What Causes People to Conform?

The two broad reasons for conformity are informational influence and normative influence. Informational influence refers to situations where the person looks to others' behavior to behave correctly himself, particularly in social or work environments. Normative influence causes people to submit to the influence of others chiefly to avoid punishment or to gain a reward.

When conformity is caused by informative influence, individuals may look to group behaviors because they feel that people within the group have more information or experience than they do in specific situations or contexts. Thus, the individual seeks clues or cues from the group to determine how to act. One may consider socialization among children and adolescents as an illustration of this form of influence. Similarly, an individual new to a workplace may look to colleagues as models of how to carry himself or interact with the boss.

In cases of normative influence, the individual looks to conform out of a more precise fear of consequences. Following class rules to avoid detention is one example, but the differences between these two categories are often hazy. A teenager may look to the group for information as to how to fit in, but he may also fear the consequences of not doing so or feel the strain of peer pressure. This can be interpreted as a negative consequence, as conforming to the group is a way of avoiding social criticism, ridicule, teasing or bullying. Ultimately, conformity is a vehicle through which the individual isolates the norms of a particular group and then seeks to adhere to them in order to represent himself as a normal and acceptable member of that group.