Psychology’s Definition of Conformity

In psychology, conformity is a change in behavior that results from real or perceived group pressure. Most people are surprised to realize how much individuals conform.

In a study from 1937, Muzafer Sherif, one of the founders of social psychology, looked at how people would change their judgments based on knowing how other people answered questions. Subjects were asked to estimate how far a light moved across a dark room. Sherif found that other people’s answers influenced the subjects’ answers.

In 1955, Solomon Asch, another pioneer in social psychology, found the same thing when he put people in a group and asked them to estimate the lengths of lines. Subjects changed their answers to go along with the group consensus. Both of these experiments are good examples of how an individual may conform under group pressure, even if the pressure is subtle.

Obedience is an extreme form of conformity and often involves going against one’s better judgment or truest intentions.

Most of us would like to think that we’d walk out of an experiment in which we had to torture someone with electric shocks, but the majority of subjects in one famous study followed orders and didn’t stop applying shocks. Why?

Harvard University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1965 conducted an obedience experiment that bordered on the extreme. It was so extreme that it would not be allowed today, because it would not pass the required ethics review. Subjects were seated at a control panel with a switch for delivering electrical shocks to a “subject” on the other side of a partition. The subjects were actually experimenters pretending to be real subjects.

The premise: The subject is to be shocked each time that he or she gets a question wrong. With each subsequent wrong answer, the shock gets stronger and stronger. The shocks start at 75 volts and go up to 450 volts.

At some point, the subject is yelling and pleading with the real subject to stop administering the shock. An experimenter stands next to the real subject with a clipboard and a white lab-coat insisting that the real subject continue with the experiment and continue to administer shocks, despite the pretend subject’s protests and obvious pain.

In reality, the fake subjects did not receive any shock at all; they only pretended to get shocked. But ask yourself, “When would I have stopped giving the shocks?” Maybe you think that you would have stopped the second the subject started yelling and asking you to stop

However, the shocking outcome (sorry about that one; couldn’t resist) was that 63 percent of the real subjects went all the way to 450 volts in compliance (or obedience) with the experimenter! That’s enough voltage to potentially cause death.

There are eight factors that seem to increase conformity and obedience:

  • Emotional distance: The more personal contact someone has with an individual, the less likely he is to act without compassion against that person. It’s harder to be cruel to another person when the victim has a face.

  • Proximity and legitimacy of authority: When an authority figure is close by, obedience is more likely. The authority’s legitimacy also matters. You are more likely to be obedient to an individual that you think has genuine authority than someone you perceive to be a poseur.

  • Institutional authority: When an authority figure is part of an accepted institution, obedience is more likely. In other words, you’re more likely to comply with the suggestions of a court-appointed judge than some guy sitting next to you at the bus stop (assuming he’s not a judge). Recognized institutional authority has a powerful effect on obedience.

  • Group size: Groups of three to five people have a maximum effect on conformity pressure; groups containing fewer than three and more than five people have a less powerful effect.

  • Unanimity: When groups are in complete agreement, it’s more difficult for a single individual to resist conforming.

  • Cohesiveness: The more a group feels that it is bound together and tightly organized, the more power the group has over its members. Uniforms are one way to increase cohesiveness because looking the same as others in a group strengthens a sense of unity.

  • Status: People with a higher status than you tend to have more influence over your obedience/compliance.

  • Public response: People conform more when their behaviors are made public. It’s easier to disagree privately or anonymously.

Although conformity and obedience are not necessarily bad things, learning how to resist both may be important — just in case. One needs only to think of Nazi Germany, perhaps the most horrific example of the dangers of conformity, to understand why maintaining a certain degree of individual diversity is important in any social group.

The best way to prevent conformity may be to maintain a sense of and respect for human uniqueness. Freedom of speech and religious tolerance are also good protections against conformity. As long as people feel comfortable being themselves and can freely speak their minds, conformity is a little more difficult.

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