Conformity refers to the phenomenon where people change their beliefs, attitudes, perceptions or behaviors to meet social norms and interact better with their preferred groups of people.
What Is Conformity?
In the general sense, it simply means compliance with socially-accepted standards, practices, norms, rules, conventions and laws. It can be described as the way an individual aligns their attitudes and behaviors with their peers and colleagues so that they do not miss out on opportunities or face any negative consequences. “When people have different opinions in a group, they often adjust their own attitudes and behaviors to match the group opinion, known as social conformity,” found a 2013 research paper 1 . Most people tend to modify their behaviors and perceptions, whether as a conscious or subconscious effort, to accept socially shared rules due to perceived or actual group pressures. It is also observed in children and adolescents 2 who are often influenced by popular media and youth culture.
According to research, this occurs primarily as it is a defense mechanism. Such a type of behavior modification can help to reduce our anxiety when we follow specific norms that are different from our own beliefs or original reactions and when these social conventions support our own beliefs or original reactions. We conform to social norms as it is often easier for us to follow established rules and laws than to create new ones and make others conform to it. Although conformity tends to occur due to social or peer pressure, it can also happen when we are not visibly compelled by society and due to subtle influences on our unconscious mindset.
“When making decisions, people may change their behavior, sometimes against their personal preference, according to the opinions of peers,” states a 2019 study. However, the level to which a person conforms to social norms & practices depends on a number of factors such as state of mind, opinion of the general population, group size, solidarity, prior loyalty & commitment and social status.
Read More About Defense Mechanisms Here
Conformity can be simply defined as surrendering to group pressures. Group pressure refers to strong external persuasions, including bullying, teasing, threatening, manipulating and criticising. It is therefore also known as group pressure or majority influence. According to a 2015 study 3 , our social circle and people around us, especially our loved ones or authority figures can “influence our views through persuasion and information exchange,” causing “significant attitudinal conformity.” In fact, when we need to reveal our beliefs and attitudes publicly, we tend to adjust and modify our responses according to the people around us. Moreover, such a change in attitude may persist privately even after several weeks, found the study.
However, conforming to social rules and standards is not inherently positive or negative. It depends on the kind of situation or circumstances that bring out the drive within us. If fear, concern and guilt drive the sentiment, it is negative in nature. But if it is out of protectiveness, pride and maintains the unity of a group, then it is definitely positive. Studies 4 claim that cooperating even with “inefficient social norms” can also have some positive aspects.
Why We Conform To Majority Influences
Conformity originates from a deep rooted need to belong 5 and hence, there may be a biological basis to this phenomenon. “Conformity is a powerful force in human decision making and is best understood from an evolutionary perspective,” explains one study 6 . In fact, researchers have found that even primates, like chimpanzees tend to “show conformist behavior” and majority influence or majority-biased transmission. It has been observed that humans are highly dependent on “culturally transmitted information.” Moreover, adaptive learning strategies, such as “adoption of the most common variant”, is preferred by natural selection. Researchers have also found that we may have certain cognitive adaptations specifically for successful social learning. “Cultural evolutionists used the term conformity to describe a particular learning rule by which an individual was disproportionately likely to adopt the majority decision,” states a 2012 study.
This evolutionary basis of the phenomenon helps to describe the notion of normative influence 7 or normative conformity, which means we conform to social norms as we have a strong need to seek security from a group that represents our status, values and beliefs. Normative influence occurs due to our innate need to be recognized, accepted and liked by others. This is perhaps the primary reason why we succumb to peer pressure. However, informational conformity may occur due to our need to be right and correct. We often tend to change our beliefs and perceptions so that others agree with us and we are perceived as “right” by others. It may also occur as we tend to seek knowledge and guidance from experts.
However, several other factors may influence why we conform to social norms and to what degrees, such as –
- Publicly expressing our views
- Desire for seeking a sense of belongingness
- Social status and education level
- Uncertainty and challenging situations and outcomes
- Individual factors like personality traits, self-esteem, intellect and mindset
- Group size and dynamics
- Gender roles 8
- Cultural and social differences
- Legitimacy of authority
Types Of Conformity
Although normative & informational influences are considered as the two primary types of this concept, conformity also includes the following types –
It refers to public acceptance 9 of social pressure and behaving accordingly even though you may not be in agreement internally. Such behavior is mostly driven by the fear of punishment or the motivation for reward.
This type of conformity refers to acceptance and adoption of social pressures and beliefs in order to build or strengthen relationships with another person you value. We exhibit certain behaviors to form a satisfying relationship with the person by imitating or adopting the behavior of the individual we identify with. However, we may not necessarily believe in their perceptions or opinions.
Believed to be the strongest and permanent form of conformity, internalizing the opinions of others refers to acceptance 10 of such beliefs and believing in them due to social influence. It is driven by our need to be right. It typically occurs when we are influenced by a trustworthy and authoritative social figure causing us to integrate and adopt their beliefs into our personal belief system.
Conformity And Anxiety
According to a 2016 study 11 , stress type and social anxiety can strongly influence conformity levels in adolescents. It was found that adolescents who had low social anxiety were more likely to conform when compared to adolescents with high social anxiety (HSA). However, individuals with HSA were found to accept and conform to the unanimous opinions of the majority of the group. “The results suggest that adolescents with HSA may show different styles of strong conformity with the change of stress type,” adds the study. The researchers believe that adolescents who are socially anxious tend to stay away from possible social situations with weaker conformity and steer clear of negative judgments from others with stronger conformity.
But researchers also found that social anxiety can make adolescents to show conforming behaviors that are non-adaptable, among other problems. Although anxiety can strongly affect adolescents’ style of compliance to majority influence, social interaction stress (SIS) & social judgment stress (SJS) can also influence children 12 and adolescents with high social anxiety.
Read More About Anxiety Here
Effects Of Conformity
Compliance with social norms and conforming to majority influence has both positive and negative consequences. It can be beneficial for both individuals and the society as a whole. Although blind conformity can lead to sterility of ideas and inability to form individual judgments, it does not necessarily mean the absence of individual choices within limits, explains a 2009 study. It is “one of the necessary highways to be traveled to arrive at successful living, but let us not confuse the means with the end. To learn to conform then is not an end in itself, but only the means of liberating us to be individual,” adds the study.
Here are some of the most common positive effects of this phenomenon –
- Helps in building healthier habits and eliminating bad habits
- Encourages rule enforcement
- Provides access to new information and expert guidance
- Offers security and protection from external threats
- Facilitates in overcoming challenges individually and socially
Changing bad habits is perhaps the most prominent individual benefit of conformity. Reports 13 show that smoking bans in public places can lead to less smoking even in private places due to compliance of public smoking laws. However, studies 14 have also found that conforming to social pressure can lead to increased risk taking as people may often be driven to ignore individual judgments and morals leading to engagement in illegal activities. Research 15 has shown that conforming to group opinions and collaborative remembering can even influence our memories and lead to more false memories. Studies 16 also show that deficits in memories caused by conforming can also adversely impact our performance. It can even increase the risk of depression 17 , alcohol use disorder 18 , anxiety, psychopathology and other mental health conditions. “Manic-depressive psychoses represent disorders in which there is maximal motivation to conform to social pressures,” states one study 19 .
There may be several other negative consequences such as –
- Impairs personal development
- Adversely affects self-identity and sense of self-worth
- Encourages dependence
- Leads to detachment and apathy
- Does not promote change or diversity in the community
- Leads to a biased and prejudiced state
Conformity may be a necessity for social and personal growth but it is also important for us to question unanimous public opinions and find new answers and solutions. It is important to have rules, but it is also important to break certain old and unhelpful rules. It is only by finding a balance between conformity and individuality we have removed discriminations and biases against women and homosexuals. However, it is also important to learn from others and develop new habits so that we can not only improve ourselves but inspire others as well.
Conformity At A Glance
- Conformity can be simply defined as surrendering to group pressures.
- This occurs primarily as it is a defense mechanism.
- Such a type of behavior modification can help to reduce our anxiety when we follow specific norms that are different from our own beliefs.
- Informational conformity may occur due to our need to be right and correct.
- Normative conformity occurs due to our innate need to be recognized, accepted and liked by others.
- Compliance with social norms and conforming to majority influence has both positive and negative consequences.
- Conformity is important for us to question unanimous public opinions and find new answers and solutions.
- Yu, R., & Sun, S. (2013). To conform or not to conform: spontaneous conformity diminishes the sensitivity to monetary outcomes. PloS one, 8(5), e64530. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0064530
- Sun, S., & Yu, R. (2016). Social conformity persists at least one day in 6-year-old children. Scientific reports, 6, 39588. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep39588
- Levitan, L.C., Verhulst, B. Conformity in Groups: The Effects of Others’ Views on Expressed Attitudes and Attitude Change. Polit Behav 38, 277–315 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-015-9312-x
- Kamijo, Y., Kira, Y., & Nitta, K. (2020). Even bad social norms promote positive interactions. Scientific Reports, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-65516-w
- Lewis, M. A., Hove, M. C., Whiteside, U., Lee, C. M., Kirkeby, B. S., Oster-Aaland, L., Neighbors, C., & Larimer, M. E. (2008). Fitting in and feeling fine: conformity and coping motives as mediators of the relationship between social anxiety and problematic drinking. Psychology of addictive behaviors : journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 22(1), 58–67. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-164X.22.1.58
- Coultas, J. C., & Van Leeuwen, E. J. (2015). Conformity: Definitions, types, and evolutionary grounding. Evolutionary Perspectives on Social Psychology, 189-202. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-12697-5_15
- Sowden, S., Koletsi, S., Lymberopoulos, E., Militaru, E., Catmur, C., & Bird, G. (2018). Quantifying compliance and acceptance through public and private social conformity. Consciousness and Cognition, 65, 359-367. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2018.08.009
- Esteban-Gonzalo, S., Sik Ying Ho, P., Aparicio-García, M. E., & Esteban-Gonzalo, L. (2020). Understanding the Meaning of Conformity to Feminine Norms in Lifestyle Habits and Health: A Cluster Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(4), 1370. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041370
- Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: compliance and conformity. Annual review of psychology, 55, 591–621. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015
- Sowden, S., Koletsi, S., Lymberopoulos, E., Militaru, E., Catmur, C., & Bird, G. (2018). Quantifying compliance and acceptance through public and private social conformity. Consciousness and cognition, 65, 359–367. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2018.08.009
- Zhang, P., Deng, Y., Yu, X., Zhao, X., & Liu, X. (2016). Social Anxiety, Stress Type, and Conformity among Adolescents. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 760. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00760
- Fusaro, M., & Harris, P. L. (2008). Children assess informant reliability using bystanders’ non-verbal cues. Developmental science, 11(5), 771–777. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00728.x
- O’Dowd A. (2005). Smoking ban in public places also cuts smoking at home. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 331(7509), 129. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7509.129-b
- Roberts, J. C., & Castore, C. H. (1972). The effects of conformity, information, and confidence upon subjects’ willingness to take risk following a group discussion. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 8(3), 384-394. https://doi.org/10.1016/0030-5073(72)90057-8
- French, L., Garry, M., & Mori, K. (2008). You say tomato? Collaborative remembering leads to more false memories for intimate couples than for strangers. Memory (Hove, England), 16(3), 262–273. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210701801491
- Reysen, M. (2005). The effects of conformity on recognition judgements. Memory, 13(1), 87-94. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210344000602
- Taylor, A. J., & Vaughan, G. M. (1967). Clinical depression and conformity. Perceptual and motor skills, 25(1), 257–260. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1918.104.22.1687
- Buckner, J. D., & Shah, S. M. (2015). Fitting in and feeling fine: Conformity and coping motives differentially mediate the relationship between social anxiety and drinking problems for men and women. Addiction research & theory, 23(3), 231–237. https://doi.org/10.3109/16066359.2014.978304
- Marsella A. J. (1975). Conformity and psychopathology: a comparative study of conformity behaviors in manic-depressive, paranoid schizophrenic and normal populations. Journal of clinical psychology, 31(3), 402–408. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-4679(197507)31:3<402::aid-jclp2270310304>3.0.co;2-v