Conformity: Why Do People Conform?

Why Do People Conform?

(Last Updated On: October 11, 2022)

Conformity is defined as the tendency to change behavior or to match or align with the behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes of other people. It is often an attempt to blend in with others in a person’s social group. It is a type of social influence that compels people to behave in ways that are seen as “normal” for that specific group.

The presence of others can be a powerful force that can convince people that they need to change their beliefs and behaviors. Pressure from groups often leads people to conform with those around them, sometimes even if it conflicts with their personal goals or beliefs.

In this article, learn more about the different types of conformity, why people conform to the group, and how it can affect how people think and behave.

In this article:

Types of Conformity

There are also several different types of conformity that people may engage in.

Compliance

Compliance refers to changing behavior to gain a reward or avoid punishment. In the famous conformity experiment known as Asch’s conformity experiments, participants were offered a cash reward if they could correctly identify which comparison lines matched the standard line on a test. Many participants conformed and gave an incorrect answer rather than go against the rest of the group.

Complying involves changing your behavior, even though you might still disagree with the rest of the group.

Identification

This type of compliance involves changing behavior because people want to align their identity with the rest of a certain group.  The conformity that typically takes place with this motivation is much more subtle than compliance.

Internalization

This type of conformity leads people to change their beliefs and attitudes because they desire to be like others. Internalization may lead to conformity out of the best interests of the individual. It may also lead to conformity out of the best interests of the groups they identify with.

What Causes Conformity?

While people often like to believe that they are independent and unique, the reality is that most of us conform in a wide variety of ways each and every day. People are naturally social creatures, so being able to fit in with our social groups plays an important part in social cohesion and group acceptance.

People conform for various reasons, some of which can be positive and some negative. According to researchers, there are two primary reasons why people engage in conformity:

Informational Conformity

On the positive side, conformity can be a way to learn what to do in different situations and settings. If you are looking for people who are more informed and experienced, it can help guide your own actions. People tend to engage in information conformity when they lack knowledge or experience. They may also change their behavior to avoid looking foolish or incorrect.

Normative Conformity

Conformity can also be influenced by social norms and expectations. The desire to fit in with groups and avoid being singled out for going against the status quo can also be a powerful motivation for conformity. 

People may engage in normative conformity to avoid being punished, ridiculed, or excluded for standing out from the crowd. They may also conform in ways designed to get others from the group to like or approve of them.

Key Takeaway: People conform to the group for many reasons. Two of the most common reasons are to acquire information and avoid rejection.

Factors That Influence Conformity

Certain factors can affect how likely people are to conform to the rest of the group.

  • Personal characteristics: Individual factors such as a person’s overall personality and goals can affect the degree to which they conform. 
  • Situational factors: When people encounter situations where expectations are unclear or ambiguous, they may be more likely to look to others for information about what they should do and how they should behave.
  • Group size: Asch’s classic conformity experiment found group size has an impact on conformity up to a certain point. People are most likely to conform when three to five other people are present.
  • Status: People may be more likely to conform in situations where they feel that others have a higher status level than they do.
  • Belongingness: Conformity tends to be higher when people have a strong sense of identification and cohesion with the rest of the group.
  • Cultural influences: People from different cultural backgrounds may respond differently to social influences. In collectivist cultures, people are often more likely to conform to social expectations. People from individualist cultures may be less likely to do so.
  • Difficulty level: If people are unknowledgeable, uncertain, or inexperienced, they are more likely to conform to what others in the group are doing. 

The Effects of Conformity

Conformity can have a powerful influence on how people behave in different settings. It can potentially lead people to change their opinions and behaviors in various ways.

Conformity can play an important role in the learning and socialization process during child development.

Kids often learn by watching and imitating the actions of others, a process that is known as observational learning. This can convey important information about what to do and how to behave in various situations.

Social pressure continues to influence life. People often alter their behavior, appearance, attitudes, or opinions to fit in with the rest of their social group.

In many cases, members of the group may utilize a range of tactics, including modeling, persuading, and even bullying to try to get other members of the group to conform to a certain set of expectations.

Conformity Research and Experiments

A number of well-known psychology experiments have explored conformity. Such experiments have contributed to our understanding of why people conform and how it can affect behavior in both positive and negative ways.

Jenness’s Conformity Experiment

In one of the first experiments on conformity, psychologist Arthur Jenness asked participants to guess how many beans were in a glass bottle. People were asked individually and then later placed in a room to discuss. After the discussion, Jenness found that the majority of the participants changed their answers to conform to what the rest of the group had estimated.

Asch’s Conformity Experiments

During the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted experiments in which participants were asked to perform a perceptual task. In this simple task, they had to look at a line and choose the line from a set of three different lines that matched the original one in terms of length. 

However, other people in the group were in on the experiment and would intentionally select the wrong line. The results revealed that the majority of people (around 75% of the participants) would go along with the wrong answer at least one time. 

Sherif’s Autokinetic Experiments

In these experiments, psychologist Muzafer Sherif had participants guess the distance that light dot moved in a dark room. The movement of the light was actually due only to an autokinetic effect caused by the movements of the eyes. 

Sherif found that when people were asked how far the light moved in part of a group, their answers all tended to be rather similar. When asked individually without the influence of the group, however, their answers were far more variable. His results indicated that because people were unsure, they looked to the rest of the group to inform their responses.

Key Takeaway: Several notable experiments have demonstrated how conformity affects behaviors. Famous experiments include Jenness’s conformity experiment, Asch’s conformity experiments, and Sherif’s autokinetic experiments.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are conformity and obedience the same?

While conformity and obedience share some similarities, they are different concepts. Conformity involves changing your behavior, thoughts, or appearance to fit in with the rest of your social group. Obedience involves following the orders of another person, often a person with authority or status.

Why do people care about fitting in?

Belonging is a basic human need. Human beings are inherently social creatures, so being accepted by others is a way to gain a sense of community and closeness. In broader terms, social cohesion plays an important role in the success of a group. Conformity can allow groups to meet their goals, increase social harmony, and minimize interpersonal conflict.

Is conformity good or bad?

Conformity is often viewed negatively, particularly when it involves engaging in behaviors that are risky or destructive. However, conformity can also be a positive influence, particularly when it encourages people to engage in prosocial behaviors that support individual and community well-being.

However, it is important to recognize that conformity has a dark side. When people engage in conformity out of fear or as a way to avoid punishment, it can potentially play a role in terrible actions and large-scale atrocities. 

Why do people conform to what others are doing?

One factor that can play a role in conformity is a phenomenon known as social proof. Social proof is a psychological phenomenon first described by psychologist Robert Cialdini in which people copy the actions of others to know how to act in a certain situation. This idea stems from the assumption that if other people are doing something, it must be the correct thing to do.

APA Format References:

Asch, SE. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburg, PA: Carnegie Press.

Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology51(3), 629–636. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0046408

Jenness, A. (1932). The role of discussion in changing opinion regarding a matter of fact. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology27(3), 279–296. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0074620

Sherif, M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology (Columbia University), 187, 60. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1936-01332-001