Introduction to Social Psychology
Dr. Jay W Jackson
Conformity in Popular Thought
• Conformity is
typically thought of
in a negative way
• Conformity is good
and necessary at
times and certainly
destructive at other
• Conformity is a part
of everyday life
Conformity is that jailer of
freedom and the enemy of
growth. ~John F. Kennedy
David Koresh and the Branch
• Conformity: A change in behavior in response to the
real or imagined influence of others
• Informational influence: being influenced by others
because of a desire to be correct
• Normative influence: being influenced by others to
gain acceptance or avoid rejection
• Informational and normative influence can occur
• Two famous lines of research: Sherif’s (1930s) and
Asch’s (1950s)
Sherif’s Studies of Norm Formation
►Social norm: an unwritten
social rule about what
behaviors are appropriate
and inappropriate in a give
►May be widespread in a
culture, or particular to a
smaller group (family, peer
group, etc.)
Sherif’s Studies of Norm Formation
► The autokinetic effect is an optical illusion: A tiny
point of light at the end of a dark room will appear to
move after some time of observation.
► Sherif asked individuals to estimate how far the light
moved on several trials.
► First gave estimates alone. Estimates ranged from less
than an inch to more than 9 inches
► Then, put in groups and publically gave estimates
► After several trials, a group norm became established
► Little variation within groups regarding estimates
► Each group established a different norm
Sherif’s Studies of Norm Formation
• In another condition, participants made their
judgments in the group situation first.
• Group norms were established very rapidly.
• During the last (fourth) session, the participants were
separated and made their judgments alone.
• The individualized judgments closely followed the
group norm
Sherif’s Studies of Norm Formation
Sherif’s Planted Norm Study
• Participants assembled in groups of two: one naïve
subject, one accomplice (plant).
• The accomplice gave estimates to encourage a
specific norm (from 2-8 inches)
• First 50 trials: the two participants made their
judgments together
• Second 50 trials: Naïve participant tested alone.
• The results are shown on next screen.
Sherif’s Planted Norm Study: Results
Blue line: naïve participants’
responses during initial trails
(accomplice present and gave
responses for a standard of 2-8”)
Purple line: naïve participant’s
responses during the second set of
trials, when accomplice not present.
The arbitrary standard introduced by
the accomplice clearly established a
group norm, and that norm
influenced the naïve participant’s
judgments when alone.
Sherif’s Studies are a good Example
of Informational Influence at work
►people like to be certain and confident in the
correctness of their actions
►The situation was ambiguous and uncertain
►People looked to others to help define “reality”
►Once developed, the norm persists beyond the
immediate situation
“We all kissed one another
and felt we would all die”
• Why were so many
Americans convinced that
there was an actual alien
invasion ?
• Due in part to Informational
influence, and Interpreting
events to fit “invasion”
– “We looked out the window
and Wyoming Avenue was
black with cars. People were
rushing away, I figured”
– No cars came down my street.
Traffic is jammed on account
of the roads being destroyed,
I thought.
Normative Social Influence
• Why would anybody engage in
such behaviors?
• Not a function of informational
• Normative influence is part of the
reason – we have a fundamental
need for social acceptance
• But would we conform if we didn’t
really care about the group and
we knew we were right?
Train surfing
Car surfing
The Asch
Completely unambiguous task
On 12 of the trails, the others
(accomplices) unanimously
give the wrong answer
Now, it’s your turn to give an
answer. What do you do?
Results of Asch’s Experiment
• 23% never went along with the group
• 77% gave wrong answer at least once
• 32% gave wrong answer on more than
half of the trials
• 37% on average
• 5% always
Why Did People Conform in the Asch study?
• Normative influence
• One participant explained: “I was standing out like a
sore thumb; I didn’t want particularly to make a fool
of myself -- I felt I was definitely right but they might
think I was peculiar”.
• Normative pressures usually result in public
compliance without private acceptance
• People are often concerned about looking foolish in
front of complete strangers.
• In one variation, Asch had participants write their
responses (private rather than public
announcement). Conformity reduced to 1.5 average
Non-Conformity and the Brain
• Berns et al. scan brains (fMRI) of people in an Aschlike situations
• When the participants conformed, activation
occurred in typical areas of the brain dedicated to
• However, when participants went against the group:
the amygdala, an area devoted to negative emotions,
and the right caudate nucleus, an area devoted to
modulating social behavior, are more active
Crutchfield’s studies of military officers
• Which has more area? The circle or star?
– 46% denied their senses and conformed
• "I doubt if I would make a good leader”
– private: 100% reject the statement
– if believed others agreed with statement: 40% reject
Factors That Affect The Degree Of Conformity
• Task Ambiguity (and crises)
• Task Difficulty
• Why do ambiguous and difficult tasks produce more
conformity than clear and easy tasks?
• Having just a single ally
• Personality
• Age
• Culture
• Gender?
Changes in Jury Composition in the US
► 1879 US Supreme Court rules that excluding women from
juries is constitutional
► 1920 Women given the right to vote but not the right to serve
on juries
► 1957 Civil Rights Act gives women the right to serve on federal
► 1975 US Supreme Court rules that excusing women from
juries because of their gender is unconstitutional
Resisting Conformity Pressures
• It is possible to resist conformity pressures
• Are other people’s reactions more legitimate than
– Do other people know any more about what is going on
than I do?
– Is there an expert handy, someone who should know
– Do the actions of other people or experts seem sensible?
– If I behave the way they do, will it go against my common
sense or my moral compass?
• Find someone or group who thinks the way you do
Minority influence
. . . refers to those instances when a
group’s decision is substantially
influenced by the views of an
individual or a small subset of
individuals that are not in line with
the views of most group members.
• Great film! 12 Angry Men (1957)
• Serge Moscovici pioneered research
on minority influence
Moscovici, Lage, & Naffrechoux (1969)
% green responses
• Conducted a study based on Asch’s paradigm
• Participants were presented with a blue slide and
asked to name the color
• 3 conditions:
1. Control (6 naïve participants)
2. Inconsistent minority (said “green” 2/3 of time +
“blue” 1/3 of time)
3. Consistent minority (always said “green”)
Inconsistent minority
Consistent minority
Experimental Condition
Moscovici, Lage, & Naffrechoux (1969)
When is Minority Influence Most Likely?
• When the person or group
• Is steadfast in their views
• Does not appear overly dogmatic or rigid
• Offer a compelling argument against the majority position
Using Conformity Norms to Promote
Beneficial Behavior
• Robert Cialdini’s work
• Injunctive norms have to do with what we think
other people approve or disapprove of
• Descriptive norms concern our perceptions of the
way people actually behave in a given situation
Example Study
• Cialdini, Kallgren, and Reno (1990)
– Participants saw someone litter (descriptive norm) or saw
someone pick up litter (injunctive norm)
– The surrounding environment is either littered or clean
– You find a handbill on your car windsheld – what do you do
with it?
General Conclusion: injunctive norms are more powerful
than descriptive norms in producing desirable behavior.
• Conformity is a part of human nature
• Can be good or bad
• Understanding how conformity works
precisely can help us reduce conformity that is
destructive and promote conformity to
positive behaviors