Psychology: Conformity

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Conformity: types and explanations

  • Conformity: a change in a person's behaviour or opinions as a result of pressure
  • Compliance: where we go along with majority view, privately disagree, only lasts while with group
  • Identification: where we act with a group because we value it and want to be part of it, we don't neccessarily agree with majority
  • Internalisation: where we take on the majority view because we accept it as correct, leads to a permanent change even when the group is absent

Informational social influence (ISI): need to be right, agree with opinion because we believe it is correct

Normative soical influence (NSI): need to be liked, agree with opinion because we want to be accepted

Research support: Lucus et al: easy / hard maths questions, greater conformity to wrong answers when q's were harder, shows people conform when they don't know the answer (ISI)

Individual differences: some people less concerned with being liked so affected less by NSI, conformity is higher for those who have a need to be in relationships with others

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Conformity: Asch's research

Asch's research (1950s)

Participants: 123 American male undergraduates


  • 2 cards: one with a standard line, one with 3 comparision lines
  • 1 of comparison lines same length as standard, other 2 lines different lengths
  • Participants tested with 6-8 confederates and asked which line matched
  • When confederates made errors, they all gave the same wrong answer

Findings & Conclusion

  • Participants gave the wrong answer 36.8% of the time
  • Overall 25% did not conform on any trials
  • 75% conformed at least once
  • Most said they conformed to avoid social rejection
  • People conform when they want to be accepted
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Conformity: Asch's research


Artificial task: weakness because task has no significance to participant, no reason to conform so lacks generalisability, can't relate to real situations

Demand characteristics: participants knew they were in a research study so may have just gone along with demands of situation, can't generalise findings to real situations

Child of its time: study carried out in 1950s, a conformist time in America, normal to conform, Perrin and Spencer repeated original study with engineering students - only 1 conformed out of 396 trials, possibly more confident in maths skills but means findings aren't consistent

Asch's variations

  • Lines more similar in length: less obvious so conformity increased
  • Ps more confident in maths ability (Lucas et al.) conformity decreased (<--->)
  • Group size: with 1 confed conformity rate only 4%, 2 = 14%, 3 = 31% (originally 36.8%)
  • 1 confed. gave correct answer, conformity decreased by 25%
  • 1 confed, gave different wrong answer, conformity decreased by 25%
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Conformity: Zimbardo's research

Stanford Prison Experiment: (conformity to social roles)


  • Mock prison set up, volunteer students randomly assigned roles; prisoners or guards
  • Prisoners arrested, searched, given a uniform and a number - realistic
  • Guards given uniform, handcuffs, keys etc
  • Guards worked 3 shifts, prisoners had 16 rules to follow - enforced by guards
  • All student volunteers had to be emotionally stable and willing

Findings & Conclusion:

  • Study stopped after 6 days (intended 14), prisoners rebelled against harst treatment
  • Prisoners ripped uniforms, shouted and swore at guards
  • Some released early due to psychological disturbance
  • Prisoners became subdued, depressed, anxious
  • All participants conformed to their roles and acted as if they were in a prison rather than a psychological study
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Conformity: Zimbardo's research


  • Strength: high level of control
  • lab study and role assigned randomly
  • reduces individual personality differences, increases internal validity
  • confident conclusions can be made
  • Weakness: lack of realism
  • guards possibly responding to situation
  • may have just been playacting rather than conforming
  • means findings can't be related to real situtions
  • Weakness: major ethical issues
  • participants suffered distress, depression, anxiety
  • participants' health not fully considered
  • Zimbardo was the researcher but also played the role of superintendent
  • Participant asked to leave, responded as superintendent only concerned with running prison
  • Responsibility as researcher towards his participants not considered
  • Could have caused harm because he was playing his 'role'
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Obedience: Milgram's research


  • Teacher (only real participant) told learner has learnt a set of word pairs
  • Told to give learner an electric shock when wrong answer given
  • Fake shocks increased 15V each time
  • Learner and teacher in different rooms, teacher could only hear learner, not see
  • Learner reacted as if shocks were real
  • Experimenter prompted teacher to continue with shocks
  • After voltage reached 300V learner pretended to be unconscious, no sound made

Findings & conclusion

  • No participants (teachers) stopped below 300V
  • 12.5% (5 participants) stopped at 300V
  • 65% continued to highest level of 450V
  • Participants shows signs of extreme tension / sweating, trembling, stuttering, lip biting
  • 3 had 'full-blown uncontrollable seizures'
  • People will obey a person in authoriy (experimenter in uniform)
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Obedience: Milgram's research


  • Weakness: lacks internal validity
  • Orne and Holland; participants only continued because they guesses it wasn't real
  • confident conclusions can't be made
  • Strength: high external validity
  • Research to support findings, Hofling et al - 21 / 22 nurses obeyed to unjustified demands
  • Obedience to authority can be generalised to other situations
  • Weakness: ethical issues
  • Participants were led to believe that assignment was random and shocks were real
  • Participants were decieved, trust was betrayed
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Obedience: Situational variables

  • Proximity: learner and teacher in same room
  • Lowered obedience rate from 65% to 40%
  • Location: from Yale University to run down building
  • Lowered obedience rate from 65% to 47.5%
  • Uniform: experimenter called away, conducted by member of public
  • Lowered obedience rate from 65% to 20%


  • Strength: research to support situational variable
  • Bickman, people more likely to obey security guard than jacket and tie
  • Uniform represents authority so people obey
  • Weakness: lack internal validity
  • Participants guessed situation was fake
  • unclear if results are due to obedience or if participants knew they were being decieved and acted accordingly
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