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Psychology of Conformity

So what is Conformity?

It is when a person changes their behaviours, values and/or attitudes due to “real” or “imagined” group pressure.


Types of Conformity


These are the three levels of conformity, in order of shallow to deep:


- Compliance


Compliance conformity is the distortion of one’s response. Although they privately disagree, they would change their answer in order to match the other answers given by those around them to fit in. As they have another opinion internally, compliance is the most temporary and shallow type of conformity.


- Identification


Identification conformity is the distortion of one’s judgement. As a large number of people agree on something, one might assume that they are right and actually start to believe that what the majority agrees on is right. As the interpretation of evidence is changed, identification conformity is quite deep, though this may change with a different group of people giving a different response.


- Internalisation


Internalisation conformity is the distortion of one’s lifestyle. When people around them lead a certain lifestyle, they would follow suit. Though this may be a slow and gradual build-up and take a long time to form, it affects them long-term: their everyday behaviours, attitudes and even beliefs. Hence, internalisation is the deepest form of conformity.


Reasons


- Normative social influence


This is caused by the desire to fit in and avoid the punishment of standing out and as a result, being looked down on or ridiculed. As a result, one affected by normative social influence might fall into the category of compliance conformity - their private opinion differs from what they express.


- Informational social influence


In an ambiguous situation or when one is not experienced or knowledgeable enough, they might look towards others in the group for guidance. In order to gain the feeling of being right, they might choose to follow and believe in the majority’s answer or opinion instead of voicing out their lack of understanding. This leads to identification and/or internalisation conformity.


Influential factors

There are many factors that alter the outcome of conformity, making the person more or less likely to conform in a group. The outcome is made unpredictable by these factors:


- Individual personality


If one has the desire to be a leader and/or to stand out, they would be less likely to conform, taking the risk of being ridiculed and sticking to their own beliefs and opinions firmly. This might also be true for someone who is confident in their own opinions, making them unafraid to state them even when others disagree. Therefore, they would not conform to the group.


- Difficulty of task


One would be less likely to conform if they are knowledgeable in the area as the group as a whole would have many different opinions, making less people stand out as the unanimity of answer is ruptured. Therefore, the fear of being judged is eliminated, making one less likely to conform to the majority.


- Characteristics of the situation


As mentioned previously, the ambiguousness of a situation affects the outcome of conformity. If one is confused about the task at hand or lacks the knowledge to construct an opinion, they become more likely to follow the crowd. This is to gain the feeling of being right and that of learning new knowledge and would increase the likeliness of conformity.


- Whether they have a partner


Studies have shown that people are more likely to take a stand against the majority of a group if they had a partner. The number of partners does not matter, rather it is the lack of unanimity of opposing opinion that makes one more confident in their own.


- Authorial figures


As authorial figures are widely-known and trusted, they are more likely to be followed as they are perceived to be competent enough to be people of leadership power.


- Private expressions


When one is asked to express their opinions privately, the punishment of being judged for having a different opinion is eliminated, so they would be comfortable freely expressing themselves. Hence, conformity would be greatly decreased.


Experiments

  1. The Solomon Asch Conformity Experiments

Asch’s experiments have become the foundation for studies of effects of social forces.

  • Process: During the experiments, he made use of perception of the length of lines, asking the subjects to look for two lines of the same length. Within groups of 6, only one person per group were real subjects, while the rest were to unanimously give the same incorrect answers. The first subject genuinely believed that the incorrect answer of the group was right. The second gave the same wrong answer as the rest of the group though disagreeing privately. The third had a partner who gave the correct answers; though they were the minority of the group, the subject still gave the correct answers. The last subject was told to write their answers privately.

  • Results: The first denied the evidence of their own eyes, trusting in the group and showing identification conformity. The second showed compliance conformity as they disagreed privately but went with the group’s answer to avoid the discomfort of opposition. The third subject showed that having a partner is an influential factor of conformity, while the fourth showed that expressing answers privately is an influential factor as well.

  • Conclusion: Asch found that in 37% of critical trials, the subject yields to the group, whilst only 5% follows the group when a partner is present. Conformity also drops by 70% when the answer is privately expressed. This shows that the desire to fit in affects a lot of our decision-making, and that having a partner and privately expressing our opinion varies the percentage of conformity greatly.

2. The Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment


This experiment is infamous for numerous morality issues, but it perfectly demonstrates identification conformity of fitting into assigned societal roles.

  • Process: Student volunteers with no criminal background, psychological issues and medical conditions were assigned to roles of a prisoner or a guard. Those who were “prisoners” were to stay in a cell 24 hours per day, while guards had 8 hour shifts; albeit the roles assigned, they were not told to act in specific ways.

  • Results: Zimbardo was asked to stop the experiment early seven days later as “guards” became abusive while “prisoners” showed signs of stress and anxiety. This experiment, though ethically questionable, shows identification conformity as the student volunteers decided, whether consciously or subconsciously, to fit into roles assigned to them.

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