AS Psychology Social Psychology: Conformity
Conformity = A change in behaviour due to presence of others where there is no direct
request to comply
N.B. this is different from obedience (next section in notes) Obedience = when social
influence takes place due to a direct request by a figure of authority
Most research on majority influence took place in 1950s/1960s when ethical constraints
were nothing like what they are today. The most famous of these was conducted by Asch
(1956). It is essential to understand the politics of the era in order to put these
experiments in their context: McCarthyism (Communist witch hunts) had gripped the USA
during the 1950s and had caused people to become extremely fearful of stepping out of line.
Many musicians and writers were accused of being communists and put out of work.
Although by 1954 the McCarthyism fervour had died down people remained fearful of
There are different reasons why we might conform:
i) Normative conformity: Because we don’t want to stand out from the crowd e.g.
pretending to like a song so that others in your group think you are cool. You might not
necessarily agree with the group therefore conformity is characterised by compliance
rather than internalisation. This means outwardly going along with the behaviour without
actually believing it is right. This type of influence is not long lasting!
ii) Informational influence: Because we are not sure if we are right e.g. being at a
dinner party for the first time in a foreign country and looking for clues as to how to
behave. This type of influence is more likely to lead to internalisation. If internalisation
does take place then the conformity will be much longer lasting.
Conformity is extremely common in all of us throughout our lives – we learn as children by
copying adults and adults follow the social norms of their culture (generally accepted ways
of acting and thinking that are shared by all members of a social group). If someone breaks
social norms they are quickly brought back into line (e.g. by a funny look, or a reprimand).
Studies on informational conformity (internalisation)
The first studies on conformity were conducted on informational rather than normative
• Sherif (1936) - demonstrated that people conform to group norms when they find
themselves in highly ambiguous, novel situations. He used a phenomena known as the
Autokinetic effect: When placed in a dark room with a spotlight projected onto a
screen, the stationary spot of light appears to move (although in fact this is just a visual
illusion). Participants asked to make judgments about the extent of the movement show
great variability in their answers when alone. The influence of group norms was
investigated by putting 3 subjects together (2 whose range of answers was similar, and
one whose answers were different) and asked them to say out loud what their answers
were. Over a number of trials, all the answers seemed to converge, in the direction of the
dominant view . The “deviant” person had conformed to the group norm. Sherif found
that conformity to the majority group happened more quickly if the subjects had no
previous experience of the task and so had not developed a frame of reference.
Generally the more ambiguous the situation, and the less experience the person has had
of the situation, the more powerful the influence of the group with established norms
o There was a lack of mundane realism to the task therefore can it really be
generalised to other settings?
o The study is more concerned with describing conformity rather than explaining
why people conform.
o There have been a number of cultural changes since Sherif's time which may
lead people to be more independent in their thinking.
o Sherif could be criticized here over his use of deception
o Ps did not give fully informed consent. If they had been told that the study was
about conformity they would have behaved differently. Debriefing was
o Brown (1988) described the study as ‘one of the single most significant
experiments in the history of social psychology.’ It was the first attempt to
apply scientific methodology to social psychology. It led to many more studies.
o It is a clear demonstration of the development of group norms, but is it
conformity? The task was ambiguous and so did it actually show the Ps changing
their opinions and judgements to concur with the others or did they never really
have an opinion in the first place? This criticism led Asch to use a completely
Research into Normative conformity (compliance)
The most famous study on conformity let alone normative influence was conducted by
Solomon Asch (1956)
The Asch Paradigm: Asch (1955) investigated the effect of group pressure in a relatively
unambiguous situation involving simple line judgements. The subject had to judge which
comparison line (choice of 3 lengths) was closest to the standard line in length and verbally
give the response in front of the rest of the group. Asch was interested to see whether
people would copy an answer that was obviously wrong; was it more important for people to
be right or to fit in?
Read about the Asch study with the resources available and fill in the following:
• On the pilot study how many trials did participants complete and how many errors were
• How many stooges did Asch employ and what was their role?
• What is meant by the terms 'critical trials' and 'neutral trials'? How many of each were
there for every participant? • In what position was the genuine participant always made to answer the question?
• On what % of all trials did participants conform?
• What % of participants conformed at least once?
Describe below some of the different ways in which Asch's participants tried to explain
their conformity when interviewed afterwards:
Ethical issues raised in Asch’s study
Deception: Participants did not know the true the aims of the experiment (as this would
have rendered it useless). They could not therefore have given fully informed consent Some
of these problems can be overcome with a full debrief about the study after it is
completed. They can then be given the right to withhold their data from the study.
Distress: participants were made to feel stupid during Asch’s study and would also have felt
stress whilst being pressurised to conform. This would be unlikely to pass an ethics
committee nowadays. Bogdonoff et al. (1961) measured the amount of fatty acids in the
bloodstream of Ps as a measure of stress. They found that the levels of stress increased
as Ps realised that there was a conflict between the confederates’ answers and their own
judgement. If the P conformed then the level of stress went down, but if they remained
independent the level of stress remained high. (This could be a reason why people conform).
However, when interviewed the Ps said that they were not upset by the study, they had
learnt positive facts about themselves. The level of stress was no more than might be
expected in everyday life. The studies did provide a new insight into conformity that
probably could not have been obtained in any other way.
Validity of Asch's findings
Some argue that Asch's findings do not really apply to real life (ecological validity) because
the decisions that Ps had to make were trivial and inconsequential to them; special pressures were placed on them such as having to answer out loud and in front of strangers
which do not reflect most conformity situations in real life.
Further it is argued that in the follow up interviews with Ps, they may have lied about their
reasons for conforming in order to make themselves look less foolish. This limits the validity
of Asch's information on why people conform rendering it descriptive like Sherif's study.
There is also a great deal of debate about the historical validity of Asch's findings. His
study took place during the McCarthy Witch-hunt era and people around that time were
fearful about standing up for what they really thought. Would these findings really apply
today? Perrin and Spencer repeated Asch's study in the UK in the 70s and found that just
one student conformed on 396 trials (although these were science students so they might
have felt more confident of their judgements).
Factors that affect normative influence / conformity
Asch conducted a number of follow up experiments where he systematically varied a number
of key variables. These give a great deal of insight into the kinds of situation in which and
reasons why people conform:
Size of majority – Asch found that the size of the opposing majority did affect the amount
of conformity up to a point. As the size of the majority grew so too did the amount of
conformity although after the ratio reached 3:1 increasing the number of confederates did
not appear to make a difference:
1 confederate = conformity on 3% of trials "it's my word against yours"
2 confederates = conformity on 14% of trials
3 confederates = conformity on 32% of trials
This suggests that unanimity is more important to conformity than the actual size of the
majority (once it reaches the critical 3:1 ratio)
Social support – The importance of unanimity was further supported when Asch repeated
his experiment but this time gave participants an ally who supported his views against the
other confederates. He found that conformity dropped dramatically to just 5%.
Fear of ridicule - To test the response that Ps gave in his original study that 'fear of
ridicule' caused them to conform, Asch conducted his experiment with 16 genuine
participants and just one confederate. The confederates false responses were treated with
sarcasm, mocking, laughter and disbelief. Confirmation of the impact that ridicule has.
Task difficulty - When the lines were made closer in length, more Ps conformed.
Interestingly the reverse is true if an ambiguous task is given (such as stating opinions), the
more difficult the task the less the conformity
Privacy of answers - When Asch allowed Ps to write their answers down rather than
shouting them out, conformity dropped to just 12.5%. This phenomenon was also
investigated by Crutchfield (see below).
Personality type – Asch suggested that people with low self-esteem would be more likely
to conform. This is supported by Crutchfield in his experiment (below) who suggested that
conformity is higher in people with less ego strength¸ less intellectually effective, less leadership ability, less mature social relationships and more authoritarian, submissive,
narrow-minded, and with little insight into their own behaviour and personalities.
However other experiments have found less relationship between personality types and
conformity leading Aronson (1977) to conclude that the social situation is more influential
than personality type when it comes to conformity.
Gender – A number of experiments have found that women conform more than men but this
could be because women primarily seek social harmony and would therefore make this their
aim in experiments whereas men are more competitive. Also the fact that many studies
were carried out by male experimenters means that the tasks could have been biased
towards men e.g. spatial tasks such as judging line lengths rather than a social task for
Why do people conform?
There is a complete range of possibilities as to why people conform. From complete private
acceptance of the group view as with informational influence through to public compliance
but a lack of private acceptance as with normative influence. There are also a huge number
of personal variables such as gender, personality type and level of expertise in the subject
matter, but also situational factors such as the size of the majority being studied and their
unanimity. AS Psychology Social Psychology: Obedience
Obedience = a behavioural response due to a direct request by a figure of authority
Similarities with conformity:
• Both involve responses to social pressure.
• Both involve outward changes in behaviour.
Differences from conformity:
• Obedience is usually a response to a direct instruction, whereas conformity is a
response to group norms.
• Obedience often occurs within a hierarchy, with the person giving orders having higher
status; the emphasis is on power. With conformity the pressures are among equals;
emphasis is on being accepted.
• In obedience the person behaves differently from the person giving orders. In
conformity everyone adopts similar behaviour.
• Often Ps use obedience as an explanation of their behaviour; but with conformity Ps
often deny conformity.
• Obedience is more likely to lead to compliance only and rarely to internalisation.
Situational Factors influencing Obedience: Milgram (1963)
Ps were 20-50 year old males, who responded to a newspaper ad (volunteer sample) and were
paid $4. They were told the experiment was about the effects of punishment on learning.
They were introduced to fellow participant, Mr. Wallace, who was in fact a confederate.
They drew lots for who would be teacher and who would be learner; it was rigged so the P
was always the teacher.
The P was given 45V shock to convince him that the shocks were real. The task was paired
associate learning, the P had to give Mr.Wallace a shock every time he gave a wrong
response, increasing by 15V each time. The switches were labelled to show the degree of
shock from slight shock to 450V XXX. If the P wanted to stop, prescripted prompts were
given by the researcher to make him carry on. Only after 3 prompts by the experimenter
was the P allowed to drop out of the study.
Before the experiment Milgram asked students to predict how many people would give
maximum shocks, they predicted 3%, psychiatrists predicted 1%.
65% actually gave 450V. All gave 300V.
Many of the Ps showed signs of anxiety and stress, with two having seizures.
Variations – further studies by Milgram
Voice feedback (hearing Mr Wallace cry out in pain) 62.5% obedience rate
Location in run-down office block 47.5% obedience rate
P in same room as learner 40% obedience rate
P put learner’s hand on shock plate 30% obedience rate
Two confederate teachers walked out 10% obedience rate
Experimenter instructed over telephone 20.5% obedience rate
Confederate teacher manipulated switches 92.5% obedience rate Conclusions
• Ordinary people are astonishingly obedient when asked to act in an inhumane manner.
Under certain circumstances, such as being given an order by someone in authority
people stop making independent decisions.
• Crimes against humanity may be the outcome of situational rather than dispositional
factors, i.e. they are a result of the environment, including the behaviour of other
people, and not just a result of an enduring disposition or sadistic personality
• Not all Ps carried on to give the maximum shocks, not all Ps showed distress during the
experiment; therefore dispositional factors are also important in determining whether
someone obeys or not.
Milgram’s explanations of why people obeyed in his experiment:
(i) Ps felt committed because they were being paid.
(ii) Ps found it difficult to decide when to stop since they started with very small
shocks and went up in small increments (called the foot in the door technique)
(iii) Ps thought the authority figure would ultimately take the blame. Called the Agentic
state i.e. people felt like they were an agent for another persons wishes and ceased
to behave autonomously.
(iv) Ps were desensitised to effects on the victim by the time large shocks were
Biased sample: all from the New Haven area (but it was a good cross-section). All male Ps in
initial study (but in follow up study women also showed a 65% obedience rate). Volunteers
may be a special sort of people – keen and willing.
How high was the Validity? There has since been much debate over the validity of
Milgram's findings. Did Ps believe the shocks were real? Can the findings be applied to real
life? (more about this later)
Ethical issues: The study raises a number of ethical issues, harm, deception, right to
withdraw and informed consent. More about these later
Did the ends justify the means?
• Milgram was originally suspended from membership of the APA whilst an investigation
into the ethics of his study was carried out. He was vindicated and eventually won
medals for his groundbreaking work.
• Psychologists remain divided. Beaumrind (1984) believes that Milgram showed
insufficient respect for his Ps.
• Milgram (1964) argues that the Ps themselves should be the best judges as to whether
the procedures were ethical, and according to their responses to his questionnaire they
felt that it was ethical. His thorough debriefing supported his claims that the study
• Zimbardo (1974) felt that the shocking findings, showing the dark side of human nature,
caused the outcry more than the procedures themselves. Brown (1986) says that
Milgram should be praised for doing work ‘of the highest human consequence’ whilst
having great concern for the welfare of his Ps; the slight individual risk was justified by
the importance of the topic.
Findings have been used as a warning as to what behaviour human beings are capable of. Other obedience studies
Hofling et al (1966)
22 nurses were given a dir