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Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage

Adaptation of one's behavior or beliefs to match those of the other members of a group.

Conformity describes the adaptation of behavior that occurs in response to unspoken group pressure. It differs from compliance, which is adaptation of behavior resulting from overt pressure. Individuals conform to or comply with group behavior in an attempt to "fit in" or to follow the norms of the social group. In most cases, conforming to social norms is so natural that people aren't even aware they are doing it unless someone calls it to their attention or violates the norms.

Researchers have studied conformity using controlled experiments. The first classic experiment in conformity

These troubled teens are in a military-style camp, where conformity and compliance work to make them adhere to social norms. (Photo by Pete Cosgrove. UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced with permission.)

was carried out in the 1930s by Muzafer Sherif. It made use of an optical illusion called the autokinetic phenomenon—the fact that a small stationary point of light in a darkened room will appear to move. The auto-kinetic phenomenon affects individuals differently, i.e., the amount of movement experienced by different people varies. In Sherif's experiment, several subjects were placed together in a room with a stationary light. Each was asked to describe its movement aloud. As the individuals listened to the descriptions of others, their answers became increasingly similar as they unconsciously sought to establish a group norm. The power of social norms was demonstrated even more strikingly when the subjects continued to adhere to the norm later when they were retested individually. Sherif's experiment demonstrates one of the important conditions that produces conformity: ambiguity. There was no clear-cut right answer to the question asked of the subjects, so they were more vulnerable to reliance on a norm.

In the 1950s another researcher, Solomon Asch, devised a conformity experiment that eliminated the ambiguity factor. Subjects were asked to match lines of different lengths on two cards. In this experiment, there was one obvious right answer. However, each subject was tested in a room full of "planted" peers who deliberately gave the wrong answer in some cases. About three-fourths of the subjects tested knowingly gave an incorrect answer at least once in order to conform to the group.

Asch's experiment revealed other factors—notably unanimity and size of the majority—that influence conformity even when ambiguity isn't an issue. Unanimity of opinion is extremely powerful in influencing people to go along with the group. Even one dissenter decreases the incidence of conformity markedly. Individuals are much more likely to diverge from a group when there is at least one other person to share the potential disapproval of the group. People who follow the lead of an initial dissenter may even disagree with that person and be dissenting from the group for a totally different reason. However, knowing there is at least one other dissenting voice makes it easier for them to express their own opinions.

Individual differences also determine the degree to which conformity will occur. Although the ambiguity and unanimity of the situation are powerful contributors to the incidence of conformity, they are not the sole determinants. Personal characteristics and the individual's position within the group play a role as well. Individuals who have a low status within a group or are unfamiliar with a particular situation are the ones most likely to conform. Thus, students who are new to a class, new members of a study or activity group, or new residents to a community are more likely to be affected by the pressure to conform. Personality traits, such as concern with being liked or the desire to be right, also play a role.

Cultural factors are also influential. Certain cultures are more likely than others to value group harmony over individual expression. In fact, school administrators, organization managers, and even parents can establish an atmosphere or "culture" that either fosters conformity or allows for dissension and individuality.

Further Reading

Feller, Robyn M. Everything You Need to Know About Peer Pressure. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1995.

Friar, Linda and Penelope B. Grenoble. Teaching Your Child to Handle Peer Pressure. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1988.

Goldhammer, John. Under the Influence: The Destructive Effects of Group Dynamics. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.

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