Prepared by Philip Zimbardo and Cindy X. Wang
Why We Conform: The Power of Groups
henever we change our behavior, views, and attitudes in response to the real or imagined presence of others, we are experiencing conformity. Why we conform is a topic of great interest to social psychologists. In particular, the classic studies of Solomon Asch and Muzafer Sherif have shed light on the determinants of conformity. Their research and that of others (Morton Deutsch and Hal Gerard) has demonstrated two main types of conformity: informational and normative. Informative conformity often occurs in situations in which there is high uncertainty and ambiguity. In an unfamiliar situation, we are likely to shape our behavior to match that of others. The actions of others inform us of the customs and accepted practices in a situation. Others inform us of what is right to do, how to behave in new situations.
In addition to conforming to the group norms due to lack of knowledge, we also conform when we want to be liked by the group. This type of conformity, called normative conformity, is the dominant form of social conformity when we are concerned about making a good impression in front of a group. Though we may disagree secretly with the group opinion, we may verbally adopt the group stance so that we seem like a team player rather than a deviant.
Both of these pressures impact us everyday, for good or for worse. A staple of a functioning society is that people follow social norms such as obeying traffic laws, respecting others’ property, and diffusing aggression in non-violent ways. However, conformity can have deleterious effects if one conforms automatically without questioning of the validity of social norms. In Nazi Germany, many ordinary people did not dissent to the ongoing atrocities because few other people resisted. Similarly, in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the subjects who were randomly assigned as guards gradually adopted the behavior of cruel and demanding prison guards because that became the behavioral norm in an alien situation.
In our daily decisions, we should also examine whether our reasons justify our actions. In an unfamiliar situation, first ask yourself whether the actions you observe others performing is rational, warranted, and consistent with your own principles before thoughtlessly and automatically adopting them.
Similarly, in a situation in which you want to impress and be accepted by others, ask yourself whether the action conflicts with your moral code, and consider whether you would be willing to compromise your own opinion of yourself just so others would have a higher one of you. Ultimately, you are the only one who has to live with your actions. Also take a time out to find out the correct information.
To resist the powers of group conformity: know what you stand for; determine how really important it is that these other people like you, especially when they are strangers; recognize that there are other groups who would be delighted to have you as a member; take a future perspective to imagine what you will think of your current conforming action at some time in the future.