Conformity is the result of a process by which people's beliefs or behaviors are influenced by others within a group in the formation and maintenance of social norms. This process can involve subtle forms of coercion as people generally seek conformity through a desire to achieve a sense of security within a larger group of people usually of similar age, culture, religion or educational status. It is thus common among young people as an aspect of youth culture and is related to the social dynamics of gangs. Any unwillingness to conform carries with it the very real risk of social rejection, alienation and ostracism. In this respect conformity can be seen as a safe means of avoiding bullying or deflecting criticism from peers.
People can be influenced via subtle shocks, even unconscious processes, or by direct and overt peer pressure. Conformity can have either good or bad effects on people, from driving safely on the correct side of the road, to harmful drug or alcohol abuse.
Conformity is a group dynamic. Numerous factors, such as unanimity, cohesion, status, prior commitment and public opinion all help to determine the level of conformity an individual will reflect towards his or her group.
Although Kelman's distinction has been very influential, research in social psychology has focused primarily on two main varieties of conformity. These are informational conformity, or informational social influence, and normative conformity, otherwise known as normative social influence (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005). Using Kelman's terminology, these correspond to internalization and compliance, or so it is said.
Informational social influence was first documented in Muzafer Sherif's (1935) autokinetic experiment. He was interested in how many people change their opinions to bring them in line with the opinion of a group. Participants were placed in a dark room and asked to stare at a small dot of light 15 feet away. They were then asked to estimate the amount it moved. The trick was there was no movement, it was caused by a visual illusion known as the autokinetic effect. Every person perceived different amounts of movement. Over time, the same estimate was agreed on and others conformed to it. Sherif suggested that this was a simulation for how social norms develop in a society, providing a common frame of reference for people.
Subsequent experiments were based on more realistic situations. In an eyewitness identification task, participants were shown a suspect individually and then in a lineup of other suspects. They were given one second to identify him, making it a difficult task. One group was told that their input was very important and would be used by the legal community. To the other it was simply a trial. Being more motivated to get the right answer increased the tendency to conform. Those who wanted to be most accurate conformed 51% of the time as opposed to 35% in the other group. This only occurred, however, if the task was very difficult. If the task was made to be quite easy, those who most wanted to be accurate conformed less of the time (16%) than those who didn't feel their answers were important (33%). (Baron, Vandello, & Brunsman, 1996).
Baron and his colleagues (1996) conducted a second "eyewitness study", this time focusing on normative influence. In this version, the task was made easier. Each participant was given five seconds to look at a slide, instead of just one second. Once again there were both high and low motives to be accurate, but the results were the reverse of the first study. The low motivation group conformed 33% of the time (similar to Asch's findings). The high motivation group conformed less at 16%. These results show that when accuracy is not very important, it is better to get the wrong answer than to risk social disapproval (Baron, Vandello, & Brunsman, 1996).
Informational influence Informational Social Influence is the mechanism by which men and women alike learn what kind of body is considered attractive at a given time in their culture. “For example, researchers have coded the articles and advertisements in magazines targeted for teenage girls and adult women, as well as female characters on TV shows. Cusumano & Thompson, 1997; Levine & Smolak, 1996; Nemeroff, Stein, Diehl & Smilack Stein, Diehl, & Smilack, 1995).” When women who are on average 5'4" and 140 lbs see these models in the media who are on average 5'11" and 117 lbs, their concept of social standards changes, causing them to conform to what they are presented with. Men, on the other hand, conform to a social norm of being bigger and more muscular than before. “For example, Harrison Pope and his colleagues (Pope, Olivardia, Gruber & Borowiecki 1999) analyzed boy’s toys such as G.I. Joe dolls by measuring their waist, chest, and biceps. The changes in G.I. Joe from 1964 to 1998 are startling.” The original biceps measure in 1964 was 12.2 inches, and was 28.6 inches in 1998, more than doubling in size." This increase in size of G.I. Joe dolls is consistent with a social standard for men to perpetually become more muscular and physically able.
In group pressure situations where there is an audience involved, women are more likely to conform than men. However, when the individual is the only one who knows that he or she is conforming, there is no difference between men and women. In 1987, Eagly proposed that this difference of conformity between the sexes is due to women being socialized to do so.