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Chapter 7: Conformity
• Social Influence: The ways that other people are affected by the real and imagined pressures of others.
Social influence may emanate from a person, group, or institution, and the behaviour may be
constructive, destructive, or neutral; social influence varies along a continuum according to the degree of
• 1) We consider the reasons why people exhibit conformity to group norms.
• 2) We describe the strategies used to elicit compliance with direct requests.
• 3) We analyze the causes and effects of obedience to the commands of authority.
• People do not always succumb to pressure. They may conform or maintain their independence, comply
with requests or react with assertiveness, obey commands of authority or oppose them in an act of
SOCIAL INFLUENCE AS “AUTOMATIC”
• Other than explicit forms of social influence, humans are also vulnerable to subtle reflex-like influence.
We imitate others without thought, effort, or conflict.
o Babies 6-20 months imitate simple gestures at different rates using parents as models: moving the
head, sticking out the tongue, tapping fingers, waving bye-bye, clapping hands, etc.
o Subjects mimicked confederates with habits of shaking their foot without realizing it: the
• This nonconscious imitation may serve a social function – being in sync in posture, mannerisms, facial
expressions, speech patterns, and other behaviours enable people to interact more smoothly with one
o Confederates mimic mannerisms of some subjects but not others. The subject who had been
mimicked liked the confederate more than those who had not.
o Social mimicry can influence us even when the mimicker is not a real person, but a humanlike 3D
cartoon character. Subjects are more persuaded by its speech if it imitated their head movements.
• Mimicry can occur even in non-social situations – without interacting with the speaker, hearing a
recording of the speaker talk about an unrelated subject in a happy, sad, or neutral voice led the subject
to have the same emotional state. This is a form of mood contagion.
• Mimicry is a dynamic process, with two subjects becoming more coordinated over time.
• Conformity: The tendency to change our perceptions, opinions, or behaviour in ways that are consistent
with group norms. Overt changes may occur with or without a true change of opinion.
• Conformity is widespread, but we resist the conformity label.
o Research subjects coaxed into following a group norm do not often admit to being influenced, but
will reinterpret the task and rationalize their own behaviour so as to see themselves in more
positive, independent terms.
o This resistance is particularly characteristic of individuals with high status and seniority within a
• People perceive others to be more conforming than themselves, because we judge others by their overt
behaviour (and find it matches what others are doing) but judge ourselves by focusing inwards and
introspection (blinds us to our own conformity).
• Some degree of conformity is necessary to maintain communities and for peaceful coexistence, but other
times conformity can have harmful consequences. Page 2 of12
The Early Classics
• Muzafer Sherif (1936): Study to see how norms develop in small groups.
o Students sit in a totally darkened room and asked to estimate how far a small dot of light moves.
This is repeated several times, first when they are alone. The dot of light in fact always remains
motionless, and what they see is the optical illusion of autokinetic effect.
o After a few trials, they settle in on their own stable perception of the movement.
o They then return to participate in the same study in 3-person groups, where the subjects take turns
announcing their estimates one by one. Although initial estimates vary considerably (e.g. 8, 2, 1
inches), each group eventually converges on a common perception, its own norm (e.g. 2.5 inches)
• Solomon Asch (1951): A subject, in a room of confederates, is asked to indicate which of the three
comparison lines is identical in length to a standard line. The confederates give their opinions first, out
o Confederates all give the wrong answer for this easy task – do you give the right answer (subjects
in isolation make almost no errors), or conform and give the wrong answer?
o Subjects went along with the incorrect majority 37% of the time – 25% refused to agree on any of
the incorrect judgements, and 50% went along on at least half of the incorrect judgements.
• Sherif’s subjects turned to each other for guidance when the physical reality is ambiguous and one is
uncertain of one’s own judgements. Asch’s subjects had a relatively simple task which they could judge
easily, but still followed the incorrect majority; those who did not conform said they felt “conspicuous” and
like a “misfit.”
• The pressure of social norms also influences people via the internet, when members are nameless,
faceless, and anonymous.
Why Do People Conform?
• Informational Influence: Conformity is produced when a person believes others are correct in their
judgements, as in the Sherif experiment and other difficult or ambiguous tasks. When people are in a
state of uncertainty, following the collective wisdom of others is seen as an effective strategy.
• Normative Influence: Conformity is produced when a person fears the negative social consequences.
o Individuals who stray from a group’s norm are often disliked, rejected, ridiculed, and dismissed.
Being ostracized leads to feelings of being passive, numb, and lethargic.
o This is because the social need is so primitive that the rejection of social pain feels just like
physical pain, and exhibits the same neural activity.
• In the Asch experiment, there is both normative and informational influence. Some subjects said they
came to agree with their group’s erroneous judgements.
o Berns (2005): Subjects in a visual-spatial perception experiment where they have to “mentally
rotate” two geometric objects to determine if they were the same or different. Subjects had 4
confederates who unanimously made incorrect judgements. Subjects conformed 41% of the time.
o fMRI scans show that these judgements were accompanied by heightened activity in the brain area
that controls spatial awareness – the subjects had altered perceptions, not just behaviour.
• Private Conformity: Change of beliefs that occurs when a person privately accepts the position taken
by others, also called true acceptance or conversion. To conform at this level is to be truly persuaded that
others in the group are correct.
• Public Conformity: Superficial change in overt behaviour without a corresponding change of opinion, in
response to real or imagined normative group pressures. This is pretending to agree.
• One can differentiate between the two types because in private conformity, the person maintains the
change long after the group is out of the picture. Page 3 of12
o Sherif subjects even still had estimates reflect the group-established norm, even a full year later
o In contrast, those in the Asch experiment had much lower conformity when answers were written
• Baron (1996): Subjects act as eyewitnesses by seeing a picture of a person and then picking that person
out of a line-up. Sometimes this is difficult (seeing picture for 0.5 s) and other times it is easy (for 10
o Subjects conform to confederate’s incorrect choice 35% for the difficult task, and 33% for the easy
o When offered a financial incentive to do well, conformity was 51% for the difficult task and 16% for
o Sherif-like subjects conform more because they are truly persuaded, and Asch-like subjects
• We must identify the situational and personal factors that make people more or less likely to conform. We
know people tend to conform when the social pressure is intense and they are insecure about how to
behave – but what creates these factors?
Group Size: Power in Numbers
• Conformity increases with group size, but only up to a point. Beyond 3 or 4 others, the amount of
additional influence exerted is negligible, subject to the law of “diminishing returns”. As more and more
people express the same opinion, an individual is also likely to suspect that they are acting in collusion.
• What matters is not the actual number of others in a group, but one’s perception of how many distinct
others, with independent minds, the group includes; e.g. people are more influenced by 2 groups of 2
than a group of 4.
A Focus on Norms
• Social norms only give rise to conformity when we know and focus on them. Pluralistic ignorance
occurs when we misperceive what is normative, particular about subjects where people are too afraid or
embarrassed to publicly present their true thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
• College students overestimate how frequently their peers drink, and the quantities they consume. The
more normative students perceive drinking to be, the more alcohol they themselves consume.
• Norms are only likely to influence people when they are brought to our awareness, or activated.
o People are observed in a parking garage that is either clean or cluttered with garbage. Then, a
confederate walks by and throws paper to the ground (or confederate does not do anything in
o Subjects find a “Please Drive Safely” handout tucked under their windshield. The subjects more
likely to conform (litter in the cluttered garage, but not he clean one) when the confederate had
littered, thus drawing attention to the norm.
An Ally in Dissent: Getting By with a Little Help
• Asch: The presence of a single confederate who agreed with the subject reduced conformity by almost
• Is the ally effective because they agree with the subject (offering validating information), or because they
disagree with the majority (reducing normative pressures)?
• Allen and Levine: Although 3 confederates consistently disagree with the subject and make the wrong
judgement, the 4 confederate either follows the majority, agrees with the subject, or makes a third wrong
o Even in the last variation where the confederate did not validate the subject’s judgement, he
subject still conformed less often. Page 4 of12
o What if the confederate wore thick glasses and complains he could not see the visual displays
clearly? Even with this not very reassuring ally from which the subject would derive less comfort,
his presence still reduces the subject’s level of conformity.
• 1) It is substantially more difficult for people to stand alone for their convictions than to be part of a tiny
• 2) Any dissent, whether it validates the individual’s opinion or not, can break the spell case by a
unanimous majority and reduce the normative pressures to conform.
• Sex differences in conformity depend on two additional factors:
• 1) Familiarity with the experimental task: the more familiar, the less likely to conform, regardless of
o Female subjects asked about stereotypically masculine questions such as about football or video
games agree with the supposed majority answer. Male subjects do the same about stereotypically
feminine questions about family planning and fashion design.
• 2) Type of social pressure: in face-to-face encounters where people must disagree with each other
openly, women conform more and men conform less than in private situations.
o Being observed in public, people worry about how they come across and feel pressured to behave
in ways in accordance with traditional gender-roles. Therefore, men behave with more
independence and women behave in a more gentle and docile role.
o From an evolutionary perspective, this is done by the motivation to attract someone of the opposite
• Although people may value the freedom to dissent, individual dissenters are often vilified for their views
which by the majority – perhaps because they regard this departure from convention as criticisms of
themselves. Dissenters are seen as competent and honest, but also disliked and rejected.
• Bassili (2003): Minority slowness effect where respondents who hold minority opinions are slower to
answer the questions than those in the majority, consistently and regardless of the topic.
• Resisting the pressure to conform may be socially difficult, but it is not impossible: even in Asch’s
experiments, 63% of subjects refuse to acquiesce.
• Minority Influence: Like in Twelve Angry Men, sometimes dissenters can produce change within a
The Power of Style
• Nonconformists derive power from the style of their behaviour. To exert influence, those in the minority
must be forceful, persistent, and unwavering in support of their position; yet, they must also appear
flexible and open-minded – consistent but evenhanded.
• Consistency is effective because:
o 1) Repetition draws attention from those in the majority, a necessary first step to social influence.
o 2) Signals the dissenter is unlikely to yield, so the majority feel pressured to seek compromise.
o 3) When confronted with someone with the self-confidence and dedication to take an unpopular
stand without backing down, people assume they must have a point.
• Dissenter have more influence when people identify with them and perceive them to be similar in ways
that are relevant and desirable.
• Moscovici (1969): Asch experiment, but with a minority of confederates making the incorrect judgement
that a blue slide is actually green. When the two incorrect confederates consistently make this judgement
for all the slides, about 33% of the subjects subsequently report seeing at least one green slide. Page 5 of12
• However, dissent can also breed hostility, and people who challenge a group without first becoming
accepted members of that group will likely not be listened to.
o Therefore, to influence a majority, people should first conform to establish their credentials as
competent insiders. They earn idiosyncrasy credits by following the group’s norms and gaining
o Once they have enough goodwill, then a certain amount of deviance will be tolerated.
A Chip Off the Old Block?
• Some believe there is a single process to explain how majorities and minorities exert social influence.
• Others think there is a dual-process approach where minorities and majorities exert influence in different
ways and for different reasons:
o Majorities have power and control, eliciting public conformity due to normative pressures.
o Minorities being seriously committed to their views, produce a deeper and more lasting form of
private conformity by leading others to rethink their original positions.
• 1) The relative impact of majorities and minorities on a neutral subject depends on whether the
judgement is objective or subjective.
o Majorities have greater influence on factual questions, but minorities exert equal influence on
opinion questions for which there is a range of acceptable responses.
• 2) The relative effects of majorities and minorities depend on how conformity is measured.
o Majorities have more impact on direct or public measures of conformity, since people do not want
to deviate conspicuously from the norm. However, with private measures conformity where
subjects can respond without fear of appearing deviant publicly, minorities have more impact.
o We are changed in a meaningful but subtle way by the minority opinion, but do not openly admit to
it due to social pressures.
• Simply by their willingness to stay independent, minorities can force other group members to think more
carefully, openly and creatively about a problem to enhance the quality of a group’s decision-making.
o Subjects exposed to a minority viewpoint on how to solve anagrams found more novel solutions.
o In order to have influence, individuals must exhibit “authentic dissent” and not merely play “devil’s
advocate”, which would actually bolster the majority’s position.
Culture and Conformity
• Humans live in many different geographies, speak over 6000 languages, and identify with hundreds of
• Each culture, linked by history and geography, has its own ideology, music, fashions, foods, laws and
customs. Social norms that influence conduct can vary significantly from one part of the world to another.
• Individualism-oriented cultures value independence, autonomy, and self-reliance. Collectivism-oriented
cultures value interdependence, cooperation, and social harmony. What determines which orientation for
o 1) Complexity: People in more complex industrialized societies have more groups to identify with,
meaning less loyalty to any one group and a greater focus on personal goals.
o 2) Affluence: As people prosper, they gain financial independence, which promotes social
independence, mobility, and a focus on personal goals.
o 3) Heterogeneity: Societies that are homogeneous tend to be rigid and intolerant of deviances.
Societies that are culturally diverse tend to be more permissive of dissent, allowing individual
• Conformity rates are generally higher in collectivistic rather than individualistic countries, varying from
18% to 60% worldwide. Page 6 of12
• Compliance: Changes in behaviour elicited by direct requests.
• Compliance strategies depend on how we you know the person you target, your status within a
relationship, your personality, culture, and the nature of the request.
Mindlessness and Compliance
• The wording of the request can trick people into submission, regardless of its merit. The mind is on
autopilot, and we respond mindlessly to words without fully processing them, thus becoming vulnerable
o Subjects are using a copy machine when the experimenter asks to cut in. They may ask “May I use
the Xerox machine?”, or provide a justification with “because I’m in a rush”. The first scenario has
60% compliance but the second has 94% compliance.
o In the third scenario, the subject is asked “May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make
some copies?” This does not truly offer a justification, but it achieved 93% compliance. The subject
heard the word “because” and thought there was a reason, when there actually was not.
• Sometimes mindlessness leads to refusal of compliance. To increase compliance in this situation, one
should disrupt the mindless refusal request by making unusual requests or reframing the usual pitch.
o Panhandlers who make the atypical request, “Can you spare 17 cents?” get more comments and
questions, and produce a 60% increase in donations.
The Norm of Reciprocity
• Norm of Reciprocity dictates that we treat others as they have treated us. This contributes to the
predictability and fairness of social interaction, but can also be used to exploit compliance.
• Regan (1971): A confederate is trained to either act in a likable or unlikable manner. He then brings the
subject a bottle of Coke, or he brings no drinks, or the subject receives a Coke from the experimenter.
o The confederate then asks the subject to buy raffle tickets at 25 cents apiece. The subject on
average buys more raffle tickets when the confederate had brought them the Coke, tha