

Show question


What are the two types of social influence?

Show answer


Informational and normative social influence.

Show question


What is the definition of conformity?

Show answer


When people change their behaviour as a result of perceived social influence or pressure.

Show question


How does social media affect conformity?

Show answer


People are more likely to post or talk about topics with which they think their followers will agree.

Show question


How do individual differences affect conformity?

Show answer


Some people have a higher need for affiliation, meaning they may be more likely to conform to a group than those with a lower need for affiliation.

Show question


How does the difficulty of a task affect conformity?

Show answer


If a task is harder, people may look to others for guidance, assuming they know better.

Show question


What is a confederate?

Show answer


A confederate is someone who acts like a standard participant in a study, but is working for the research team.

Show question


What is the difference between dispositional and situational factors?

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Dispositional factors are a result of individuals’ inner processes, such as personality, thoughts or feelings. Situational factors are environmental, such as location and social roles.

Show question


Did Zimbardo find that the actions of his participants were a result of dispositional or situational factors?

Show answer


Zimbardo found that they were a result of situational factors.

Show question


If a participant in Asch’s conformity study changed their answer publicly but privately believed their answer to be right, which type of conformity would they be exhibiting?

Show answer


The participant would be exhibiting compliance.

Show question


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