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Sherif's classic study

Task variables

Individual variables

Group factors


Every aggregation is necessarily characterized by some degree of uniformity. This is true of any set of objects, events, ideas, or organisms, be they members of these sets by virtue of natural determinants or by virtue of our own conceptions, however arbitrary. Sugar and alcohol are members of such a set because they are both carbohydrates. But my pencil, my headache, and the spelling mistake I made three years ago in a letter to my wife are also members of a set; they share at least one thing in common: they all belong to me.

In human and animal aggregations some uniformities are genetically determined, as is the case with various morphological attributes of the species, while some evolve and are maintained by means of a social process. Often, socially evolved and maintained uniformities (i.e., social norms) redefine and channel biological uniformities. Sexuality, eating, nursing, elimination, etc., are behaviors which have in one way or another been subjected to normative controls in every society. The regulation of these biologically significant functions may be very pervasive or quite superficial. In all societies there are norms about when, what, how much, and in what manner one should eat. But similar regulations have not evolved with respect to sneezing. It is probably the case that those biological functions that are important to the survival of society are subject to pervasive normative regulation of their behavioral manifestations. Because sexuality is a significant factor in the survival and welfare of a society as a unit, sexual functions are jealously regulated by normative pressures. However, another biological function, breathing—absolutely necessary for the individual's own survival but insignificant for the society—is not subject to normative regulation. Perhaps if air were less abundant and, like food, posed problems of distribution, breathing too would be normatively regulated. As a matter of fact, breathing does become subject to rather strict normative controls on submarines in emergencies.

Although not all social uniformities revolve around the expression of biological functions, it has generally been recognized that normative regulation is imposed upon behavior (a) that is not under complete control of biological factors and (b) whose nonsocial (i.e., psychological or biological) determinants might lead to instrumental behavior that is socially undesirable or harmful.

The behavioral processes that establish and maintain social uniformities are subsumed under the concept of conformity. We shall speak of conformity when the behavior of an individual is under the control of a group norm. A group (social) norm, as was already noted, is a uniformity of behavior among the members of a given group that is not the result of a physiological or biological uniformity among them.

Sherif's classic study

While theoretical work on conformity dates from the earliest social philosophers, the experimental study of conformity is a more recent development. In 1935 Muzafer Sherif brought the process of conformity into the laboratory for the first time and subjected it to systematic observation. He utilized the autokinetic phenomenon, which is a perceptual distortion occurring when individuals view a stationary pinpoint of light in a completely dark room. Normally, the light appears to move about three or four inches. The illusion of movement is enhanced when the individual does not know the distance between himself and the light and when he expects that the light will move. But even when he is told that the light is stationary, the illusion of movement is rather compelling.

Sherif s pioneering experiment consisted in the collection of judgments about the apparent movement of the pinpoint of light from individuals tested alone and in groups of two and three. Each subject made one such judgment on each of four consecutive days, and 100 trials were given each day. Two conditions were examined, and in both the subjects were required on each trial to announce aloud how many inches they thought the light had moved. In both conditions, too, one day was devoted to testing the subjects one at a time, and three days to testing them in groups of two and three. The conditions differed only with respect to the position of the “isolated” block of trials in the experimental sequence. In one condition the sequence began with subjects making 100 judgments in isolation and continued with 300 group judgments. In the other condition the block of 100 isolated judgments followed three blocks in which judgments were made in groups. Sherif s results were unequivocal: (a) when individual judgments were made prior to the group experience, relatively high variability was observed between judgments made by different subjects; (b) when subjects made judgments in groups of two and three, variability between their judgments disappeared, regardless of whether these judgments were made with or without prior individual experience; (c) when individual judgments followed group judgments, they were characterized by greater uniformity than when they preceded them. The group situation is sufficient to produce a uniformity among individual judgments, and the uniformity resulting in this way maintains a measure of stability even after the group members have been separated from one another. More recent work shows that norms reached in this manner are maintained for a period of more than one year (Rohrer et al. 1954).

Sherif s experiment stimulated a vast amount of research concentrating on three classes of problems that roughly correspond to the essential features of his experimental design. Sherif made observations of (a) an individual (b) engaging in an activity (c) in the presence of a group also engaged in that activity. Research questions investigated in the field of conformity were generally formulated in terms of these three features. First, what sort of individuals are susceptible to group influence? How does the individual's past experience influence the likelihood of his yielding to group consensus? Second, what sort of behavior or judgment is easy and what sort difficult to manipulate by means of group consensus? How stable are these effects? Third, what characteristics of the group are related to the influence it can exert over individual behavior? Are some types of groups better able to influence a given individual than others? Is complete uniformity in the group a necessary condition for a successful influence upon its members? More complex questions revolve around the interaction of these classes of variables. Are individuals who are susceptible to group influence in one situation also susceptible to it in other situations? Are they susceptible equally for all sorts of behavior and to all sorts of groups? Are there, in other words, personality predispositions on the basis of which tendency to conform can be predicted? Research in the area of conformity focused on the above three classes of factors and on the interaction among these factors as they affect the likelihood and degree of yielding to a group consensus. It should be noted that in all experiments situations are examined in which, for obvious reasons, the group attempts to influence the individual to behave in ways in which he would not normally behave. The measure of influence accomplished by the group consensus depends therefore on the comparison of the individual's likelihood of behaving in a given manner when the group influence is absent with that likelihood when the group influence is present. This review of problems in conformity research will be divided into three classes of interests: those concerned with the task and behavior under control of the group, those concerned with the individual characteristics of the conformer, and those concerned with the nature of the group responsible for the changes in the individual's behavior or judgment or opinion.

Task variables

In Sherif's experiment conformity occurred when individuals, confronted with an ambiguous stimulus, made judgments about it in the presence of one another. It was possible, however, that the autokinetic situation, because of its ambiguity, did not involve conformity as it occurs in vivo. The judgments of each individual in the group were based on two sources of information: (a) the announced estimates of his partners and (b) his own very vague and unstable impression of the autokinetic movement. Clearly, from the subject's point of view, the second source of information had questionable reliability. There were no solid grounds for depending on what one thought one saw in this situation. It was, therefore, tempting for the subject to simply rely on the judgments of the other group members. The most important contribution to furthering the understanding of the conformity process along these lines was made by Solomon Asch (1952; 1956). The basic question that Asch raised was whether results like those of Sherifs would be obtained from judgment tasks that were considerably clearer and easier. Would the individual yield to a consensus among a group of peers even when it was perfectly obvious to him that the consensus was wrong?

The experimental design employed by Asch involved two important modifications of Sherifs technique. First, nonambiguous stimuli were used: his subjects were asked to estimate the length of a line by matching it with one of three comparison lines. The standard stimulus and the comparison stimuli were always presented under optimal viewing conditions. Also, the comparison stimuli always included a line identical in length and all other respects to the standard line. The differences among the lengths of the comparison lines were so large that an individual making these psychophysical judgments by himself could easily achieve 90 per cent accuracy.

Second, instead of utilizing ad hoc groups, Asch employed trained confederates who were previously instructed about what estimate to make on each trial. Normally, the experimental situation in Asch's experiment consisted of 12 trials; on each trial the confederates, one at a time, would announce their estimates before the subject announced his. On seven of these trials the confederates would unanimously select the wrong comparison line. Sometimes their choice would differ from the correct one by as much as 70 per cent. This procedure removed the reciprocal and mutual aspect from the influence process present in Sherifs experiment, thus rendering the analysis of conformity pressures more manageable.

Asch's experimental paradigm became the standard one in subsequent conformity research. It unveiled the opposing forces involved in the conformity process and allowed their systematic manipulation. The force of the individual's own conviction could be manipulated by varying the difficulty of the psychophysical estimates he was asked to make. The force of conformity pressures exerted upon him could be manipulated by the size of the false majority, by how expert or confident they were made to appear, by the subject's dependence upon them for various gratifications, etc.

Asch's experiments gave a strong impetus to conformity research partly because of their provocative results and partly because his experimental design brought into focus many new problems that until then had not been well formulated. In one of his first experiments individuals judging the length of lines in the absence of a false majority attained about 93 per cent accuracy. But subjects who were exposed to the prior judgments of the experimenter's confederates reached only 67 per cent accuracy—a drop of 26 per cent. The difference between the accuracy levels of judgments made independently and those made in the presence of a false majority has generally been taken as the measure of conformity.

It was Asch's original suspicion that Sherifs results were obtained mainly because of the ambiguous stimuli he used. Asch thought that individuals would exercise greater independence of judgment when given a more definite, clearer, and easier task. As we noted above, however, Asch's first experiment shattered these expectations. Even under optimal conditions his subjects yielded to the false majority 26 per cent of the time. In further work Asch reduced task difficulty even further. On several critical trials the judgments of the false majority were quite obviously false. For instance, on one of the trials the three comparison lines were three, ten, and two inches long. The standard line was ten inches long, but the experimenter's confederates unanimously chose the three-inch line as the “correct” match. On another trial the line chosen by them differed from the standard stimulus by four inches. In experiments of this sort the judgments are quite easy to make, and subjects working in isolation reached 98 per cent accuracy. But even with judgments extremely easy to make, there was as much as 26 per cent yielding, that is, subjects responding in the presence of a false majority reached only 62 per cent accuracy.

It is generally found that the yielding is not completely eliminated by decreasing task difficulty (Blake, Helson, & Mouton 1957), but the degree of yielding can be somewhat reduced by such a decrease (e.g., Coleman et al. 1958). We shall return to the problem of task difficulty when we consider the effect of certainty on yielding to a false majority.

While most experimental work in conformity has concentrated on perceptual or psychophysical responses of the sort used by Sherif and Asch, there are a few experimental studies to show that similar effects are obtained with other forms of behavior. For instance, Blake, Rosenbaum, and Duryea (1955) report that contributions to a fund for a gift for a departing secretary followed patterns similar to those obtained by Asch. When presented with a list on which the gifts of others were marked, the individuals who were asked to make a contribution tended to match their gifts to those already listed. Thus, subjects who were given a list with gifts averaging 25 cents pledged an average of 28.5 cents. Those who were presented with a list averaging 75 cents pledged to contribute an average of 63.5 cents. But subjects asked to contribute a sum of money without being exposed to a prearranged list averaged 75 cents.

Blake, Mouton, and Hain (1956) solicited students at the University of Texas to sign a petition requesting “… University officials [to] place lights on Littlefield Fountain to add to the beauty of the memorial.— In two conditions an experimenter's confederate was invited to sign the petition in the presence of the subject. In one of these the confederate responded by saying, “Sure, I'll sign,” adding his signature to the petition. In another he said, “No, I'd rather not,” and walked away. In a third condition subjects were asked to sign the petition in the absence of a confederate. When confronted with a positive action of a confederate, 89 per cent of those asked signed the petition. In the absence of a confederate, 58 per cent of the subjects complied with the request. However, when confronted with a refusal of the confederate, only 29 per cent signed the petition.

In a similar attempt Rosenbaum (1956) invited students studying in the library to volunteer for a psychological experiment. In two conditions the subject was asked only after the experimenter addressed his confederate, who either accepted or rejected the request. In a third condition no confederates were present. With a positive response of the confederate, 67 per cent of those asked volunteered for the “psychological experiment.” In the absence of a confederate, 41 per cent volunteered, but with a negative response of the confederate, only 38 per cent of those asked volunteered.

An interesting variation of such experiments was introduced by dealing with violations of existing rules or customs. Thus, Freed and others (1955) affixed a “no admittance” sign to the main classroom building at the University of Texas. As in previous experiments, a confederate made either a positive or a negative response or no confederates were present. Thus, in one condition a confederate read the sign and entered the building. In another he read the sign and walked away. Given a model who himself conformed to the rule, 30 per cent of the subjects entered the building. In the absence of a confederate, 60 per cent of those observed violated the sign. But when preceded by a confederate who violated the sign, 90 per cent were observed entering the building.

Individual variables

Asch's dramatic findings and the findings of those who further pursued his pioneering work clearly demonstrated the powerful influence a group can exert on an individual. But these studies also showed that conformity did not occur in all trials, nor did all individuals yield to the false majority. The question immediately arose whether individuals who maintained independence of judgments in the face of a strong, albeit false, majority did so because of an underlying personality trait. Is the tendency to conform a stable personality characteristic of the individual? Can this characteristic be identified on the basis of other knowledge about him?

Consistency of conforming

Evidence indicates that tendency to conform is indeed a stable individual characteristic showing up consistently in different situations. For instance, Ferguson (1944) studied responses to different attitude scales (religion, humanitarianism, nationalism). After having answered the attitude questionnaires, the subjects were informed about the responses to these questions made by a reputed majority. The attitude questionnaires were again given to the subjects. The results showed that individuals who shifted their attitudes on one scale also shifted attitudes toward the reputed majority on other scales.

Using various tasks (i.e., recall of nonsense words, recall of entire paragraphs, the embedded-figures test, and Asch's line-judgment test), Rosner (1957) found clear evidence of consistency of the yielding response. His findings indicate that within a single task and within a single experimental session the individuals who yield to the majority on early trials are also likely to yield on later trials. Second, individuals who yield in performing the given task during one experimental session tend to yield on that task in a repeated administration at a later date. His results also showed consistency among the various tasks: those subjects who yield to the false majority on one task also yield on others.

Skill and confidence

The experiments reviewed above, in which judgment difficulty was manipulated, reflect in part the operation of task variables and in part individual difference factors. Tasks are never intrinsically easy or difficult. They are so only in relation to the individuals who work on them. The clarity and difficulty of judgments reflect at the same time a property of the task and a characteristic of the individual engaged in it. The subjective aspect of task difficulty is the individual's skill at that task, and the subjective aspect of ambiguity of judgments is his certainty or confidence. Various experiments have tried to show that task difficulty or ambiguity of the judged stimuli are not in themselves able to enhance conformity. Rather, the significant variables were found to be the subject's task skill and his confidence (e.g., Coleman et al. 1958).

Individual difference factors that are related to task skill and certainty of judgment seem to show a similar pattern of results. Thus, for instance, Tuddenham (1961) found that children tend to conform more readily than adults, girls more than boys, and women more than men. Tuddenham (1959) reported that intelligence and conformity are negatively related. Appley and Moeller (1963) found a sizable correlation between conformity and the Edwards abasement scale, which in large measure reflects the person's lack of self-confidence. Crowne and Liverant (1963) reported that conformers tend to have low expectations of success in judgmental tasks. When the prior judgment experiences of the individual are generally successful (i.e., accurate) and when he is aware of his accuracy, his tendency to conform to a false group consensus is reduced in later trials (e.g., Hollander 1964).

Strength of commitment

When pressures are exerted by a group on the individual in an attempt to change his attitudes or opinions, the relative success of the group depends, in large measure, on how strongly the individual is committed to his point of view. Conformity to a false majority is considerably reduced when it involves fairly stable values (e.g., Gerard 1953). But even when we deal with a strong commitment, some measure of conformity is observed.


Among the personality variables found to be significantly related to conformity, dependency is perhaps the most outstanding. Various scales exist to differentiate between individuals in terms of whether they tend to depend on others for the gratification of various needs, for gaining understanding about the things and events around them, for learning if they behave appropriately or are considered worthwhile human beings. We would naturally suppose that a dependent individual would be more prone to conform than one who can function independently and who does not need to rely on others in judging his own actions. This conjecture is borne out by substantial research evidence. It was already noted that children tend to conform more readily than adults and that females conform more readily than males. And it is generally found that children are more dependent than adults and females more dependent than males. Kagan and Mussen (1956) have shown that subjects who tend to respond to the Thematic Apperception Test cards in terms of dependency themes conform consistently more than others. Strickland and Crowne (1962), on the other hand, found that conformity is intimately associated with the individual's need for social approval. Because schizophrenics are less responsive to the social environment and consequently less psychologically dependent upon it, one would expect them to conform less than normal subjects. This hypothesis was tested but was not substantiated by Schooler and Spohn (1960). Interestingly, they found that the mental patients tended to respond neither in terms of the false consensus nor in terms of the correct stimulus match, but often chose the third alternative, i.e., a wrong response not supported by the false majority. It would seem that the schizophrenic is unresponsive not only to the social environment but to the physical one as well.

Authoritarianism. The picture of the conformist as a dependent, submissive person with little confidence in his own ability leads one immediately to suspect that he is also quite sensitive to his relationships with authority figures. A considerable literature exists to show some not entirely clear relationship between authoritarianism, as measured by the F scale, and the tendency to conform (e.g., Steiner & Johnson 1963). Mussen and Kagan (1958) reported that the conformist tends to perceive his parents as harsh, rejecting, restrictive, and punitive figures. These authors suggested that the tendency to conform might be acquired in early childhood. Their hypothesis was based on an earlier work by Hoffman (1953), who pointed out that some forms of conformity are motivated by guilt caused by the person's hostile feelings toward figures of authority and in particular toward his parents.

Affiliation and achievement. Dependency is a personality disposition related to the affiliative strivings of the individual. Independence, on the other hand, is related to his achievement strivings. Numerous studies have shown that need for affiliation and need for achievement fairly reliably predict a tendency to conform, the first predicting an increase, the second a decrease in conformity (e.g., DiVesta & Cox I960; Samelson 1958; Zajonc & Wahi 1961). Often, however, these predictions have been complicated by an interaction between the two needs and by an interaction of these needs with birth order (e.g., Samelson 1958).


On the whole, research that concentrated upon the discovery of a unitary personality predisposition to conform was less than fully successful, and some of the research quoted above was not always borne out by follow-up studies (e.g., Steiner & Johnson 1963). The most reliable finding in this field has been that females tend to conform more than males. Other results have enjoyed considerably less frequent confirmation.

Group factors

One of the important factors that enhance the individual's resistance to group pressure is his confidence. We noted above that experimental manipulations that tend to increase his feelings of confidence (such as prior experience of success) result in an attenuated conformity response. But in a typical conformity experiment, before making his own judgments, the subject is confronted with the responses of a group of people. This response is often at odds with what he perceives. Clearly, the characteristics of the group, its size, its unanimity, its reputed expertness in the task, are factors diminishing the individual's confidence in his own judgments.

Size and perceived accuracy of majority

Early work by Asch (1952) has shown that the conformity effect is almost completely eliminated when the subject's judgments are preceded by the judgment of only one confederate. Asch reports that the subject's confidence in his own judgments is maintained when contradicted by only one person. There is, however, a dramatic increase in conformity when the subject's response is preceded by those of two other “judges,” and still a further increase when preceded by three. Thereafter an increase in the size of the group has little further effect. These findings have been in large part substantiated (e.g., Rosenberg 1961).

Stimulus ambiguity has its subjective counterpart in the individual's self-confidence. But in the conformity situation the individual's confidence in his own judgments is always relative to what he perceives the accuracy of the group to be. If he perceives that others are more accurate, he will be more likely to agree with them in the case of conflict between stimulus information and group consensus (e.g., Deutsch & Gerard 1955).

Consensus and divergence

Yielding to a false majority is reduced somewhat when the majority includes an individual making a correct judgment.

Asch (1952) found that not only did the extent of conformity decrease when a “partner” was added to the group of confederates but that the subjects felt considerably less tense during the experimental situation—a condition almost universally observed in conformity experiments with a unanimous group.

The amount of divergence between what the subject thinks is the “correct” response and the group response is a significant factor in maintaining the individual's confidence in his own judgments. Most findings in this area agree that as this divergence departs from zero, conformity increases. (At zero divergence, of course, the degree of conformity cannot be evaluated.) Conformity reaches a maximum at a moderately small extent of divergence, depending largely on the task, and with a further increase in divergence conformity falls off (e.g., Blake, Helson, & Mouton 1957; Whittaker 1964). There is at least one study, however, in which no effects of divergence on conformity were found (Birney & Houston 1961).

Attraction and status

The relationship between the group constituting the false majority and the conformist has been investigated from various points of view. The two main foci of interest among these studies have been the attractiveness of the group and the status of its members. In general, the findings indicate that conformity increases with the individual's attraction to the group (e.g., Thibaut & Strickland 1956). Bovard (1953), however, found no relationship between conformity to a group norm and the attraction of the members for one another. On the other hand, Kiesler (1963) reports a curvilinear relationship between attraction to the group and conformity, with maximum conformity obtaining at moderate levels of attraction. Status of the group, too, was found to enhance conformity. In particular, a difference in status between the group and the conformist seems to have pronounced effects on the likelihood of conformity (e.g., Raven & French 1958). It is interesting to note in passing, however, that the status of the conformist itself does not bear a simple relationship to yielding. Harvey and Consalvi (1960), working with delinquent cliques, found that the second-ranking member is more likely to conform to a false consensus among the members of his clique than is either the first-ranking or the last-ranking member.

Private and public situations

The operation of group factors upon conformity is well illustrated in numerous studies that compare responses made under public and private conditions. Two important findings emerge when individuals, confronted by a false majority, are observed making their judgments privately, convinced that these will never be known by the group. The first of these is that, in comparison with the public situation, conformity decreases (e.g., Deutsch & Gerard 1955; Thibaut & Strickland 1956). The second and more important finding is that conformity to a false majority is not completely eliminated even when the judgments are made privately, secretly, and anonymously. Since the group is a significant source of rewards and punishments for the individual, the difference between conformity under public and private conditions depends to some extent on what consequences the individual expects from the group as a result of his nonconformity. Dittes and Kelley (1956) have shown that individuals who were not fully accepted by the group but who perceived their chances of becoming full-fledged group members to be high conformed to the false majority regardless of whether they were asked to make a public or only a private commitment. Individuals who thought that their chances of being fully accepted by the group were low and who, as a matter of fact, feared rejection from the group showed conformity only in public. The false majority had little influence on their private opinions. These results have been further corroborated in a field setting (Menzel 1957).

While research results on conformity are not always perfectly reliable, a good deal of information has been gathered in this field since the pioneering studies of Sherif and Asch. These results, which show that even under completely private conditions the individual is likely to surrender, at least in part, to the pressures of a group making an obviously wrong judgment, clearly demonstrate the degree to which groups may control individual behavior and perception. The experiments on conformity, moreover, do not deal simply with trivial responses and psychologically trivial forces having little significance for behavior outside of the psychological laboratory. From the point of view of the subject, the experimental conformity situation is quite real and quite serious. His involvement in it and its impact have been demonstrated by physiological activity symptomatic of stress arising during the confrontation of the individual with a false consensus (e.g., Back et al. 1963) and declining as a result of his agreement with the group (Lawson & Stagner 1957).

Robert B. Zajonc

[Directly related are the entriesCohesion, Social; Imitation; Suggestion. Other relevant material may be found inGroups, article onGroup formation; Reference groups; Social control; Socialization; and in the biographies ofLe bonandTarde.]


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views updated May 18 2018





Ever since Émile Durkheim (18581917), considered one of the founders of sociology, conformity has often been discussed in sociology as a solution to the problem of social order. The basic norms and values in a society are internalized through the process of socialization. This process results in conformity, which contributes to keeping society together without resorting exclusively to external force or violence. These ideas were further developed by sociologists Talcott Parsons (19021979) and Robert K. Merton (19102003), among others, and became highly influential during the mid-twentieth century. For Merton two elements of the social and cultural structure of society are of particular importance: culturally defined goals, purposes and interests, which function as legitimate objectives that define what is worth striving for; and institutionalized norms that regulate the acceptable modes of reaching out for these goals (Merton 1957, pp. 132133). Only insofar as an aggregate of people conforms to such values and norms may we call it a society, according to Merton; people who reject both the cultural goals and institutional means of a society are strictly speaking in the society but not of it (Merton 1957, p. 147). Non-conformers are likely to be met by a variety of negative sanctions, formal as well as informal, which will put pressure on them to change their behavior, if not their beliefs.


When discussing conformity it is important to bear in mind the distinction between conformity in beliefs or attitudes and conformity in behavior. People may conform behaviorally without giving up privately held deviant beliefs in order to escape negative sanctions or be rewarded economically or socially. The social psychologist Leon Festinger (19191989) emphasized this distinction by distinguishing between internalization (both belief conformity and behavioral conformity) and compliance (behavioral conformity but not belief conformity). Compliance is more likely to occur if a person is restricted from leaving a group or society and when there is a threat of punishment for non-compliance. The likelihood for internalization increases if the person is attracted to the group and wishes to remain a member.

During the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of social-psychological experiments that strongly influenced the scholarly discussion of conformity during the following decades. Individuals were asked to match the length of a line with other lines of different length. All but one of the individuals in the group was instructed to make a match that was obviously wrong. When the last, uninformed individual in each group was asked to make a match, one third of the participants yielded to the obviously erroneous judgment of the majority. Among the conforming subjects, a majority later said they conformed because they lacked confidence in their own judgement and concluded they must have been mistaken and the majority was correct. The second most common reason for the individuals were to believe that the majority was wrong, but to suppress this knowledge because of an unwillingness to deviate from the group. Asch showed that a majority of three persons was sufficient to have this effect.

Research in the 1990s by psychologist David A. Wilder has shown that people tend to conform more when the majority consists of ingroup-members, that is, people belonging to the same social category, while they conform less when it consists of outgroup-members, that is, people belonging to other social categories. As argued by psychologist John C. Turner, this fact indicates that group identity is a salient factor for understanding conformity. However, it is of crucial importance that the majority is unanimous; otherwise, conformity decreases dramatically. In a classic 1975 study by psychologist Vernon L. Allen, conformity decreased from about thirty-three to five percent when a single individual deviated from the group by giving the correct answer. Moreover, as demonstrated by psychologists Rod Bond and Peter B. Smith in 1996 in a meta-analysis of 133 studies from seventeen different countries, people conform more in collectivistic cultures than in individualistic ones.

Conformity is also more likely in cohesive groups and tends to decrease as groups or societies become more complex in terms of role differentiation. This fact indicates that conformity should decrease as societies become more modernized and individualized, a prediction that is supported by Bond and Smiths analysis.


Attempts to explain conformity can be grouped into explanations that focus on normative influence and those that focus on informational influence. In normative influence, people conform in order to avoid negative sanctions or social ridicule. Such explanations have been common in sociology and in 1955 were put forward by Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard in the field of social psychology. Informational influence is principally associated with Leon Festinger and proposes that processes of social comparison or social reality testing lead to increased belief conformity. In situations of subjective uncertainty in which people lack objective reference points for beliefs, people tend to compare their beliefs to those of significant others. The more their beliefs harmonize with those of significant others, the more valid they judge their beliefs. When people discover that their beliefs harmonize with the beliefs held by most others in the group, people tend to become confident in their rightness and seldom change their opinion. Situations in which peoples beliefs harmonize poorly with those held by significant others, on the other hand, tend to aggravate the feeling of subjective uncertainty. To remedy this situation, people may either try to change the beliefs held by others in the group or change their own beliefs to better reflect those of the group, which is often far easier.

As sociologist Peter Hedström, among others, have argued, it is often a rational strategy to imitate others behavior in situations of uncertainty, such as when one glances at other diners for information about which fork to use for the first course, or when the choice of restaurant is based on the number of other people already dining there. However, one risk associated with this strategy is that everyone may imitate the others, and that everyone may think that they alone are uncertain and confused or feel doubt about the rightness of the majority behavior. This phenomenon has been discussed in terms of pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance, especially when people experience strong normative and informational influence, may lead people to conform to a majority that actually does not exist. In other words, as in Hans Christian Andersens story The Emperors New Clothes, the conformers may all come to believe that everyone else has understood something important of which they themselves are ignorant, and refrain from questioning the consensus because of fear of ridicule or ostracism. Pluralistic ignorance and conformity in general may thus undermine the potential for creativity and productiveness in a group or society.

Research by psychologist Irving Janis (19181990) on groupthink showed that compliance within cohesive groups may have disastrous consequences for decision making in crucial situations. The pressure on people to conform to the ingroup increases in polarized situations in which the cost of remaining a deviant or a passive bystander increases. As a result, moderates may suppress their true preferences, which give radical or fanatical elements disproportionate influence.

Conformity thus has a distinctly negative potential. This was demonstrated by research following the 1963 classic experiment by social psychologist Stanley Milgram (19331984). Milgrams experiment showed that many people would blindly follow authorities in situations of uncertainty. By combining these insights, many scholars have argued that conformity is an important prerequisite for military atrocities and fascist practices. As argued by psychologist Rupert Brown for instance, the well-documented instances of group-instigated atrocities against civilians in Vietnam, former Yugoslavia and other war zones before and since suggest that social pressures to conform [can be] both prevalent in their frequency and tragic in their consequences (Brown 2006, p. 131).

SEE ALSO Asch, Solomon; Authority; Collectivism; Cults; Deviance; Durkheim, Émile; Experiments, Shock; Fascism; Festinger, Leon; Groupthink; Herd Behavior; Ignorance, Pluralistic; Merton, Robert K; Milgram, Stanley; Norms; Organization Man; Parsons, Talcott; Peer Influence; Social Psychology


Allen, Vernon L. 1975. Social Support for Nonconformity. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 143. New York: Academic Press.

Asch, Solomon. 1956. Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One against a Unanimous Majority. Psychological Monographs 70.

Bond, Rod, and Peter B. Smith. 1996. Culture and Conformity: A Meta-Analysis of Studies Using Aschs Line Judgement Task. Psychological Bulletin 119: 111137.

Brown, Rupert. 2006. Group Processes. Dynamics Within and Between Groups. Oxford: Blackwell.

Deutsch, Morton, and Harold B. Gerard. 1955. A Study of Normative and Informational Social Influence upon Individual Judgement. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 51: 629636.

Festinger, Leon. 1950. Informal Social Communication. Psychological Review 57: 271282.

Festinger, Leon. 1953. An Analysis of Compliant Behaviour. In Group Relations at the Crossroads, ed. Muzafer Sherif, and M. O. Wilson, 232256. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Festinger, Leon. 1954. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations 7: 117140.

Hedström, Peter. 1998. Rational Imitation. In Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, eds. Peter Hedström, and Richard Swedberg, 306327. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Janis, Irving L. 1972. Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Structure and Anomie. In Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.

Milgram, Stanley. 1963. Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 67: 371378.

Turner, John C. 1991. Social Influence. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University Press.

Wilder, David A. 1990. Some Determinants of the Persuasive Power of Ingroups and Outgroups: Organization of Information and Attribution of Independence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59: 12021213.

Jens Rydgren


views updated May 18 2018


Adaptation of one's behavior or beliefs to match those of the other members of a group.

Conformity describes the adaptation of behavior that occurs in response to unspoken group pressure. It differs from compliance, which is adaptation of behavior resulting from overt pressure. Individuals conform to or comply with group behavior in an attempt to "fit in" or to follow the norms of the social group. In most cases, conforming to social norms is so natural that people aren't even aware they are doing it unless someone calls it to their attention or violates the norms.

Researchers have studied conformity using controlled experiments. The first classic experiment in conformity

was carried out in the 1930s by Muzafer Sherif. It made use of an optical illusion called the autokinetic phenomenonthe fact that a small stationary point of light in a darkened room will appear to move. The auto-kinetic phenomenon affects individuals differently, i.e., the amount of movement experienced by different people varies. In Sherif's experiment, several subjects were placed together in a room with a stationary light. Each was asked to describe its movement aloud. As the individuals listened to the descriptions of others, their answers became increasingly similar as they unconsciously sought to establish a group norm . The power of social norms was demonstrated even more strikingly when the subjects continued to adhere to the norm later when they were retested individually. Sherif's experiment demonstrates one of the important conditions that produces conformity: ambiguity. There was no clear-cut right answer to the question asked of the subjects, so they were more vulnerable to reliance on a norm.

In the 1950s another researcher, Solomon Asch, devised a conformity experiment that eliminated the ambiguity factor. Subjects were asked to match lines of different lengths on two cards. In this experiment, there was one obvious right answer. However, each subject was tested in a room full of "planted" peers who deliberately gave the wrong answer in some cases. About three-fourths of the subjects tested knowingly gave an incorrect answer at least once in order to conform to the group.

Asch's experiment revealed other factorsnotably unanimity and size of the majoritythat influence conformity even when ambiguity isn't an issue. Unanimity of opinion is extremely powerful in influencing people to go along with the group. Even one dissenter decreases the incidence of conformity markedly. Individuals are much more likely to diverge from a group when there is at least one other person to share the potential disapproval of the group. People who follow the lead of an initial dissenter may even disagree with that person and be dissenting from the group for a totally different reason. However, knowing there is at least one other dissenting voice makes it easier for them to express their own opinions.

Individual differences also determine the degree to which conformity will occur. Although the ambiguity and unanimity of the situation are powerful contributors to the incidence of conformity, they are not the sole determinants. Personal characteristics and the individual's position within the group play a role as well. Individuals who have a low status within a group or are unfamiliar with a particular situation are the ones most likely to conform. Thus, students who are new to a class, new members of a study or activity group, or new residents to a community are more likely to be affected by the pressure to conform. Personality traits , such as concern with being liked or the desire to be right, also play a role.

Cultural factors are also influential. Certain cultures are more likely than others to value group harmony over individual expression. In fact, school administrators, organization managers, and even parents can establish an atmosphere or "culture" that either fosters conformity or allows for dissension and individuality.

Further Reading

Feller, Robyn M. Everything You Need to Know About Peer Pressure. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1995.

Friar, Linda and Penelope B. Grenoble. Teaching Your Child to Handle Peer Pressure. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1988.

Goldhammer, John. Under the Influence: The Destructive Effects of Group Dynamics. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.


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conformity The social psychological study of conformity examines the pressures on individuals to conform to the expectations of a group, society, organization, or leader. The classic experiments were conducted by Solomon E. Asch, an American gestalt psychologist who undertook a series of small-group studies on the social pressures to conform. His subjects were asked to answer a basic puzzle (for example on the length of a line) when others provided a manifestly incorrect answer. Many subjects felt under pressure to give the same incorrect answer; however, the majority resisted pressures to conform, and even those who acquiesced offered reasonable explanations for doing so, despite subsequently expressed doubts about their behaviour (see his Social Psychology, 1952
). Asch argues that the results confirm his view of human nature, which is of human beings as creative and rational organisms, in contrast to the tradition that views them as passive and responding only to environmental pressures. The concept of conformity was also used by Robert Merton in Social Theory and Social Structure (1968) to refer to acceptance of cultural goals and the legitimate or approved means of achieving them. See also BEHAVIOURAL CONFORMITY.


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con·form·i·ty / kənˈfôrmitē/ • n. compliance with standards, rules, or laws: the goods were in conformity with the contract. ∎  behavior in accordance with socially accepted conventions or standards: loyalty to one's party need not imply unquestioning conformity. ∎  Brit., chiefly hist. compliance with the practices of the Church of England. ∎  similarity in form or type; agreement in character: these changes are intended to ensure conformity between all schemes. ∎ Geol. (of strata in contact) a continuous sequence of deposits, typically in parallel strata.


views updated May 18 2018


Conformity is a change in beliefs or behaviors when youth yield to real or imagined social pressure. Conformity is affected by developmental level, situations, and persons involved. Young children tend to conform to their parents' rules and expectations. As children become older, they become more autonomous from their parents, and also become more peer-oriented. Conformance to parents in neutral or pro-social situations (i.e., helping, volunteering) decreases gradually as a child ages. However, peer conformity, especially to antisocial behaviors (i.e., alcohol use, criminal acts) increases with age. Youth may engage in misconduct to avoid rejection, to stay in peers' good graces, or to gain approval. Children from families that are permissive and neglectful are likely to be more susceptible to peer influence and may join gangs to feel a sense of belonging. During middle and late adolescence, youth strike a balance between conformity to parents, peers, and their own individual identity.



Berndt, Thomas J. "Developmental Changes in Conformity toPeers and Parents."Developmental Psychology 15 (1979):608-616.

Fulingi, Andrew J., and Jacquelynne S. Eccles. "Perceived Parent-Child Relationships and Early Adolescents' Orientation Towards Peers." Developmental Psychology 29 (1993):622-632.

Rhonda CherieBoyd

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