In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is conformity.
Whether we’re talking about peer pressure or keeping up with the Joneses there’s often a lot of appeal to conformity. That may be a conscious appeal, or an influence we’re not really aware of, but regardless, the desire to conform is an important social force.
Types of conformity
Normative conformity stems from the desire to be liked and avoid rejection. This produces behaviours to conform. Internal attitudes may not match with behaviours, or they may evolve over time to match up with the conforming behaviours.
Informational conformity occurs when we adapt our opinions based on information presented by others that we believe to be accurate. We may believe the information to be accurate because the presenter has expertise on the subject, or we may believe it because the person is someone we know and trust. This tends to change our beliefs, whether or not we choose to change our behaviour to match those beliefs.
Public vs. private
Public and private conformity relate to whether we superficially change our outward behaviours or change our deeper internal attitudes when we conform.
While there’s often a lot of overlap in normative/informational and public/private conformity, that’s not always the case. Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon in which people publicly conform for normative purposes, while holding private opinions that they believe are different from those of others in the group. However, in reality, most members of the group are in the exact same boat, conforming publicly without realizing that most other people are also privately non-conforming.
Compliance is a form of public conformity; it involves going along with a request, even if it’s something you disagree with. Obedience is conforming to a demand when there is concern about negative consequences for noncompliance.
Majority/minority influence relates to changes that may occur in beliefs or behaviours within a group. Often, the minority will conform to the beliefs/behaviours of the majority. In some cases, though, a minority will be able to sway the beliefs/behaviours of the majority.
Studies have shown that people will conform to group norms even when that apparent norm is clearly inaccurate. However, once individuals have conformed to those inaccurate norms, it skews their perception of things outside of the group context, often without them even realizing it.
Obedience and Milgram’s experiment
You may have heard of the experiment done by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which participants were directed to apply an electrical shock to a person in another room when that individual answered questions incorrectly. While there were no actual shocks, the actors playing the role of the person in the other room would cry out and beg for the shocks to stop. At the “maximum voltage,” the actors would become unresponsive, and 65% of participants increased the shocks as directed up to that level. People don’t have to be shitty to start with to do shitty things; conformity is a powerful influence.
Conformity and reward
A study using fMRI found that participants experienced greater activation in reward pathways when listening to music if they had been told that a music reviewer liked the song. The effect was even greater if the reviewer’s opinion matched the participant’s own opinion.
The lateral orbitofrontal cortex area of the brain, which sits behind your eyes, seems to play a role in detecting social conflict or disagreement. People whose lateral OFC had a larger volume were more likely to align their opinions with peers.
Factors that influence conformity
When it comes to majority influence, the size of the majority has an impact up to a certain point, but then the effect starts to level off.
Group size matters. The larger the group, the easier it is to feel that one’s own actions don’t significantly affect the actions of the group as a whole. Related to this is the idea of deindividuation, which involves a loss of a sense of personal responsibility as the group identity subsumes individual identity.
Consistency also matters. When people are very consistent in their beliefs/actions, that has a greater effect on other group members’ behaviour than if they were inconsistent. Minority influence is more likely to occur when the members of that minority are highly consistent in the expression of their beliefs.
If expressed beliefs are unanimous within the group, then individual members are less likely to speak up about disagreement, and more likely to start to doubt their own beliefs. When some members openly dissent, conformity is far less likely.
Behaviours that are public are more likely to conform than behaviours that are private, which is one of the reasons that voting in elections is done privately. It’s also likely part of the reason why, before the internet changed everything, you may not have been able to see results from other time zones until polls closed in your own time zone.
Depending on other characteristics, people may be more likely to be influenced by either social pressure or new information. In a study that looked at factors that influenced people’s political opinions, people were more likely to be influenced by social pressure the more conservative, conscientious, and neurotic they were.
Who’s in the history books?
The people whose ideas have led to significant progress and changes in the ways we view the world didn’t get there by conforming; they were non-conforming, coming up with new ideas and new ways of doing things. In some cases, they were persecuted for those ideas, like Galileo Galilei, who was found guilty of heresy by the Catholic Church in the Roman Inquisition. He believed that the earth revolved around the sun, which everyone now agrees to, even the Catholic Church, with the exception of the flat earth-ers.
So while conformity might be socially desirable, a society where everyone conformed would never be able to grow.
For me, informational conformity has always been much more relevant than normative conformity. I’m far more likely to change my behaviour if my private beliefs have changed than if I’m experiencing social pressure, and it’s people’s ideas that grab me more than their behavioural expectations. I’m also quite independent in terms of personality, and that’s something that was encouraged by parents while I was growing up.
If I imagine myself as a participant in Milgram’s experiment, I don’t see myself resisting pressure; I see myself saying “this doesn’t work for me” and getting up and walking out. Granted, imagining doesn’t mean that’s what I would do, but in general, getting up and walking away is an option that’s acceptable in my head, and the more unwell I am, the more likely I am to default to that.
How do you think your beliefs and behaviours are influenced by conformity?
You may also be interested in the post Illusions of Normal: How Well Do We Know What Others Think?
- Mallinson, D. J., & Hatemi, P. K. (2018). The effects of information and social conformity on opinion change. PloS one, 13(5), e0196600.
- Pressbooks: Psychology: Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience
- Sleek, S. (2016). The science of sameness. Association for Psychological Science.
- University of Minnesota. (2010). The Many Varieties of Conformity. In Principles of Social Psychology.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.