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Why do we conform? How do factors like group size and social status affect the likelihood of conformity? In this lesson, you’ll explore two types of conformity.

Social Pressure

Why do we give in to peer pressure?

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  1. Sometimes we change our attitudes and behaviors so people will like us.

    This behavior is called normative conformity, or acting within social norms.

  2. Other times, we look to the group to provide knowledge about appropriate behaviors and attitudes. This behavior is known as informational conformity, or the tendency to rely on group wisdom to dictate appropriate actions.

Imagine it’s your first year in college. You’re excited to meet new people, so you join a special interest group for environmentally conscientious students. You’re also on the soccer team. After a winning game, your teammates all go out to celebrate. While you’re parading through the campus, your teammates are tossing bottles and food wrappers on the ground. As you pass a member of your eco-group, you see her expression of disgust as litter lands at her feet. Do you say something to your teammates?A common response would be to give in to the majority and act like you don’t care that your teammates are littering.

Your soccer team is made up of 30 of the most popular students on campus, and you’re afraid what they’ll think if you don’t show loyalty to the group. You want them to accept you and invite you to other team social events.Group size affects the level to which individuals conform. Conformity increases when the majority of the group members are acting in unison, an effect that can be compared to herd behavior.What if you did say something and this gave others the courage to also speak up? When it comes to views about littering and the environment, you follow the lead of the environmental group and tap into that group’s informational influence. You and your eco-friend start picking up the trail of litter.

Conformity is sometimes eliminated when one person diverges from the group. Unanimous beliefs are the most influential, but a minority influence can impact a larger group if persuasive.How does the fact that you’re one of the newest members of the team impact your decision? If you were the team captain, would you be more likely to tell your teammates that their actions weren’t cool?Conformity is more likely when the message is coming from higher status individuals. On the flip side, people with low self esteem are more likely to conform than those with high self esteem.

Solomon Asch’s Conformity Experiments

The cards shown to subjects in the Asch study
Conformity Experiment

In the 1950’s, a group of male students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania were told they were participating in a study of visual perception. The subjects were seated in a row and shown two cards, one with a single black line and the other with three lines of varying lengths, one of which was the same length as the line on the other card. All but one of the participants was told to answer correctly during the first two trials and incorrectly the third time. The participants announced their answers verbally, so the final respondent, who had not been told to give a certain response, would either conform to the majority or deviate from the norm.

  • While the line card is shown: ‘Uh, one.

    ‘ Two is clearly the right answer.

  • While the line card is shown: ‘One.
  • A bearded participant is shown, saying ‘One.
  • It switches from a clean-shaven participant’s face to the card and back. He says, ‘Two.

    ‘ A voice offscreen says, ‘One.’ Another offscreen voice says, ‘Three.

  • While another line card is shown (with Two still clearly right): ‘Three!’ ‘Three!
  • The bearded participant is shown, saying ‘Three.
  • The clean-shaven participant is shown.

    It switches to the card and back to him. He says, ‘Three.

This study showed that about 25% of the participants never conformed. Surprisingly, the 75% who did conform went with the majority, even when the wrong answer was given and the difference in the length of the lines was as much as seven inches!

Cultural Influences

Additionally, conformity is stronger in cultures where a collective group identity is stressed (such as in Asia, Africa and Latin America) and less valued in cultures where individualism and diversity is valued (as is the case in North America and Western Europe).

Personal commitment to a group increases our level of conformity with that group.

Lesson Summary

Why do we conform? What are the consequences if we don’t?Not only do groups often achieve conformity, but they also do so by enforcing their social rules on others. In institutional settings, like schools, these patterns can be enhanced.

The social impact of enforcement behaviors, such as group bullying, was brought to public attention by the rash of teen suicides in 2010.We’ve looked at how the size, authority and social status of the group affect its impact. Our need to conform is driven by our desire to be socially accepted. Wanting to fit in with people whom we admire and fear of social rejection are powerful motivators.

We’re more likely to deviate from the norm if there are internal challenges to certain attitudes or behaviors and also in situations where unanimity isn’t reached.

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