understanding of conformity as one aspect of social psychology

According to Leon Mann, conformity means yielding togroup pressures. Everyone is a member of one group oranother and everyone expects members of these groups tobehave in certain ways. If you are a member of anidentifiable group you are expected to behaveappropriately to it. If you dont confirm and behaveappropriately you are likely to be rejected by the group.

Like stereotypes, conforming and expecting others toconform maintains cognitive balance.

There are several kinds of conformity. Many studies ofconformity took place in the 1950s which led Kelman todistinguish between compliance, internalisation andidentification. Compliance is the type of conformity wherethe subject goes along with the group view, but privatelydisagrees with it. Internalisation is where the subject comesto accept, and eventually believes in the group view.

Identification is where the subject accepts and believes thegroup view, because he or she wants to become associatedwith the group.

Leon Mann identifies normative conformity which occurswhen direct group pressure forces the individual to yieldunder the threat of rejection or the promise of reward. Thiscan occur only if someone wants to be a member of thegroup or the groups attitudes or behaviour are important tothe individual in some way. Apart from normative conformity there is informationalconformity which occurs where the situation is vague orambiguous and because the person is uncertain he or sheturns to others for evidence of the appropriate response.

Thirdly, Mann identifies ingratiational conformity whichoccurs where a person tries to do whatever he or shethinks the others will approve in order to gain acceptance(if you make yourself appear to be similar to someone else,they might come to like you).

The first major research into conformity was conducted in1935 by Sherif who used a visual illusion, known as theauto-kinetic effect. Sherif told his subjects that a spot oflight which they were about to see in a darkened room wasgoing to move, and he wanted them to say the directionand distance of the movement. In the first experimentalcondition the subjects were tested individually. Some saidthe distance of movement wasnt very far in any directio,others said it was several inches. Sherif recorded eachsubjects response. In the second experimental condition,Sherif gathered his subjects into groups, usually of threepeople, and asked them to discribe verbally the movementof light. He gave them no instructions as to whether theyneeded to reach any kind of agreement among themselvesbut simply asked them to give their own reports while beingaware of the reports that other members gave. During thegroup sessions it became apparent that the subjects reportsstrarted to converge much nearer to an average of whattheir individual reports had been. If a subject who had saidthat the light didnt move very far when tested individuallysaid I think it is moving 2 inches to the left then anotherwho had reported movement of 4 inches, when testedindividually, might say I think it may have been 3 inches.

As the number of reported movements continued the morethe members of the group conformed to each othersreports. This spot of light was in fact stationary so whatever reportswere made was the consequence of the subject imaginingthey saw something happen. So they were not certainabout the movement they observed and so would not feelconfident about insisting that their observations were whollycorrect. When they heard other reported judgements theymay have decided to go along with them.

The problem with this study, for understanding ofconformity, as one aspect of social psychology is that it is atotal artifical experimental situation – there isnt even a rightanswer. Requested reports of imaginary movements of astationary spot of light in a darkened room when alone, orwith two others, hardly reflects situations we come accrossin our every day lives. Generalising from its conclusions toreal life might be innacurate. However, some of them dohave a common sense appeal.

Ash was a harsh critic of Sherifs experimental design andclaimed that it showed little about conformity since therewas no right answer to conform to. Ash designed anexperiment where there could be absolutely no doubt aboutwhether subjects would be conforming or not and it wasabsolutely clear what they were conforming to. He wantedto be able to put an individual under various amounts ofgroup pressure that he could control and manipulate andmeasure their willingness to conform to the groupsresponse to something that was clearly wrong. Ashconducted what are now described as classic experimentsin conformity. This is not to say they arent criticised todayor that its conclusions are wholly acceptable now – theyshowed the application of the scientific method to socialpsychology and we used as models of how to conductpsychological research.

In an early experiment Ash gathered a group of sevenuniversity students in a classroom. They sat around oneside of a large table facing the blackboard. On the left sideof the board there was a white card with a single black linedrawn vertically on it. On the right of the board there wasanother white card with three vertical lines of differentlengths. Two of the lines on the card on the right werelonger or shorther than the target line. Matching the targetline to the comparison line shouldnt have been a difficulttask however for these seven students, all but one was aconfederate of Ash and they had been instructed to giveincorrect responses on seven of the twelve trials. The onenaive subject was seated either at the extreme left or nextto the extreme left of the line of students so that he wouldalways be last (or next to last) to answer. He would haveheard most of the others give their judgements about whichcomparison line matches the target line before he spoke.

The naive subject was a member of a group he didntknow and might never see again who suddenly and for noapparent reason started saying something which directlycontradicted the evidence of his own eyes.

In subsequent experiments Ash used between 7 and 9subjects using the same experimental procedure. In the firstseries of experiments he tested 123 naives on 12 criticaltests where 7 were going to be incorrect. Each naivetherefore had 7 opportunities to conform to something theycould see to be wrong. One third of the naives conformedon all 7 occasions. About three quarters of themconformed on at least one occasion. Only about one fifthrefused to conform at all.

Just to be certain that the result was due to the influence ofthe confederates responses and not to the difficulty of thetask Ash used a control group. Each control subject wasasked to make a judgement individually – there were nopressures at all. Over 90% gave correct responses.

Hollander and Willis give some criticisms of the earlyresearch into conformity. Firstly the studies do not identifythe motive or type of conformity. Do the subjects conformin order to gain social approval? Are they simplycomplying? Do they really believe that their response iscorrect? Secondly Hollander and Willis claim that theexperiments do not identify whether the subjects arecomplying because they judge that its not worth appearingto be different, or because the actually start to believe thatthe groups judgement is correct. Hollander and Willis alsoclaim that the studies cannot show whether those who donot conform do so because they are independant thinkersor because they are anti-conformists. And Lastly, theyclaim that the studies seem to assume that independancehas to be good and conformity has to be bad. Howeverconformity is often benificial.

Sherif and Asch have each conducted fairly artificiallaboritory experiments which showed that about 30% ofresponses can be explained by the need or desire of thesubjects to conform. These experiments may not accuratelyreflect real life when conformity might be benificial andsometimes contribute to psychological well-being.

Category: Psychology

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