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
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
•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
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.
the situation, and the
the person has had
of the situation, the more powerful the influence of the group with established norms
oThere was a lack of mundane realism to the task therefore can it really be
generalised to other settings?
oThe study is more concerned with describing conformity rather than explaining
oThere have been a number of cultural changes since Sherif's time which may
lead people to be more independent in their thinking.
oSherif could be criticized here over his use of deception
oPs did not give fully informed consent. If they had been told that the study was
about conformity they would have behaved differently. Debriefing was
oBrown (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.
oIt 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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). 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 dissent. There are different reasons why we might conform: 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.