Social conformity and obedience are two very powerful phenomenons in human behavior and sociology.
In this lesson, we discuss the two types of social conformity and differentiate between conformity and obedience. We also discuss two famous experiments by Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram.
Imagine you’ve volunteered for a study. You arrive and sit at the end of a row that has four other participants. The presenter gives you two cards: one has one line, and the other has three lines. You are asked to compare the length of the one line with the other three to determine which is the same length as the original line.
The other participants give their answers, one by one. They unanimously give an answer that is clearly wrong. When it’s your turn, do you change your answer to match theirs, or do you stick with the answer you know is correct?This scenario is actually part of a famous experiment conducted by Solomon Asch in 1951. The purpose was to study social conformity, which is a type of social influence that results in a change of behavior or belief in order to fit in with a group. Asch wanted to see how often people conform and why.
In his experiment, the person at the end of the row was actually the only participant; the other people in the room were actually confederates, or actors, and were purposefully giving the incorrect answer to some of the questions. Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the obviously incorrect answer. Approximately 25% of the participants conformed most of the time, and an additional 50% of the participants conformed at least once. That means that only 25% never conformed.
This study is well known and demonstrates the power of social influence. When the participants were asked why they went along with the clearly incorrect answer, most of them said that they had just gone along with the group in fear of being ridiculed. Some of them even said they believed that the group’s answer was correct and that they must have been missing something. These answers represent the two types of social conformity: normative and informational.
Normative conformity is conformity that occurs because of the desire to be liked and accepted. Most people probably think of peer pressure amongst teens when they think of normative conformity, and for good reason. Most teens and pre-teens are particularly vulnerable to influence because they long to be accepted by their peers.
I’m sure when you were a teenager you heard the phrase, ‘If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?’ Peer pressure is certainly a good example of normative conformity, but it happens to adults, too.For example, have you ever attended a performance that was, at best, mediocre? Maybe it was a play you saw, and you thought it was just okay. However, at the end of the play, several people around you may have stood while clapping. It wouldn’t take very long for every person in the auditorium, including you, to participate in the standing ovation.
Even though you didn’t think the performance was necessarily deserving of the praise, you joined in rather than remaining seated, so you wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Standing ovations, peer pressure, fashion trends, body image, and following traditions are just a few examples of normative conformity.
The other type of conformity is informational conformity, which is conformity that occurs because of the desire to be correct. In Asch’s experiment, some of the participants stated that they believed they must be wrong since no one else agreed with them.
They changed their answer so that they would be ‘right.’ Informational conformity is so named because we believe that it gives us information that we did not previously have. For example, imagine you walk into a food court at a mall. There are three stalls open, yet the entire crowd is seated and eating in front of only one of them.
Would you, as the newcomer, assume that that particular stall has the best food because everyone else is eating there?Informational conformity typically comes from the thought of, ‘They must know something I don’t know.’ In many situations, we are unsure of how to act or what to say. So, another example of informational conformity is when we travel to other countries. Typically, we’re unsure of how to act and rely on our observations of others to point us in the right direction. When we change our behavior based on the actions of the locals, we are demonstrating informational conformity.
Neither normative conformity nor informational conformity should be confused with obedience. Where conformity is a response to a group, obedience is a response to authority. It is following orders from an authority figure without question. A famous obedience study was conducted at Yale in 1963 by Stanley Milgram, who wanted to see how much participants would be willing to hurt other people when given direct orders by an authority figure.Participants in the study were told that they were to take on the role of ‘teacher,’ and that another person out of sight was to be the ‘student.’ The teacher’s job was to quiz the student and deliver an electrical shock at increasing voltages to the student for every wrong answer given. The experimenter was an intimidating authority figure dressed in a lab coat that issued orders any time the teacher would hesitate to deliver the shock via the controls in front of him.
While the participants believed that they were delivering real shocks to the students, the students were actually confederates in the experiment and were only pretending to be shocked.Long story short, 26 of the 40 participants in the study delivered the maximum shock, which should have been lethal. Only 14 stopped before reaching the highest level. Most of the participants became extremely upset and angry at the experimenter, sweating, trembling, crying, etc. Yet, they continued to be obedient and followed orders all the way to the end. So, why did they do that? Milgrim concluded from his study that people obey either out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative, even when acting against their own morals.This experiment played a huge part in our understanding of the powerful nature of obedience and how it is different from conformity.
With conformity, individuals choose to change their behavior because of their need for acceptance or because they’re not sure what to do. With obedience, individuals feel they must exhibit a certain behavior because of orders from an authority figure.
In summary, social conformity is a type of social influence that results in a change of behavior or belief in order to fit in with a group. The two types of social conformity are normative conformity and informational conformity. Normative conformity occurs because of the desire to be liked and accepted.
Peer pressure is a classic example of normative conformity. On the other hand, informational conformity occurs because of the desire to be correct. It typically happens because we assume that others know something that we don’t. Social conformity is different from obedience, although they are both very powerful. Where social conformity is a response to a group, obedience is a response to authority.
People typically obey commands out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative.