According to Leon Mann, conformity means yielding to
group pressures. Everyone is a member of one group or
another and everyone expects members of these groups to
behave in certain ways. If you are a member of an
identifiable group you are expected to behave
appropriately to it. If you dont confirm and behave
appropriately you are likely to be rejected by the group.

Like stereotypes, conforming and expecting others to
conform maintains cognitive balance.

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There are several kinds of conformity. Many studies of
conformity took place in the 1950s which led Kelman to
distinguish between compliance, internalisation and
identification. Compliance is the type of conformity where
the subject goes along with the group view, but privately
disagrees with it. Internalisation is where the subject comes
to accept, and eventually believes in the group view.

Identification is where the subject accepts and believes the
group view, because he or she wants to become associated
with the group.

Leon Mann identifies normative conformity which occurs
when direct group pressure forces the individual to yield
under the threat of rejection or the promise of reward. This
can occur only if someone wants to be a member of the
group or the groups attitudes or behaviour are important to
the individual in some way.
Apart from normative conformity there is informational
conformity which occurs where the situation is vague or
ambiguous and because the person is uncertain he or she
turns to others for evidence of the appropriate response.

Thirdly, Mann identifies ingratiational conformity which
occurs where a person tries to do whatever he or she
thinks the others will approve in order to gain acceptance
(if you make yourself appear to be similar to someone else,
they might come to like you).

The first major research into conformity was conducted in
1935 by Sherif who used a visual illusion, known as the
auto-kinetic effect. Sherif told his subjects that a spot of
light which they were about to see in a darkened room was
going to move, and he wanted them to say the direction
and distance of the movement. In the first experimental
condition the subjects were tested individually. Some said
the distance of movement wasnt very far in any directio,
others said it was several inches. Sherif recorded each
subjects response. In the second experimental condition,
Sherif gathered his subjects into groups, usually of three
people, and asked them to discribe verbally the movement
of light. He gave them no instructions as to whether they
needed to reach any kind of agreement among themselves
but simply asked them to give their own reports while being
aware of the reports that other members gave. During the
group sessions it became apparent that the subjects reports
strarted to converge much nearer to an average of what
their individual reports had been. If a subject who had said
that the light didnt move very far when tested individually
said I think it is moving 2 inches to the left then another
who had reported movement of 4 inches, when tested
individually, might say I think it may have been 3 inches.

As the number of reported movements continued the more
the members of the group conformed to each others
This spot of light was in fact stationary so whatever reports
were made was the consequence of the subject imagining
they saw something happen. So they were not certain
about the movement they observed and so would not feel
confident about insisting that their observations were wholly
correct. When they heard other reported judgements they
may have decided to go along with them.

The problem with this study, for understanding of
conformity, as one aspect of social psychology is that it is a
total artifical experimental situation – there isnt even a right
answer. Requested reports of imaginary movements of a
stationary spot of light in a darkened room when alone, or
with two others, hardly reflects situations we come accross
in our every day lives. Generalising from its conclusions to
real life might be innacurate. However, some of them do
have a common sense appeal.

Ash was a harsh critic of Sherifs experimental design and
claimed that it showed little about conformity since there
was no right answer to conform to. Ash designed an
experiment where there could be absolutely no doubt about
whether subjects would be conforming or not and it was
absolutely clear what they were conforming to. He wanted
to be able to put an individual under various amounts of
group pressure that he could control and manipulate and
measure their willingness to conform to the groups
response to something that was clearly wrong. Ash
conducted what are now described as classic experiments
in conformity. This is not to say they arent criticised today
or that its conclusions are wholly acceptable now – they
showed the application of the scientific method to social
psychology and we used as models of how to conduct
psychological research.

In an early experiment Ash gathered a group of seven
university students in a classroom. They sat around one
side of a large table facing the blackboard. On the left side
of the board there was a white card with a single black line
drawn vertically on it. On the right of the board there was
another white card with three vertical lines of different
lengths. Two of the lines on the card on the right were
longer or shorther than the target line. Matching the target
line to the comparison line shouldnt have been a difficult
task however for these seven students, all but one was a
confederate of Ash and they had been instructed to give
incorrect responses on seven of the twelve trials. The one
naive subject was seated either at the extreme left or next
to the extreme left of the line of students so that he would
always be last (or next to last) to answer. He would have
heard most of the others give their judgements about which
comparison line matches the target line before he spoke.

The naive subject was a member of a group he didnt
know and might never see again who suddenly and for no
apparent reason started saying something which directly
contradicted the evidence of his own eyes.

In subsequent experiments Ash used between 7 and 9
subjects using the same experimental procedure. In the first
series of experiments he tested 123 naives on 12 critical
tests where 7 were going to be incorrect. Each naive
therefore had 7 opportunities to conform to something they
could see to be wrong. One third of the naives conformed
on all 7 occasions. About three quarters of them
conformed on at least one occasion. Only about one fifth
refused to conform at all.

Just to be certain that the result was due to the influence of
the confederates responses and not to the difficulty of the
task Ash used a control group. Each control subject was
asked to make a judgement individually – there were no
pressures at all. Over 90% gave correct responses.

Hollander and Willis give some criticisms of the early
research into conformity. Firstly the studies do not identify
the motive or type of conformity. Do the subjects conform
in order to gain social approval? Are they simply
complying? Do they really believe that their response is
correct? Secondly Hollander and Willis claim that the
experiments do not identify whether the subjects are
complying because they judge that its not worth appearing
to be different, or because the actually start to believe that
the groups judgement is correct. Hollander and Willis also
claim that the studies cannot show whether those who do
not conform do so because they are independant thinkers
or because they are anti-conformists. And Lastly, they
claim that the studies seem to assume that independance
has to be good and conformity has to be bad. However
conformity is often benificial.

Sherif and Asch have each conducted fairly artificial
laboritory experiments which showed that about 30% of
responses can be explained by the need or desire of the
subjects to conform. These experiments may not accurately
reflect real life when conformity might be benificial and
sometimes contribute to psychological well-being.

Category: Psychology