Conformity

Conformity

[kuhn-fawr-mi-tee]

This article is about the psychological concept of conformity. For other uses, see conformity (disambiguation).

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.

Varieties

Harvard psychologist, Herbert Kelman (1958) identified three major types of social influence.

  1. Compliance is public conformity, while keeping one's own beliefs private.
  2. Identification is conforming to someone who is liked and respected, such as a celebrity or a favorite uncle.
  3. Internalization is acceptance of the belief or behavior and conforming both publicly and privately.

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 influence

Informational social influence occurs when one turns to the members of one's group to obtain accurate information. A person is most likely to use informational social influence in three situations: When a situation is ambiguous, people become uncertain about what to do. They are more likely to depend on others for the answer. During a crisis immediate action is necessary, in spite of panic. Looking to other people can help ease fears, but unfortunately they are not always right. The more knowledgeable a person is, the more valuable they are as a resource. Thus people often turn to experts for help. But once again people must be careful, as experts can make mistakes too. Informational social influence often results in internalization or private acceptance, where a person genuinely believes that the information is right.

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).

Normative influence

Normative social influence occurs when one conforms to be liked or accepted by the members of the group. Solomon E. Asch (1955) was the first psychologist to study this phenomenon in the laboratory. He conducted a modification of Sherif’s study, assuming that when the situation was very clear, conformity would be drastically reduced. He exposed people in a group to a series of lines, and the participants were asked to match one line with a standard line. All participants except one were secretly told to give the wrong answer in 12 of the 18 trials. The results showed a surprisingly high degree of conformity. 76% of the participants conformed onimpact theory (Latané, 1981), which has three components. The number of people in the group has a surprising effect. As the number increases, each person has less of an impact. A group's strength is how important the group is to you. Groups we value generally have more social influence. Immediacy is how close the group is to you in time and space when the influence is taking place. Psychologists have constructed a mathematical model using these three factors and are able to predict the amount of conformity that occurs with some degree of accuracy (Latane & Bourgeois, 2001). Normative social influence usually results in public compliance, doing or saying something without believing in it.

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).

Gender and body image

Normative influence Normative Social Influence explains women’s’ attempts to create the ideal body through dieting and disturbing eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. “As early as the 1960’s researchers found that 70% of the high school girls surveyed were unhappy with their bodies and wanted to lose weight (Heunemann, Sharpiro, Hampton, & Mitchel 1966; Sands & Wardle, 2003).” Men, on the other hand, will tend more to attain their ideal body image through dieting, steroids, and overworking their bodies rather than enduring these eating disorders. “Researchers have found that adolescent and young men report feeling pressure from parents, peers, and media to be more muscular; they respond to this pressure by developing strategies to achieve the ideal ‘six pack body’ (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2003a; 2003b; Ricciardelli & McCabe 2003).”

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.

Real world applications

There are differences in the way men and women confront, and conform to social influence. Alice Eagly and Linda Carli (1981), for example, performed a meta-analysis of 145 studies of influencibility, that included more than 21,000 participants. As previous reviews of this literature showed, they found that, on average, men are less prone to being influenced than women.

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.

See also

References

  • Aronson, E., Wilson, T.D., & Akert, A.M. (2005). Social Psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Aronson E, Wilson TD, Akert RM. Social Psychology. In: Conformity: Influencing Behavior. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education; 2005: 246-256.
  • Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, pp. 31-35.
  • 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, 71, 915-927.
  • Eagly, A. (1987).
  • Eagly, A. & Carli, L. (1981).
  • Kelman, H. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1, 51-60.
  • Latane, B. (1981). The psychology of social impact. American Psychologist, 36, 343-365.
  • Latane, B. & Bourgeois, M. J. (2001). Successfully simulating dynamic social impact: Three levels of prediction. In Forgas & Williams (Eds.), Social influence: Direct and indirect processes. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
  • Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. New York: Harper Collins.

Further reading

  • Gil-White, F.J. (2005). How conformism creates ethnicity creates conformism (and why this matters to lots of things) The Monist, 88, 189-237. Full text

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