A norm is a set of rules based on socially or culturally shared beliefs of how an individual is “supposed to” behave. They regulate behaviour within a group. Conforming to group norms results in a positive and valued social identity and we receive the desired respect from others. Conformity is an indirect form of social influence that involves a change in behaviour in order to fit in with a group. The need to belong plays a strong role in the desire to conform to group norms. Conformity is something that happens daily in our social worlds.
Although we are sometimes aware of our behaviour, in many cases we conform without being very aware that we are doing so. Sometimes we go along with things that we don’t agree with or we behave in a way that we know we shouldn’t. A few of the best known studies on conformity deal with individuals who go along with the group even when they know that the group is wrong. A study on conformity to group norms was carried out by Asch (1951): Asch’s paradigm experiment. The subject was placed in a room with the experimenter and six confederates and were told that all the confederates were just like them.
The subject was placed on the second to last seat so that the subject would be the second to last to answer the experimenter’s question. They were asked to select a line (out of three lines) on one card that matched a line on another card. The confederates were told to answer correctly for some of the cards but incorrectly for most of them. Some of the cards had very obvious answers. The results to this experiment were that when the subjects were asked individually they would choose the correct line but when they were asked in the presence of the confederates 75% of them conformed at least once to the wrong answer, 32% onformed to more than half of the wrong answers and 24% did not conform at all.
The ecological validity of the experiment is pretty low due to the lab conditions. The controlled environment removed the confounding variables. Also, the experiment only used American and male participants making it gender bias as well as culture bias, meaning that the results cannot be generalized to all population. There was also an issue with informed consent because the subjects were told that the experiment was about visual perception rather than majority influence.
Additionally, the participants were deceived about the aim of the research and were misled into believing that the confederates were actually other participants. They were put under stress during the procedure, and afterwards those who conformed may have felt foolish and angry because of the deception. This may have caused them psychological harm. Lastly, the experiment is pretty reliable as it has been replicated several times and the results were all extremely similar. Asch’s experiment is a good example of normative influence because the subjects changed their answer and conformed to the group in order to fit in and avoid standing out.
Another experiment done on conformity was done by Muzafer Sherif (1936). The subjects were placed in a dark room and asked to estimate how far a dot of light moved. In reality the dot was not moving but it appeared to move due to something known as the auto kinetic effect which is an eye illusion where very small movements of the eyes make it appear that a small spot of light is moving in a dark room. When the subjects were asked individually, they established their own individual norms for the judgment and their answers varied considerably (2-6 inches).
When they were asked as part of a group (2-3 people) and asked to all agree on the same thing, Sherif found that their responses mingled towards a central mean, noting the tendency to compromise. Sherif’s subjects were not aware of this social influence and when they were asked directly if they were influenced by the judgments of the other people in the group during the experiments, most of them denied it. Afterwards, the subjects were tested one at a time again and most of these now conformed to the group judgment they recently made.
A subject who had previously settled on an estimate of 2 inches or 6 inches was more likely to say the light was moving about 4 inches after their experience with the group. They had changed due to the group experience, increasing their conformity to group norms. The ecological validity of the experiment is pretty low due to the lab conditions. In conclusion, conformity refers to an individual’s tendency to follow the unspoken rules or behaviors of the social group to which that person belongs to. Psychological researchers have been interested in the degree to which people follow or rebel against social norms for a long time.
Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments designed to demonstrate the power of conformity in groups. According to some critics, some of the individual subjects may have been motivated to avoid conflict instead of a desire to conform to the rest of the group. Nevertheless, many social psychology experts believe that while real-world situations may not be as clear cut as they are in the lab, the actual social pressure to conform is probably much greater, which can dramatically increase conformist behaviors.