This essay concerns conformity and what factors influence an individual to conform to majority groups. The term conformity refers to the change in beliefs, attitudes and feelings that individual’s adopt in response to social pressure or social norms (in Baron, Branscombe & Byrne 2008). Social norms are unwritten rules and guidelines which dictate how an individual should behave and what behaviours are expected from them in certain situations, in other words, what is regarded as socially acceptable (in Cardwell, M. & Flanagan, C. 2005).
One factor that has been strongly identified as having an influence on conformity is the size of the group (in Baron et al. 2008). A study into the effects of group size was that of Asch’s (1956). Asch (1956), (in Bailey, J.et al. 2008) devised a non ambiguous task and presented participants with a series of lines and the possible answers. All participants were confederates apart from one participant. Confederates were instructed to produce incorrect answers in the 12 critical trials. Asch observed a 32% conformity rate, 26% never conformed and 75% conformed at least once. Asch’s observational records also led him to conclude that conformity rates were at its highest when the group size consisted of three or four participants and when the difficulty of the task increased. Also, group pressure can exert a major influence on individuals despite the answer being so clear. (Stang, 1976, in Bailey, J. McGinley, R. Wilerton, J. Wilson, J and Green, S. 2008).
However, research has indicated that the optimum group number for conformity is around 6 to 8 subjects. One ethical issue regarding Asch’s (1956) study is that the true participants were unable to give fully informed consent due to the nature of the task. However, given the situation and under the circumstances gaining informed consent would have been almost impossible as it would distort the aim of the task (in Bailey, J.et al. 2008). Another limitation is that the study lacks validity due to the unfamiliar nature of the task and is time-consuming and time- dependent as it was conducted in the 1950’s (in Bailey, J.et al. 2008).
A second factor influencing conformity lies in cultural factors. According to Smith and Bond (1998, in Bailey, J.et al. 2008) there seemed to be significant variations in conformity rates amongst different cultures. On the basis of Asch’s (1956) paradigm they were able to distinguish between two types of cultures: individualistic cultures; characteristics such as independency and autonomy are highly valued e.g. most common in US, UK, Germany (in Hogg & Vaughan 2007) and collectivists cultures; were interdependence is a key characteristic amongst individuals e.g. most common in Israel, China (in Hogg & Vaughan 2007). Therefore conformity rates tend to be low in individualistic cultures such as Belgium with a 14% conformity rate compared to collectivists cultures such as Fiji with a high rate of 58% (in Hogg & Vaughan 2007). This variation can be explained in terms of the cultural values and beliefs that each culture possess and what characteristics they regard as the most important. Marcus and Kitayama, (1991, in Bailey, J.et al. 2008) argued that individual’s from individualistic cultures are therefore able to resist conformity due to their personal qualities and are able to maintain their individuation and identity whilst those who originate from collectivists cultures view interdependency as a positive and central feature to life and it is these characteristics that make people vulnerable to conform especially in times of social pressure (in Bailey, J.et al. 2008).
Another factor that is viewed as exerting some influence on people’s choice to conform is cohesiveness (in Baron et al. 2008). An individual’s level of cohesion can strongly determine the extent to which a person will show conformity. According to Turner, (1991, in Baron et al. 2008) cohesion refers to how valued a group is and how attracted the individual is to a specific group. This is usually associated with wanting to or having the desire to be like them or similar in terms of their attitudes, thoughts and beliefs. Crandall, (1988, in Baron et al. 2008) showed that the stronger the attraction and desire to be part of a social group can increase the chances of conformity occurring. Although group cohesion can elicit a powerful influence it is not always a positive one. Individuals who strongly aspire to be like the group and admire them may go along with harmful activities and adopt negative behaviours in order to seek approval from the group.
A further factor that research has considered to influence conformity are sex differences (in Hogg & Vaughan 2007). Studies have continuously demonstrated the high rates in conformity amongst women. Sistruck and McDavid, (1971 in Hogg & Vaughan 2007) set out three tasks: 1) male orientated tasks 2) female orientated tasks and 3) neutral tasks. Their results showed that women conformed more on the male tasks and men conformed or on the female tasks. Also neither genders were better than each other on the neutral task and conformity rates were similar therefore leading to no systematic gender differences.
However, Eagly and Carl, (1981 in Hogg & Vaughan 2007) explained these in terms of the tasks that were set. They argued that women were often given stereotypically male tasks in which they lacked the proficiency to carry them out effectively.
One of the most influential theories of conformity is the dual- process dependency model which was postulated by Deutsch and Gerard, (1955 in Hogg and Vaughan 2007). They proposed two important motives for conformity: normative social influence and informational social influence. Normative social influence refers to the need to be accepted and approved by society. This involves an alteration of behaviours and adopting new/current ones that are associated with the particular social group so that they are not rejected (in Hogg & Vaughan 2007). An example of this situation can be reflected in Asch’s (1956) study of conformity in which participants conformed to the majority group but at the same time maintained their own private opinions and disagreed. This process is known as compliance (in Bailey, J.et al. 2008).
The second motive that explains why people conform according to Deutsch and Gerard, (1955) is based on informational social influence. According to Festinger, (1950, 1954 in Hogg & Vaughan 2007) this type of influence is associated with uncertainty. Here individuals are uncertain and lack the knowledge as to how to behave in certain situations. Festinger, (1950, 1954 in Hogg & Vaughan 2007) referred to this as social comparison in which individuals are not fully confident about their beliefs, attitudes and opinions and therefore yield to majority opinions in order to avoid embarrassment. This occurs particularly under ambiguous conditions and is clearly demonstrated in Asch’s (1956) and Sherif’s (1936) studies in which participants converged on similar answers particularly when the tasks became extremely difficult for them to be able to rely on their own judgments (in Bailey, J.et al. 2008).
On the contrary, there are factors that can decrease conformity. One way in which individual’s can resist conformity is through their level of personal control. Cialdini, (2000 in Baron et al. 2008) argued that individuals who have high levels of personal control are able to resist conformity and the pressure exhibited by the social group. This is because individual’s feel the need to function autonomously and have the desire to control aspects of their life. Individuals who have high/strong desires tend not to conform so easily leading to a decline in conformity as opposed to those who feel threatened. In other words, individuals who feel that their freedom of choice is being threatened are less likely to show conformity as they wish to protect their individuality (in Baron et al. (2008).
Moreover, the concept of individuation seems to exert a powerful influence in the process of resisting conformity. Individuation refers to the situation in which people want to be and remain identifiable as an individual and therefore discriminating them against others and their ideas. It is also being able to function in an autonomous manner (in Baron et al. 2008). According to Maslach, Santee and Wade, (1987 in Baron et al. 2008) although individuals admire certain social groups there is an extent to how far individuals will go to be like them hence maintain their identity.
In conclusion, there are several factors influencing an individual to conform to group pressures, however, it is important to note the factors that decrease the likelihood of an individual conforming to group pressures. Asch’s (1956) study has proven to be an excellent example of conforming to group pressure where although the answer was clearly evident participants went along with the majority opinion.
Nevertheless, it is worthy to note that an individual’s level of perceived control can counteract the likelihood of conforming to majority groups, that is the stronger the control a person has over their beliefs the less chance of them yielding to the majority.