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Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to what individuals perceive is normal of their society or social group. This influence occurs in small groups and society as a whole, and may result from subtle unconscious influences, or direct and overt social pressure. Conformity can occur in the presence of others, or when an individual is alone. For example, people tend to follow social norms when eating or watching television, even when alone.
People often conform from a desire for security within a group—typically a group of a similar age, culture, religion, or educational status. Unwillingness to conform carries the risk of social rejection. In this respect, conformity can be a means of avoiding bullying or deflecting criticism from peers, though it can also reflect suppression of personality. Conformity is often associated with adolescence and youth culture, but strongly affects humans of all ages.
Although peer pressure may manifest negatively, conformity can have good or bad effects depending on the situation. Driving on the correct side of the road could be seen as beneficial conformity. Conformity influences formation and maintenance of social norms, and helps societies function smoothly and predictably via the self-elimination of behaviors seen as contrary to unwritten rules. In this sense it can be perceived as (though not proven to be) a positive force that prevents acts that are perceptually disruptive or dangerous.
However, the societal urge to conform and spread conformity generally does not discern between traits that are harmful, and those that merely disrupt a group sense of what is 'normal' or 'predictable' behavior. Examples of this include, but are not limited to:
- Expectations regarding clothing
- Hair length
- Gender roles
- Social and class roles
- Parental expectations for offspring
- Localization of accent and slang
Other, less mutable aspects are not necessarily controllable, such as differing skin color or ethnic background, or 'unusual' body shape.
Because conformity is a group phenomenon, factors such as group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, prior commitment, and public opinion help determine the level of conformity an individual displays.
- Compliance is public conformity, while possibly keeping one's own private beliefs.
- Identification is conforming to someone who is liked and respected, such as a celebrity or a favorite uncle.
- Internalization is accepting the belief or behavior and conforming both publicly and privately.
Although Kelman's distinction has been influential, research in social psychology has focused primarily on two varieties of conformity. These are informational conformity, or informational social influence, and normative conformity, also called normative social influence. In Kelman's terminology, these correspond to internalization and compliance, respectively. There are naturally more than two or three variables in society influential on human psychology and conformity; the notion of "varieties" of conformity based upon "social influence" is ambiguous and undefinable in this context.
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 certain situations: when a situation is ambiguous, people become uncertain about what to do and they are more likely to depend on others for the answer; and during a crisis when 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 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 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.
Economists have suggested that fads and trends in society form as the result of individuals making rational choices based on information received from others. These informational cascades form quickly as people decide to ignore their internal signals and go along with what other people are doing. Cascades are presumed fragile, because people are aware that they are based on limited information. This is why fads often end as quickly as they begin.
Normative social influence occurs when one conforms to be liked or accepted by the members of the group. It usually results in public compliance, doing or saying something without believing in it. Solomon E. Asch 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 on at least one trial. On average people conformed one third of the time. After Asch's first test, the replication of Muzafer Sherif’s test, Asch wanted to investigate whether the size or unanimity of the majority had greater influence on test subjects.
“Which aspect of the influence of a majority is more important – the size of the majority or its unanimity? The experiment was modified to examine this question. In one series the size of the opposition was varied from one to 15 persons.”
The results clearly showed that as more people opposed the subject, the subject became more likely to conform. However, the increasing majority was only influential up to a point.
The experiments provide powerful evidence for people's tendency to tell the truth even when others do not. They also provide compelling evidence of people's concern for others and their views.:2
By closely examining the situation in which Asch's subjects find themselves they find that
the situation places multiple demands on participants: They include truth (i.e., expressing one's own view accurately), trust (i.e., taking seriously the value of others' claims), and social solidarity (i.e., a commitment to integrate the views of self and others without deprecating either). In addition to these epistemic values, there are multiple moral claims as well: These include the need for participants to care for the integrity and well-being of other participants, the experimenter, themselves, and the worth of scientific research.:5
Normative influence, a function of social impact theory, 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 a person. Groups we value generally have more social influence. Immediacy is how close the group is 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.
Baron and his colleagues conducted a second eyewitness study that focused on normative influence. In this version, the task was easier. Each participant had 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.
An experiment using procedures similar to Asch's found that there was significantly less conformity in six-person groups of friends as compared to six-person groups of strangers. Because friends already know and accept each other, there may be less normative pressure to conform in some situations. Field studies on cigarette and alcohol abuse, however, generally demonstrate evidence of friends exerting normative social influence on each other.
Although conformity generally leads individuals to think and act more like groups, individuals are occasionally able to reverse this tendency and change the people around them. This is known as minority influence, a special case of informational influence. Minority influence is most likely when people can make a clear and consistent case for their point of view. If the minority fluctuates and shows uncertainty, the chance of influence is small. However, a minority that makes a strong, convincing case increases the probability of changing the majority's beliefs and behaviors. Minority members who are perceived as experts, are high in status, or have benefited the group in the past are also more likely to succeed.
Another form of minority influence can sometimes override conformity effects and lead to unhealthy group dynamics. A 2007 review of two dozen studies by the University of Washington found that a single "bad apple" (a lazy or inconsiderate group member) can substantially increase conflicts and reduce performance in work groups. Bad apples often create a negative emotional climate that interferes with healthy group functioning. They can be avoided by careful selection procedures and managed by reassigning them to positions that require less social interaction.
There are differences in the way men and women conform to social influence. Social psychologists, Alice Eagly and Linda Carli performed a meta-analysis of 148 studies of influenceability. They found that women are more persuadable and more conforming than men in group pressure situations that involve surveillance. In situations not involving surveillance, women are less likely to conform.
In a study by Sistrunk and McDavid at a private university, a public junior college, and at a high school, overall, females were more susceptible to social pressures than males. In fact, females conformed more than males 3 out of 4 times when they were presented masculine questions. Males conformed more than females 2 out of 4 times when they were presented feminine questions.[clarification needed]
The composition of the group plays a role in conformity as well. In a study by Reitan and Shaw, it was found that men and women conformed more when there were participants of both sexes involved versus participants of the same sex. Subjects in the groups with both sexes were more apprehensive when there was a discrepancy amongst group members, and thus the subjects reported that they doubted their own judgments.
Eagly has proposed that this sex difference may be due to different sex roles in society. Women are generally taught to be more agreeable whereas men are taught to be more independent.
Normative social influence explains women's attempt to create the ideal body through dieting, and also by eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Men, in contrast, are likely to pursue their ideal body image through dieting, steroids, and overworking their bodies, rather than developing eating disorders. Both men and women probably learn what kind of body is considered attractive by their culture through the process of informational social influence.[original research?]
fMRI studies show that conformity to the opinion of others about faces and objects involves activity within a network of brain regions including the anterior cingulate cortex, striatum, insula cortex, temporoparietal junction and prefrontal cortex at the time of conflict. Moreover, they show that agreement with others activates the same regions of the brain as receiving money. Evidence for conformity towards the values of others can be observed in activity of the human ventral striatum as the evaluated item is received. Both animal and human neuroscience studies previously implicated some of these brain areas into the fundamental process of performance monitoring: Activity of these regions triggers automatic corrections of behaviour. Perhaps when we notice that our opinion deviates from the opinions held by the majority of other people then these brain regions automatically produce a neural “error” signal triggering conformity – conformal adjustments of our behaviour or opinion. Interestingly after transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the cingulate cortex both the extent and probability of conformity decreased significantly relative to a control stimulation over another brain area.
- Asch conformity experiments
- Authoritarian personality
- Cultural assimilation
- Social psychology
- Spiral of silence
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