What Is Conformity?

What is conformity?
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

Conformity is the act of changing your behaviors in order to fit in or go along with the people around you.

In some cases, this social influence might involve agreeing with or acting like the majority of people in a specific group, or it might involve behaving in a particular way in order to be perceived as "normal" by the group. Essentially, conformity involves giving in to group pressure.

Why We Conform

Researchers have found that people conform for a number of different reasons. In many cases, looking to the rest of the group for clues for how we should behave can be helpful. Other people might have greater knowledge or experience than we do, so following their lead can actually be instructive.

In some instances, we conform to the expectations of the group in order to avoid looking foolish. This tendency can become particularly strong in situations where we are not quite sure how to act or where the expectations are ambiguous.

In 1955, Deutsch and Gerard identified two key reasons why people conform: informational influence and normative influence.

  • Informational influence happens when people change their behavior in order to be correct. In situations where we are unsure of the correct response, we often look to others who are better informed and more knowledgeable and use their lead as a guide for our own behaviors. In a classroom setting, for example, this might involve agreeing with the judgments of another classmate who you perceive as being highly intelligent.
  • Normative influence stems from a desire to avoid punishments (such as going along with the rules in class even though you don't agree with them) and gain rewards (such as behaving in a certain way in order to get people to like you).

History

Conformity is something that happens regularly in our social worlds. Sometimes we are aware of our behavior, but in many cases, it happens without much thought or awareness on our parts. In some cases, we go along with things that we disagree with or behave in ways that we know we shouldn't.

Some of the best-known experiments on the psychology of conformity deal with people going along with the group, even when they know the group is wrong.

Jenness's 1932 Experiment

In one of the earliest experiments on conformity, Jenness asked participants to estimate the number of beans in a bottle. They first estimated the number individually and then later as a group. After they were asked as a group, they were then asked again individually. The experimenter found that their estimates shifted from their original guess to closer to what other members of the group had guessed.

Sherif's Autokinetic Effect Experiments

In a series of experiments, Muzafer Sherif asked participants to estimate how far a dot of light in a dark room moved. In reality, the dot was static, but it appeared to move due to something known as the autokinetic effect. Essentially, tiny movements of the eyes make it appear that a small spot of light is moving in a dark room.

When asked individually, the participants' answers varied considerably. When asked as part of a group, however, Sherif found that the responses converged toward a central mean. Sherif's results, published in 1935, demonstrated that in an ambiguous situation, people will conform to the group, an example of informational influence.

Asch's Conformity Experiments

In this series of famous experiments, conducted in the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch asked participants to complete what they believed was a simple perceptual task. They were asked to choose a line that matched the length of one of three different lines.

When asked individually, participants would choose the correct line. When asked in the presence of confederates who were in on the experiment and who intentionally selected the wrong line, around 75% of participants conformed to the group at least once.

This experiment is a good example of normative influence. Participants changed their answer and conformed to the group in order to fit in and avoid standing out.

Stanford Prison Experiment

In this controversial experiment, conducted in 1971, Philip Zimbardo simulated a prison setting to see how people's behavior would change according to the role they were given (prisoner or prison guard). It showed that behavior was affected by the expectations of the role. However, there are many criticisms of this experiment and its results.

Types of Conformity

Normative and informational influences are two important types of conformity, but there are also a number of other reasons why we conform.

Normative Conformity

This type of conformity involves changing one's behavior in order to fit in with a group. For example, a teenager might dress in a certain style because they want to look like their peers who are members of a particular group.

Informational Conformity

In this case, conformity is looking to the group for information and direction (this happens when a person lacks knowledge). Think of attending your first class at a new yoga studio. You would probably watch what others were doing to see where you should hang your coat, stow your shoes, unroll your mat, and so on.

Identification

Identification is conforming based on social roles. The Stanford Prison Experiment is an example of this type of conformity.

Compliance

Compliance is changing one's behavior while still internally disagreeing with the group. For example, you might read a book for your book club and really enjoy it. But at your meeting, you learn that the other members all disliked the book. Rather than go against the group opinion, you might simply agree that the book was terrible.

Internalization

This type of conformity involves changing one's behavior to be like another person. You might notice this in a friend who's taste in music or movies shifts to match that of their romantic partner.

Influential Factors

Human behavior and psychology is complex. People may conform in some situations and not in others, depending on factors including:

  • The difficulty of the task: Difficult tasks can lead to both increased and decreased conformity. Not knowing how to perform a difficult task makes people more likely to conform, but increased difficulty can also make people more accepting of different responses, leading to less conformity.
  • Individual differences: Personal characteristics, such as motivation to achieve and strong leadership abilities, are linked with a decreased tendency to conform.
  • Group size: People are more likely to conform in situations that involve between three and five other people.
  • Situation: People are more likely to conform in ambiguous situations where they are unclear about how they should respond.
  • Cultural differences: People from collectivist cultures are more likely to conform.

Potential Pitfalls of Conformity

While it is often beneficial to fit in with a group, sometimes conformity can have undesirable consequences. For example, feeling like you have to change your appearance or personality to be a member of a group might lower your self-esteem.

Succumbing to peer pressure could lead to risky or illegal behavior, such as underage drinking. Or, conformity might lead to a bystander effect, in which going along with the group means failing to act when someone is in need.

A desire to conform might also limit your openness to new ideas or arguments. And conforming with a group could even result in feelings or acts of prejudice.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding conformity can help you make sense of the reasons why some people go along with the crowd, even when their choices seem out of character for them. It can also help you see how other people's behavior may influence the choices you make.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is compliance different from conformity?

    Compliance is changing one's behavior in response to a request to do so, such as a friend asking you to give them a ride. It's not the same as obedience (for example, a student following a school rule) because the request came from someone who doesn't have authority over you.
    Conformity is more subtle. It is when you change your behavior (consciously or unconsciously) not based on a request, but based on a perceived need to fit in with those around you.

  • When does children’s conformity to peers peak?

    Research shows that conformity to peers peaks in mid-adolescence, around age 14. At this age, children spend more time with peers and their influence is strongest.

  • Which aspect of culture decreases rates of conformity?

    In more individualistic cultures, people are less likely to conform. In collectivist cultures, conformity is more valued.

  • What is conformity bias?

    Conformity bias is the tendency to make decisions or judgments based on other people's behavior. Once one person in a class cheats on a test, for example, others may be more willing to cheat because they see that it is acceptable to the group.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wei Z, Zhao Z, Zheng Y. Following the majority: Social influence in trusting behaviorFront Neurosci. 2019;13:89. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00089

  2. Deutsch M, Gerard HB. A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgmentJ Abnormal Social Psychol. 1955;51(3):629-636.doi:10.1037/h0046408

  3. Sowden S, Koletsi S, Lymberopoulos E, Militaru E, Catmur C, Bird G. Quantifying compliance and acceptance through public and private social conformityConscious Cogn. 2018;65:359–367. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2018.08.009

  4. Morgan TJ, Laland KN. The biological bases of conformityFront Neurosci. 2012;6:87. doi:10.3389/fnins.2012.00087

  5. Le Texier T. Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment. Am Psychol. 2019;74(7):823-839. doi:10.1037/amp0000401

  6. Knoll LJ, Leung JT, Foulkes L, Blakemore SJ. Age-related differences in social influence on risk perception depend on the direction of influence. J Adolesc. 2017;60:53-63. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.07.002

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.