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Compliance and Conformity

In an individualistic society such as the United
States, conformity has a negative connotation
(Markus and Kitiyama 1994). Yet conformity is a
fundamental social process without which people
would be unable to organize into groups and take
effective action as a collectivity. For people to
coordinate their behavior so that they can organize and work together as a group, they must develop and adhere to standards of behavior that make
each other’s actions mutually predictable. Simply
driving down a street would be nearly impossible if
most people did not conform to group norms that
organize driving.
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Conformity is also the process that establishes
boundaries between groups. Through the conformity process, the members of one group become similar to one another and different from
those of another group. This, in turn, creates a
shared social identity for people as the members of
a distinctive group. Given the pressure of everchanging circumstances, social groups such as families, peer groups, business firms, and nations, only
maintain their distinctive cultural beliefs and moderately stable social structures through the constant operation of conformity processes.
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Managing Today’s High-Tech Employees. Cambridge,
Mass.: Ballinger.
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Journal of Sociology 87:548–577.
Zucker, Lynne G. (ed.) 1988 Institutional Patterns and
Organizations: Culture and Environment. Cambridge,
Mass.: Ballinger.
Perhaps because it is essential for social organization, conformity appears to be a universal
human phenomenon. The level of conformity varies by culture, however. Collectivist cultures (e.g.,
Japan) that emphasize the interdependence of
individuals show higher levels of conformity than
individualistic cultures (e.g., the United States)
that focus on the independence of individuals
(Bond and Smith 1996).
Conformity is a change in behavior or belief toward
a group standard as a result of the group’s influence on an individual. As this definition indicates,
conformity is a type of social influence through
which group members come to share similar beliefs and standards of behavior. It includes the
processes by which group members converge on a
given standard of belief or behavior as well as the
pressures they exert on one another to uphold
such standards. Compliance is behavioral conformity in order to achieve rewards or avoid punishments (Kelman 1958). Since one can behaviorally
adhere to a group standard without personally
believing in it, the term is often used to indicate
conformity that is merely public rather than private as well. Compliance can also refer to behavioral conformity to the request or demand of another, especially an authority.
Although essential, conformity always entails
a conflict between a group standard and an alternative belief or behavior (Asch 1951; Moscovici
1985). For their physical and psychological survival, people need and want to belong to social groups.
Yet to do so, they must curb the diversity and
independence of their beliefs and behavior. Without even being aware of it, people usually willingly
adopt the group position. Occasionally, however,
individuals believe an alternative to be superior to
the group standard and suffer painful conflict
when pressured to conform.
Sometimes a nonconforming, deviate alternative is indeed superior to the group standard in
that it offers a better response to the group circumstances. Innovation and change is as important to
into a group standard. Thus, even when participants had well-established personal standards for
judging, mere exposure to the differing judgments
of others influenced them to gradually abandon
their divergent points of view for a uniform group
standard. This occurred despite a setting where
the subjects, all strangers, had no power over one
another and were only minimally organized
as a group.
a group’s ability to adjust and survive as is conformity. In fact, a nonconforming member can
influence the majority opinion even as the majority pressures the deviate to conform. As Irving Janis
(1972) points out in his analysis of ‘‘groupthink,’’
however, conformity pressures can grow so strong
that they silence alternative opinions and strangle
a group’s ability to critically analyze and respond
to the problems it faces. Thus, conformity is a
double-edged sword. It enables people to unify for
collective endeavors but it exacts a cost in potential innovation.
The Sherif experiment suggests that conformity
pressures in groups are subtle and extremely powerful. But critics quickly noted that the extreme
ambiguity of the autokinetic situation might be
responsible for Sherif’s results. In such an ambiguous situation, participants have little to base their
personal judgments on, so perhaps it is not surprising that they turn to others to help them
decide what to think. Do people conform when
the task is clear and unambiguous? Will they yield
to a group consensus if it is obvious that the
consensus is wrong? These are the questions Solomon Asch (1951, 1956) addressed in his classic
The social scientific investigation of conformity
began with the pioneering experiments of Muzafer
Sherif (1936). They beautifully illustrate the easy,
almost unconscious way people in groups influence one another to become similar. Sherif made
use of the autokinetic effect, which is a visual
illusion that makes a stationary pinpoint of light in
a dark room appear to move. Sherif asked subjects
in his experiments to estimate how far the light moved.
To eliminate ambiguity, Asch employed clearcut judgment tasks where subjects chose which of
three comparison lines was the same length as a
standard line. The correct answers were so obvious that individuals working alone reached 98
percent accuracy. Similar to the Sherif experiment, Asch’s subjects gave their judgments in the
presence of seven to nine of their peers (all participants were male college students). Unknown to
the single naive subject in each group, all other
group members were confederates of the experimenter. On seven of twelve trials, as the confederates announced their judgments one by one, they
unanimously gave the wrong answer. It was arranged so that the naive subject always gave his
judgment after the confederates.
When individuals estimated the light alone,
their estimates were often quite divergent. In one
condition of the experiment, however, subjects
viewed the light with two or three others, giving
their estimates out loud, allowing them to hear
each other’s judgments. In this group setting,
individuals gave initial estimates that were similar
to one another and rapidly converged on a single
group estimate. Different groups settled on very
different estimates but all groups developed a
consensus judgment that remained stable over time.
After three sessions together, group members
were split up. When tested alone they continued to
use their group standard to guide their personal
estimates. This indicates that the group members
had not merely induced one another to conform
in outward behavior. They had influenced one
another’s very perception of the light so that they
believed the group estimate to be the most accurate judgment of reality.
The subject here was placed in a position of
absolute conflict. Should he abide by what he
knows to be true or go along with the unanimous
opinion of others? A third of the time subjects
violated the evidence of their own senses to agree
with the group.
In another condition, Sherif first tested subjects alone so that they developed personal standards for their estimates. He then put together two
or three people with widely divergent personal
standards and tested them in a group setting. Over
three group sessions, individual estimates merged
The Asch experiments clearly demonstrated
that people feel pressure to conform to group
standards even when they know the standards are
wrong. It is striking that Asch, like Sherif, obtained
these results with a minimal group situation. The
rewards or avoid unpleasant costs. Thus it is normative influence that is behind compliance. People depend on others for many valued outcomes,
such as inclusion in social relationships, a sense of
shared identity, and social approval. Because of
this dependency, even strangers have some power
to reward and punish one another. Asch’s results
are a good example. Although a few of Asch’s
participants actually doubted their judgment (informational influence), most conformed in order
to avoid the implicit rejection of being the odd
person out. Studies show that fears of rejection for
nonconformity are not unfounded (see Levine
1980 for a review). While nonconformists are
sometimes admired, they are rarely liked. Furthermore, they are subject to intense persuasive pressure and criticism from the majority.
group members were strangers who meant little to
one another. Yet they exerted substantial influence over one another simply by being in the same
situation together. Because of the dramatic way it
highlights the conflict inherent in conformity between individuals and groups, Asch’s experimental design has become the paradigm for studying
Sherif’s and Asch’s striking results stimulated an
explosion of research to explain how conformity
occurs (see Kiesler and Kiesler 1976, Cialdini and
Trost 1998 for reviews). It is now clear that two
analytically distinct influence processes are involved.
Either or both can produce conformity in a given
situation. Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard
(1955) labelled these informational influence and
normative influence.
Anything that increases vulnerability to informational and normative influence increases conformity. Although there may be personality traits that
incline people to conform, the evidence for this is
conflicting (Crowne and Marlowe 1969; Moscovici
1985). Situational factors seem to be the most
important determinants of conformity. Research
indicates that conformity is increased by a) the
ambiguity or difficulty of the task, b) the relative
unimportance of the issue to the person, c) the
necessity of making a public rather than private
response, d) the similarity of group members, e)
high interdependence among the group members, f) the attractiveness and cohesiveness of the
group, and g) the unanimity of the majority (see
Kiesler and Kiesler 1976; Cialdini and Trost 1998
for reviews).
In informational influence, the group defines
perceptual reality for the individual. Sherif’s experiment is a good illustration of this. The best
explanation derives from Leon Festinger’s (1954)
social comparison theory. According to the theory, people form judgments about ambiguous events
by comparing their perceptions with those of similar others and constructing shared, socially validated definitions of the ‘‘reality’’ of the event. These
consensual definitions constitute the social reality
of the situation (Festinger 1950). Because people
want the support of others to assure them of the
validity of their beliefs, disagreeing with the majority is uncomfortable. People in such situations
doubt their own judgment. They change to agree
with the majority because they assume that the
majority view is more likely to be accurate.
When a task or situation is ambiguous or
difficult, it is not easy to tell what the best response
to it would be. As a result, much as in Sherif’s
experiments, group members rely heavily on each
other’s opinions to decide what is best, increasing
their susceptibility to informational influence.
When decision-making groups in government or
business face complex, difficult decisions where
the right choice is uncertain, informational influence increases the members’ tendency to agree
and can affect their critical analysis of the situation
(Janis 1972). Tastes and beliefs about matters,
such as clothing style or music, about which there
are no objectively right choices are subject to
As this indicates, conformity as a result of
informational influence is not unwilling compliance with the demands of others. Rather, the
individual adopts the group standard as a matter
of private belief as well as public behavior. Informational influence is especially powerful in regard
to social beliefs, opinions, and situations since
these are inherently ambiguous and socially
Normative influence occurs when people go
along with the group majority in order to gain
task, the naive subjects’ conformity to the majority dropped from a third to only 5 percent.
One fellow dissenter shows an individual that
nonconformity is possible and provides much needed social support for an alternate construction of
social reality. Interestingly, a dissenter need not
agree with an individual to encourage nonconformity.
It is only necessary that the dissenter also break
with the majority.
sudden fads or fashions for similar reasons. Powerful conformity processes take over as group standards define for the individual what the ‘‘right’’
clothes or music are.
The less people care about an issue, the more
open they are to both informational and normative influence. Without the motivation to examine
an issue personally, people usually accept the group
standard about it, both because the agreement of
others makes the standard seem right and because
there are more rewards and fewer costs in going
along with the group. Because of such rewards and
costs, people are especially likely to go along when
their response must be public rather than private.
Another factor that affects conformity is the
sex composition of the group. Although the results of studies are inconsistent, statistical summaries of them, called meta-analyses, indicate that
there is an overall tendency for women to conform
slightly more than men (Becker 1986; Eagly and
Wood 1985). Sex differences in conformity are
most likely when behavior is under the surveillance of others. The evidence suggests two explanations (see Eagly 1987 for a review). First, sex
carries status value in interaction, which creates
social expectations for women to be less competent and influential in the situation than men
(Ridgeway 1993). Second, sex stereotypes pressure men to display independence when they are
being observed.
Since people compare their perceptions and
views most closely to those of people who are
socially similar to them, similarity increases group
members’ informational influence on one another. Similarity also increases liking and, when people like one another, they have more power to
reward or punish each other, so normative influence increases as well. Because of the increased
power of both informational and normative influence, conformity pressures are often especially
strong in peer groups.
When members are highly dependent on one
another for something they value, conformity pressure increases because the members have more
power to reward or frustrate one another (normative influence). Similarly, when a group is very
attractive to an individual, its members have more
power to normatively influence the individual.
Gangs, fraternities, and professional societies all
use this principle to induce new members to adopt
their groups’ distinctive standards. Also, when a
group is very tight knit and cohesive, members’
commitment to the group gives it more power
over their behavior, increasing the forces of
Conformity arises out of a social influence process
between an individual and the group majority.
The influence process is not always one way, however. As Serge Moscovici (1976) points out, a
dissenting group member is not just a recipient of
pressure from the majority, but also someone
who, by breaking consensus, challenges the validity of the majority view, creating conflict, doubt,
and the possibility of opinion change in the group.
Dissenters sometimes modify the opinion of the
majority in a process called minority influence. Research shows that for a minority opinion to affect
the majority it must be presented consistently and
clearly without wavering and it helps if there are
two such dissenters in the group rather than one
(see Moscovici 1985; Moscovici, Mucchi-Faina, and
Maass 1994; Wood et al. 1994, for reviews). A
dissenting minority increases divergent thinking
among group members that can enhance the likelihood that they will arrive at creative solutions to
the problems the group faces (Nemeth 1986).
The unanimity of the majority in a group is an
especially important factor in the conformity process. In his studies, Asch (1951) found that as long
as it was unanimous, a majority of three was as
effective in inducing conformity as one of sixteen.
Subsequent research generally confirms that the
size of a majority past three is not a crucial factor in
conformity. It is unanimity that counts (see Allen
1975 for a review). When Asch (1951) had one
confederate give the correct answer to the line
electric shocks to another person. The shock generator used by the subject labelled increasing levels as ‘‘danger-severe shock’’ and ‘‘XXX’’ (at 450
volts). The victim (a confederate who received no
actual shocks) protested, cried out, and complained
of heart trouble. Despite this, 65 percent of the
subjects complied with the scientist-experimenter
and shocked the victim all the way to the 450 volt
maximum. It is clear that most of the time, people
do as they are told by legitimate authorities.
Research in the Asch and Sherif paradigms focuses on conformity pressures among peers. However, when group members differ in status, it affects
the group’s tolerance of their nonconformity. Higher status members receive fewer sanctions for
nonconformity than lower status members (Gerson
1975). As long as they adhere to central group
norms, high status members’ nonconformity can
actually increase their influence in the group
(Berkowitz and Macauley 1961). Edwin Hollander
(1958) argues that, because high status members
are valued by the group, they are accorded ‘‘idiosyncrasy credits’’ that allow them to nonconform
and innovate without penalty as long as they stay
within certain bounds. It is middle status members
who actually conform the most (Harvey and Consalvi
1960). They have fewer idiosyncrasy credits than
high status members and more investment in the
group than low status members.
Uncertainty over their responsibilities in the
situation (a definition of social reality issue) and
concern for the authority’s ability to punish or
reward them seem to be the principle causes for
people’s compliance in such circumstances. Note
the comparability of these factors to informational
and normative influence. Situational factors that
socially define the responsibility question as a duty
to obey rather than to disobey increase compliance (Kelman and Hamilton 1989), as do factors
that increase the authority’s ability to sanction.
Nonconformity can also affect the position of
status and influence a person achieves in the group.
Hollander (1958, 1960) proposed that individuals
earn status and idiosyncrasy credits by initially
conforming to group norms, but replications of
his study do not support this conclusion (see
Ridgeway 1981 for a review). Conformity tends to
make a person ‘‘invisible’’ in a group and so does
little to gain status. Nonconformity attracts attention and gives the appearance of confidence and
competence which can enhance status. But it also
appears self-interested, which detracts from status
(Ridgeway 1981). Consequently, moderate levels
of nonconformity are most likely to facilitate status attainment.
Research has demonstrated several such factors. Compliance is increased by the legitimacy of
the authority figure and his or her surveillance of
the individual’s behavior (Milgram 1974; Zelditch
and Walker 1984). When others in the situation
obey or when the individual’s position in the chain
of command removes direct contact with the victim, compliance increases (Milgram 1974). On the
other hand, when others present resist the authority, compliance drops dramatically. Stanley Milgram
(1974) found that when two confederates working
with the subject refused to obey the experimenter,
only 10 percent of subjects complied fully themselves. As with a fellow dissenter from a unanimous majority, other resisters define disobedience as appropriate and provide support for
resisting. In an analysis of ‘‘crimes of obedience’’
in many government and military settings, Herbert Kelman and Lee Hamilton (1989) show how
such factors lead to compliance to illegal or immoral commands from authority.
Reacting to the Nazi phenomenon of World War
II, studies of compliance to authority have focused
on explaining people’s obedience even when ordered to engage in extreme or immoral behavior.
Compliance in this situation is comparable to
conformity in the Asch paradigm in that individuals must go against their own standards of conduct
to obey. The power of a legitimate authority to
compel obedience was dramatically demonstrated
in the Milgram (1963, 1974) experiments. As part
of an apparent learning study, a scientist-experimenter ordered subjects to give increasingly strong
Conformity and compliance are fundamental
to the development of norms, social organization,
group culture, and people’s shared social identities. As a result, research on conformity and compliance continues to develop in several directions.
Efforts are underway to develop broader models
of the social influence process that can incorporate both conformity and compliance (see Cialdini
Gerson, Lowell W. 1975 ‘‘Punishment and Position:
The Sanctioning of Deviants in Small Groups.’’ In P.
V. Crosbie, ed., Interaction in Small Groups. New
York: Macmillan.
and Trost 1998). These efforts give added emphasis to people’s dependence on social relationships
and groups and address questions such as whether
minority and majority influence work through
different or similar processes. Also, new, more
systematic cross-cultural research attempts to understand both what is universal and what is culturally variable about conformity and compliance
(Markus and Kitiyama 1994; Smith and Bond 1996).
Harvey, O. J., and Conrad Consalvi 1960 ‘‘Status and
Conformity to Pressures in Informal Groups.’’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 60:182–187.
Hollander, Edwin P. 1958 ‘‘Conformity, Status, and
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——— 1960 ‘‘Competence and Conformity in the Acceptance of Influence.’’ Journal of Abnormal and Social
Psychology 61:365–369.
Allen, Vernon L. 1975 ‘‘Social Support for Nonconformity.’’
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———, and V. Lee Hamilton 1989 Crimes of Obedience.
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Only a decade later many social scientists were
exploring ways to use computers in their research.
In the early 1960s, the first book devoted entirely
to computer applications in social science research
(Borko 1962) was published. Not only were social
scientists writing about how to apply computers,
they were designing and developing new software.
Some of the most popular statistical software packages, e.g., SPSS (Nie, Bent, and Hull 1975), were
developed by social scientists.
Wood, Wendy, S. Lundgren, J. A. Ouelette, S. Busceme,
and T. Blackstone 1994 ‘‘Minority Influence: A MetaAnalytic Review of Social Influence Processes.’’ Psychological Bulletin 115:323–345.
Zelditch, Morris, Jr., and Henry A. Walker 1984 ‘‘Legitimacy and the Stability of Authority.’’ In E. Lawler,
ed., Advances in Group Processes, vol. 1. Greenwich,
Conn.: JAI Press.
During the 1980s, universities and colleges
began to acquire microcomputers, accepting the
premise that all researchers needed their own
desktop computing equipment. The American
Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) survey in
1985 (Morton and Price 1986) reported that 50
percent of sociologists had a computer for exclusive use. A survey of academic departments supported by the American Sociological Association
(Koppel, Dowdall, and Shostak 1985) found that
slightly less than half of the sociology faculty reported to have immediate access to microcomputers. To put these findings into a more complete
perspective, of the approximately 9,000 sociologists in 1985, about 4,500 had their own computers and about 5,200 reported routine computer
use. Now, it is hard to find a sociologist’s office
without at least one computer. And in many countries most students in sociology have a computer
for writing papers and accessing online resources.
See Mate Selection Theories.
Most sociologists, both professionals and students,
now have their own computer with direct access to
a printer for writing and to the Internet for electronic mail (e-mail). Beyond the basic tasks of
writing and e-mailing are a variety of other computer-supported research applications, both quantitative and qualitative. This article describes how
sociologists and other social scientists use these
applications and what resources are available.
Sociology and the Web. The Internet may be
one of the largest and probably the most rapidly
growing peaceful social movements in history. It is
not just a technology, or a family of technologies,
but a rapidly evolving socio-cultural phenomena
often called ‘‘cyberspace’’ or ‘‘cyberculture.’’ No
matter how this phenomena is defined, it is changing the way sociologists conduct their work.
The data and modeling requirements of social
research have united sociologists with computers
for over a hundred years. It was the 1890 U. S.
census that inspired Herman Hollerith, a census
researcher, to construct the first automated data
processing machinery. Hollerith’s punchcard system, while not a true computer by today’s definitions, provided the foundation for contemporary
computer-based data management.
By the mid-1990s sociology, like most other
academic disciplines, had come to depend upon email. In addition, a rapidly growing number had
begun to use the World Wide Web (WWW), commonly called the Web (Babbie 1996). Bainbridge
(1995) claimed that the Web is ‘‘a significant medium of communication for sociologists, and extrapolation of present trends suggests it may swiftly become the essential fabric of sociology’s existence.’’
In January 1999, the author searched Web sites
with the Alta Vista search engine for the word
In 1948 the U. S. Bureau of the Census, anticipating the voluminous tabulating requirements of
the 1950 census, contracted for the building of
Univac I, the first commercially produced electronic computer. The need to count, sort, and
analyze the 1950 census data on this milestone
computer led to the development of the first highspeed magnetic tape storage system, the first sortmerge software package, and the first statistical
package, a set of matrix algebra programs.