Insights into Psychology

What Is… Conformity (Insights into Psychology)

head with cogs inside

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term is conformity.

According to Psychology Today, conformity is “the tendency to align our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours with those around us.”

From an early age, we learn to mimic the behaviours we see around us.  In order to gain full acceptance into social groups, the behavioural norms of the groups are expected to be adopted to minimize the risk of social rejection.  Changes in attitudes and beliefs may follow, although not necessarily.  Conformity can be most damaging when adopted behaviours are inconsistent with one’s own personal values.

Groupthink is a related phenomenon, which Wikipedia describes as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics, which ignores realistic appraisal of other courses of action.”

In an early experiment on conformity in the 1930’s, participants were asked to estimate the number of beans in a glass bottle.  They were then asked to discuss it as a group.  When interviewed again, most participants had revised their estimate to better match the group estimate.  Another experiment by Solomon Asch found that people are likely to make choices based on the majority judgment, even if that majority judgment is inaccurate.

Types of conformity

Psychologist Herbert Kelman described three types of conformity:

  • Compliance: an individual conforms to gain a reward or avoid a punishment, and this may involve keeping their own beliefs to themselves
  • Identification: conforming in order to support a definition of the self in relation to a person/group that are seen favourably
  • Internalization: an individual adopts group behaviours and beliefs because they are congruent with the individual’s own beliefs and values

Factors influencing conformity

A variety of factors influence conformity, including culture, gender, and group size.  Brain-based factors may also be involved.  Older people are less likely than younger people to conform.  Initially, I found this a bit surprising, since younger people have a reputation of being more rebellious, but thinking of it from a peer pressure perspective it makes more sense.

Pros and cons to conforming

While there can be downsides to conformity, particularly when we trapped in what we think we “should” do, there are also positives.  Conforming to laws is generally quite a good thing, and following norms can make things flow more smoothly.  Personally, I find the orderly queueing of Western countries much easier on the nerves than the chaotic free-for-all in other parts of the world.

On the other hand, people can be downright nasty to those who don’t conform, and it seems like that’s been pretty consistent throughout human history, often in rather gory fashion.  It’s a primal urge that I guess we’ve never managed to outgrow.  Stigma probably comes from a similar kind of place, and mental illness just doesn’t conform very well to societal norms.

One area where I have tended to push back against conformity is at work.  I want to do things in a way that’s best for my patients, fair, and logical/reasonable in terms of workflow.  When things have arisen over the years where staff were being expected to do things that ran contrary to that, I was not prepared to conform, and that certainly didn’t go over well.

Have you run into problems with conformity at some point?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Visit the MH@H Resource Pages hub to see other themed pages from Mental Health @ Home.

13 thoughts on “What Is… Conformity (Insights into Psychology)”

  1. Yeah, I think the biggest issues I’ve had with conformity is the pressure to get along with people who I don’t like, such as my sister. And I can totally relate to the workplace issue! I had a job once where I wanted to do the tasks in a sensible order, and they wouldn’t let me! AARGH. I hate it when people override Meg-logic!

    You’re a great nurse to want to do what’s best for your patients! I remember once when I worked at KidsPeace, it was Christmas week and the teen girls were somewhat unhinged upon my 11:00 PM arrival. While I valianty attempted to offer backup to the second-shift people who hadn’t gone home yet, my late-night coworkers hid behind the nurses desk and gossipped. [Eyeroll.] Caring goes so much farther than indifference!!

  2. Yep. I blogged about it just yesterday actually. Conformity is not something I’ve ever done well and I know first hand about the negative reactions/behaviors others exhibit towards one who cannot/does not conform.

    1. In my calmer moments I tend to think that the people who react so badly to nonconformity must really be lacking in confidence to make such a big production of someone else doing things differently.

  3. In the words of Sum 41’s Fat Lip, “I don’t want to waste my time, become another causality of society, I’ll never fall in line, become another victim of conformity”. I get conforming to laws but conforming to society’s expectations is too much. It starts in middle school, where you’re expected to wear American Eagle & then it goes into high school where you’re suppose to conform to what the majority deems “cool”. Then it follows you into adulthood where you’re expecting to have a white picket fence, a husband, & the perfect house. I’d rather be me than conform to what others want from me. I was even pressured by parts of my family to conform to be like them. Cheerleaders, blonde, peppy, etc. That’s great for them but it was never me. I’m going off on a tangent. Lmao. But that’s my thoughts on conformity.

  4. I’ve read books about this, and some of the studies are fascinating. There was one where people had to determine which lines were longer out of a set of lines. Somehow they knew what other people’s answers were. Those other people were part of the experiment, and they answered incorrectly on purpose. Some of the wrong answers were blatantly erroneous. Still, people conformed to what the group answered. Pretty scary stuff. It’s hard to differentiate yourself from groups, but it can be very freeing if you are able to accomplish it.

  5. Huh…groupthink…I thought that only applies to “1984”. I try not to conform. If I HAPPEN to agree with what people think fine, but to intentionally do so, no. I worked too hard to create my own identity to lull myself to become like everyone else.

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