Why do we conform?

In the recent coverage after Queen Elizabeth’s passing, I heard someone who worked with her say that she had an independent mind and where appropriate would go against popular opinion or the general consensus.  While one of the hallmarks of a democracy or a healthy organisation is the ability of free speech or for divergent opinions to be heard.  But at other times thinking seems to converge and conform.  To explain why we look back to one of the most influential social psychologists, Solomon Asch, who pioneered work in the area of conformity and group thinking. 

Solomon Asch was a Polish American psychologist who pioneered social psychology through the study of Gestalt psychology. Among the topics he researched were how people form impressions of others and how prestige may affect judgements. Group pressure and conformity are two of Asch’s greatest contributions. In 2002, the Review of General Psychology ranked Asch as the 41st most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Building on and critiquing the work of the prominent social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, Asch, developed his own research into the areas of group pressure experiments and demonstrated the influence of group pressure on opinions in his conformity experiments.

Asch came up with another conformity experiment but this time, he made sure that a task with an obvious, unambiguous answer was presented. In 1951, Asch presented the now regarded classic experiment in social psychology using a line judgment task.

Which of these three lines is the same length as the lonesome line on the left?

It’s obviously C.

And yet in Asch’s conformity experiment conducted in the 1950s, 76 percent of people denied their own senses at least once, choosing either A or B.

The main purpose of this experiment was to understand how peer pressure could force people to conform, even when they were aware that the rest of the group was wrong. This included how people are likely to agree to a false answer just because most of the group has sided with the wrong answer. Asch indicated that in many settings, there is always a likelihood that many people doubt their opinions, where the “social process is polluted” (Asch, 1955) and therefore end up siding with a majority of the group either because they doubt being right or they fear being seen as different. This often happens in different contexts including situations where the answer is obvious, and that “any given idea or value can be “sold” or “unsold” without reference to its merits” (Asch, 1955).   Asch’s research revealed the strength of social influence and continues to inspire social psychology scholars to this day.

Further conformity research and Asch’s legacy

Further research on conformity highlighted that the results in the Asch experiment, while significant to social psychology thinking, were to some extent “a child of their generation” and culture. Spencer and Perrin (1980) introduced similar research, introducing a more complex test.

A major difference between learners in the 1950’s and 1980’s is that the learners, in the1950’s, were more subjective and were more likely to join in with the larger population to belong and be viewed as a rising member.

Asch’s work has influenced how psychologists think about and research social influence in groups (Levine, 1999).  His studies on independence and conformity are his most well-known and validated accomplishments. It is apparent from the Asch conformity experiment that people’s opinions are strongly influenced by the people around them. In fact, the Asch conformity experiment demonstrates how willing many people are to deny their own senses for the sake of conformity. The human race is naturally conformist, copying one another’s dress sense, ways of talking, and attitudes without hesitation.

Asch showed that people were willing to overlook reality and give an inaccurate answer to fit in with the rest of the group.  Asch argued that “it brings into conflict two powerful forces by which we construct reality; our own subjective experience, and intersubjective agreement.” (Rock & Rock, 2014).

In addition, it can be seen from the wider Asch research and later research that effective group functioning relies on independence (Kampmeier & Simon, 2001; Graupensperger & Benson), and that independence and conformity are not just mirror images that may be explained by a single psychological process (Levine, 1999). 

Types of conformity

Conformity is classified into two categories: public (compliance) and private (acceptance). Conformity is a movement toward a set of group norms, so compliance refers to behaviours that are overtly aligned with those norms, while acceptance refers to attitudes and perceptions that are covert.   Compliance occurs, for instance, if an individual refuses to sign a petition advocating immigration, learns that a group advocates them, and then signs one. Alternatively, if a person secretly believed that immigration should be outlawed, learned that certain groups advocated immigration rights, and then changed his private opinion, he would show acceptance. The two most important forms of nonconformity are independence and anti-conformity. Individuals who are independent exhibit neither compliance nor acceptance after being subjected to the pressure of a group at first. When confronted with disagreement, a person stands firm. The opposite of conformity is anti-conformity, which occurs when a person initially disagrees with a group after which they move even further away from its position (at a public or private level). (Interestingly, anti-conformers are just as susceptible to group pressure as conformers, but they move away from the group to demonstrate their susceptibility.)

The role of motivation

A person conforms to group pressure to satisfy two important desires: the desire to perceive reality accurately and to be accepted by others. The reason people hold accurate beliefs about the world is because such beliefs usually lead to positive outcomes. Several beliefs about the world can be verified objectively; other beliefs cannot be verified objectively, and must be verified through social means, namely by comparison with those held by other people whose judgment one respects. One gains confidence in others if they agree with one’s beliefs; one loses confidence if they disagree. To eliminate disagreement, people conform to group norms.

Despite being similar and related concepts, conformity and groupthink have important differences. A groupthink process involves decision-making. In contrast, conformity refers to people changing their own behaviour to fit in with specific groups. We will focus on group think in a future post.

Overall, studies demonstrate that most people ‘tell the truth even when others do not’, Hodges and Geyer (2006). The Asch studies demonstrated that people may conform even when no evident pressure is applied, as well as how quickly they can shift when confronted with contradictory information.  

References

Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31-35.

Graupensperger, S. A., Benson, A. J., & Evans, M. B. (2018). Everyone else is doing it: The association between social identity and susceptibility to peer influence in NCAA athletes. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 40(3), 117-127.

Hodges, B. H., & Geyer, A. L. (2006). A nonconformist account of the Asch experiments: Values, pragmatics, and moral dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(1), 2-19.

Kampmeier, C., & Simon, B. (2001). Individuality and group formation: The role of independence and differentiation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(3), 448.

Levine, J. M. (1999). Solomon Asch’s legacy for group research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3(4), 358-364.

Perrin, S., & Spencer, C. (1980). The Asch effect-A child of its time. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 33(NOV), 405-406.

Rock, I., & Rock-DECEASED, I. (2014). The legacy of Solomon Asch: Essays in cognition and social psychology. Psychology Press