Conformance or conformity is generally defined as adherence to a standard, specification, or regulation. In literature, this concept usually means adjusting behaviors to align with the norms of the group. Norms are the unwritten rules or standards of behavior for group members that will result in a kind of “equilibrium” pattern of behavior across group members. Usually, the more heterogeneous a group is in its membership (gender, ethnicity, age, etc.), the slower a group will develop stable norms. Norms cover every aspect of our social life, from performance (such as how hard to work for what kind of quality and levels of tardiness), appearance (such as personal dress, when to look busy, when to slack off, or how to show loyalty), social arrangement (such as how team members interact), to allocation of resources (such as pay, assignments, allocation of tools and equipment). In a way, our social life is maintained by implicit or explicit norms.
To conform is to change or adjust behavior or attitudes to the perceived norms of a certain group so that there is a perceived agreement or correspondence between one’s behavior and the behavior of most members in a group. Sometimes conforming is quite automatic, and at other times people feel pressure to fit in with the crowd. Within the above definition, it is important to highlight that the change in behavior or attitude is a result of either a real pressure or an imagined pressure from external sources. Typically, it is because of larger societal understandings and implicit norms (pressure) that one should be, for example, subdued at church, casual at a bar, and patient when in line.
The classic studies done in the area of conformity are both amazing and disturbing in their implications. They give us insight into the willingness to conform at inappropriate times, and what it takes to resist. For example, S. Milgram’s obedience experiments are probably one of the classic and infamous sets of studies in social psychology. He studied a dilemma that when following one rule (e.g., following the directions of an expert) means breaking another (e.g., hurting another human being), how are we to know which rule to follow? He found that people are willing to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Those of us who read about Milgram’s obedience experiments often mistakenly conclude that people are evil and would harm a stranger if given the opportunity. Attributing cruelty to the internal (evil) disposition of the participant misses the whole point of Milgram’s experiment—which is that the situational factors, not the individual character, determine behavior in the obedience paradigm.
Another famous study on conformity was conducted by Solomon Asch where he examined the extent to which pressure from other people could affect one’s perceptions. In his experiment, he asked the subject to make a judgment of line length (which was designed in such an obvious manner that it was impossible to make a mistake) after the other “subjects” unanimously chose an obvious wrong line (certainly all the other “subjects” were confederates who had been instructed to give incorrect answers). In total, about one-third of the subjects who were placed in this situation went along with the clearly erroneous majority. Why did the subjects conform so readily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought “peculiar.”
Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: Because they want to be liked by the group and because they believe the group is better informed than they are. However, not everyone conforms in any situation. A few factors such as group size, unanimity, group composition, cohesion, status, public response, prior commitment, and individual self-confidence will contribute to the likelihood of conformity. For example, social psychologists have been trying to figure out if gender differences play a role in conformity. Possibly because of the stereotype that women are supposed to be submissive, past research about conformity found that women consistently conformed more than did men. However, some researchers found that when women were unfamiliar with the tasks presented in an experiment (such as questions about sports) they were more likely to conform. However, when men were subjected to the same situation (for example, if they were asked questions about fashion) they showed a higher conformity rate. Since many of the studies that showed a gender difference included tasks and topics that were more geared toward men’s interests, it should not be surprising that the results showed a gender difference that in reality might not exist.
Another major reason why some people avoid conforming is their desire to be an individual. Individuation is to emphasize one’s own uniqueness in order to stand out from the crowd. Most people do not mind conforming most of the time, but still like to think of themselves as individuals, thus not conforming.
Conformity can be destructive, such as when a military unit kills unarmed civilians. Conformity can be constructive, such as when people hurriedly follow each other out of a burning building. Nonconformity can be constructive, such as when a business executive blows the whistle on his corporation’s unethical business practices. Yet nonconformity can also be destructive, such as when an antiwar protester decides that violence is the only way to get across his message. Thus, conformity is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It depends a great deal on the context and our values.
- E. Asch, “Opinions and Social Pressure,” Scientific American (1955);
- Milgram, Perils of Obedience (Harper, 1973).
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