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Social Psychology:
A Glimpse of Social Conformity Through the Ages

by Hossna Sadat, MA
London, England, U.K.

Social psychology is a scientific approach that seeks to understand individual behavior and thought process in social situations and settings. Social conformity is a normative topic in social psychology. Although it is a contemporary topic of research, social conformity has been practiced in societies around the world since ancient times. Many forms of social conformity exist but a correct definition would realise it as a phenomenon that occurs when an individual’s values, beliefs, behaviors, and attitude are influenced by either one person (minority influence), or by a group of people (majority influence) who establish norms. During conformity one changes the way they behave in response to social pressures. We have all encountered social conformity in life, whether it has been consciously or unconsciously, by accepting the dominant culture’s expectation of us. What people say and how they behave are vastly influenced by others.

There are many factors that affect social conformity. The larger the group size, the more likely that influence will transpire. Social psychological research entails the use of confederates who know the aim of the research, are involved within the study, and put pressure on other members to conform. An example of the use of confederates has been demonstrated in Solomon Asch’s 1956 study. This is where single 'naive' participants were mixed with a high number of confederates and asked to identify which line (A, B or C) matched the stimulus line (see figure 1). The 'naive' participants were always last to answer and confederates had all been prepared to give the same wrong answer. This technique allows confederates to manipulate 'naive' participant’s response to a given question. Many criticised Ash’s experiment and stated that the participants were all young males and that many lacked experience in life and/or confidence. As a result, the study lacked ecological credibility and does not relate to 'real-life' circumstances.

Figure 1
Standard Line: Left side
Comparison Lines: Right side
Personality may affect conformity significantly. Molly Marshall says, "Some people are more self-confident and have higher self-esteem than others." Those who are confident are less likely to conform to others. If the male participants in Asch’s study were self-confident about their answers, they would have not conformed easily with the confederates. Next, there are cultural factors, which examines peoples’ decisions based on solidarity or not. Individualistic cultures, in the western-hemisphere (United States and United Kingdom) emphasize on personal identity and self-determination. Conformity is far less pervasive in individualistic societies because democratic choices and laissez-faire viewpoints are somewhat considered. On the contrary, collectivistic cultures, such as African, Asian and Middle Eastern societies formulate a source of belonging; and as a result, majority influence happens to be greater. An example of an individualistic culture influencing the majority is the significant event of the women suffrage movement in the early years of the 20th century in the United States. Ongoing advocacy of the minority, combined with social justice evidence, led the majority of Americans to accept female viewpoints and pioneer gender equality. Recently, parallel influence has been encountered in collective cultures as well. The natives’ decisions in Tunisia (January 2011), Egypt (February 2011), and Libya (February 2011) display majority influence because many protesters began their demonstrations collectively in the city of Tunis, Cairo, and Benghazi in a mission to overthrow authoritarian regimes of presidents Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi. This particular revolutionary tactic of public protesting has not only influenced people within these three countries, but many other collectivistic countries have also led to this scheme of conformity subsequently as well.

Furthermore, Herbert Kelman (1958) argues that there are three different forms of social influence contributing to the processes of attitudes within conformity; these are compliance, identification & internalisation. Compliance is when an individual conforms publicly but disagrees privately. An example of this would be how certain people consider themselves as liberal minded, but vote in opposition to legalising gay marriages when casting their votes at the polls. These individuals who alter their perspectives from the public to private sphere are aware of their viewpoint, but feel that they should simultaneously change their belief, in order to preclude themselves from certain predicaments.

Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini concluded that the six basic principles for gaining compliance are known as friendship/liking, commitment/consistency, scarcity, reciprocity, social validation, and authority. One, we are more willing to comply with requests from people who we like and know. Two, once we have committed ourselves to a stance or action; we are more willing to comply with requests for behaviors that are consistent with this position or action. Three, we are more likely to comply with requests that focus on scarcity because we feel obliged to obtain rather than not have. For example, there is a limited time offer in purchasing a certain item and as a result, people often buy that particular item. This seems to be a common theme in clever marketing. Four, people feel compelled to rise to a person’s defence, or to pay them back because they have done the same for them. Five, people want to feel understood and legitimized for their action or way of thinking, so they turn to others to gain social validation and approval. Six, people are more willing to comply with requests from someone who holds legitimate authority. Further elaboration about this form of compliance is explained under Stanley Milgram’s experiment. Social Psychologist, Henri Tajfel (1978) suggested that the social groups to which we belong are an imperative fraction of our identities. Conforming into a group shapes our behaviour and beliefs in accordance to group expectations. These six principles prompt our understanding of why and how people gain compliance.

In contrast, identification is when a person is exposed to other people’s views and change their own publicly and privately in order to fit in with the rest. This is when people are hoping to gain acceptance from an individual person and/or group. For example, during World War II in Europe, many non-Jewish individuals became anti-Semitic and obedient to Adolf Hitler’s powerful rule. Their public and private perspective coalesced as the same and they continued to follow the tactics of the Nazi regime. This type of manifestation of extreme social conformity and influence still exists today. Kelman explicates that "a person accepts influence because he or she yearns to establish and sustain a satisfying self-defining relationship to another person or a group". Similarly, the need and desire of gaining group acceptance seems to be a common thread amongst children throughout primary and secondary school. Students who do not conform seem to not fit into the social norm in schools and as a result they are criticized and slated by their peers.

Internalisation describes the point of view of someone who is permanently changed by the influence of the majority or minority group. The 1957 film Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, demonstrated how a jury’s deliberations in a first-degree murder trial impacted the verdict. This film shows an example of minority influence when one juror challenged eleven other jurors about misleading and inaccurate evidence that was presented during the trial. Through questions and open dialogue, one juror eventually convinced all the other jurors to use their rational judgement when making their decision. This particular scenario truly depicts how ethical research and laws involving social psychology have changed vastly since the mid-1950s. Another example of minority influence is a historical event; the Indian Independence Movement, which was instigated by Mahatma Gandhi’s eminent hunger strike. Gandhi’s engagement in this illustrious protest was to stave off British rule in India. Even though people conform or resist pressures to conform, they still desire individuation, which is when one acquires their own identity and can be distinguishable from others.

Essentially, there are two main motives that underlie our tendency to conform: Normative Social Influence and Informational Social Influence. Normative social influence is when individuals need to feel that they are accepted, by belonging to a group through social approval. In the United States prisons, gangs are initiated for protection against rival gangs, correctional guards, and from those who debase new prisoners. In order to sustain power within the group, gang members resort to violent behavior, inflicting harm or even manslaughter in order to gain social approval and elevate their status. Morton Deutsch (social psychologist) and Harold Gerard (psychologist) argue that normative social influence is immensely common because it arises when individuals seek social acceptance.

In the case of informational social influence, individuals need to conform to others and replicate their actions due to indecisiveness and thus becoming dependent on others. Many people argue that supporters of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan were influenced by their rule because they simply had no notion of ethical justice. Specifically, they did not know what is morally right and wrong, that their own life or their families’ lives were at stake, and that their indoctrinated minds made them obedient to an authoritative leader. This particular social influence reminds me of the significant quote by Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Many underdeveloped countries such as Afghanistan could use education as an agent of social empowerment, by having people make their own choices and forming a human rights coalition towards social change. Public conformity occurs when people behave consistently with social norms, despite their undisclosed view against the matter.

The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University is one simulated study that involved both social conformity and obedience. Psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, wanted to explore what would happen when you place good people in a prison mock environment. Similar to Solomon Asch’s experiment, the Stanford experiment also tries to elucidate how ordinary human beings can be pressured into unusual behavior by the consensus of viewpoints and attitudes around them. According to Zimbardo, the experiment was originally planned for two-weeks; however, it was suspended after six-days when “student” guards in the study became sadistic and the “student” prisoners became exceedingly depressed and showed signs of stress. The amount of time one spends in a prison setting, tests a person’s patience and morality. Deindividuation eventually occurs and prisoners are constrained to become dependent on the guards. If the prison study was allowed to continue, then it probably would have escalated to a scenario resembling the torturous prison abuse that occurred in 2004 at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Although the radical interrogation tactics carried out by the United States Military personnel were far more extreme than the student guards involved in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the emerging signs of social conformity among both the guards’ and prisoners’ measures of obedience were similar. Aggression amongst guards becomes strongly influenced in prison environments by the assertion of power inherited in that role. Ordinary people can also behave and act abnormally by becoming obedient when conditioned in an environment under rigorous pressure.

Although conformity can be practiced in many distinct ways, one should not confuse it with obedience. “Conformity occurs amongst people equally, while obedience occurs within a social hierarchy. The emphasis in conformity is to feel accepted and the emphasis in obedience engages around social power” (Marshall, 2008). By now, you are aware that people conform because they desire to feel accepted. With obedience, people conform because they would like to prevent unpleasant consequences. An example of this has been clearly demonstrated during Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment, which was conducted at Yale University. Milgram’s aim was to investigate the behavioral reasoning behind people’s actions during the Holocaust. Forty male subjects were recruited via newspaper advertising $4.00/hour for their participation in a so-called ‘memory study’. Each person carried the role of a "teacher" and was advised to deliver an electric shock to the “student”, when the respondent provided an incorrect response to a question. The subjects met the student and believed they were actually delivering electric shocks to the student, who in fact was a confederate and role-playing the entire time. Approximately 65 percent of the male subjects delivered the maximum shocks of 450 volts. Milgram’s research raises ethical concerns, as participants were mislead and deceived. The presence of an authority figure in a laboratory coat increased compliance to a greater measure. Participants commented that because the research was conducted in a university setting, they trusted that the experiment is authorised to proceed. People naturally obey authoritative figures/roles in our society.

Throughout time, conformity has always been practiced, but never openly acknowledged until recent years. Similar to the impact and ramifications of obeying, conformity has also resulted to psychological trauma, physical harm, and in other cases it has promoted social justice and/or injustice. In the case of mass media, people become influenced to what they are programmed to believe and follow what they see and hear. For example, what people watch on eyewitness television seems to be a reliable and indeed a factual source for them. Media influence is another segment in social psychology that also explores social behavior. For example, a high percentage of eating behaviors are associated with ideal images portrayed on television and/or magazine features. Television can shape behavior through imitative learning. Psychologist, Albert Bandura concluded the influence of media television on children by means of the social learning theory. Moreover, other social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook seem to also be a form of mass influence on the younger generation of today’s technological advance culture. Members on both social networks can post up blogs or comments and receive responses from added friends/family members, which also depict a form of social conformity.

In brief, when we agree with the viewpoints of others, we are solely pursuing the truth and make meaning of the world around us. "Conformity is the convergence of individual responses towards group norms and it occurs because people believe that the group is right and because they desire approval from a particular group" (Smith and Mackie, 2000). Conformity has become a powerful element and phenomenon in Social Psychology and everyone has or will experience it at one point in their life. Various studies have included individuals who have resisted the degree of pressure placed upon them, whether they have conformed or challenged the majority or minority influence. In order to understand and analyse a Glimpse of Social Conformity Through the Ages, one can assess how society has and will continue to shape our minds and influence our behavior of how we conform over the long haul.

Hossna Sadat is a Psychology and Sociology Professor in London, England. She completed her dual Bachelors of Arts degrees in History and Political Science from the University of California, San Diego and her Masters of Arts degree in Education with emphasis in Multicultural Counseling and Social Justice from San Diego State University.

  • Marshall, Molly, Philip Allan Updates, AQA (A) AS Psychology, Unit 2, (C) 2008 Oxfordshire, UK
  • Kelman, Herbert (1958) Compliance, identification and internalisation. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 51-60
  • Smith, Eliot & Mackie, Diane, Social Psychology, 2nd edition, © 2000, USA

Published in In Motion Magazine May 4, 2011

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