Conformity; the unwritten, unenforced laws that everyone obeys. Yes, that means you, too. For example, When you step into an elevator, which way do you face? After pondering for a few seconds, your answer is likely the elevator doors. Why? Have you ever tried facing the back of the elevator? There’s nothing that says you cannot; go try it. How about asking someone on the bus for their seat, no matter how many empty seats there are available? Cutting in line during the morning Tim Horton’s rush?
Chances are you will feel very uncomfortable doing any of these small acts of out-of-the-norm behaviour. You may even break a sweat. You feel this discomfort because of the bonds of conformity, your instinct to be one with the crowd. But why do we conform? Why do we care so much about what other people think?
There are two theories of conformity: the informational conformity theory and the normative conformity theory.
Informational conformity basically says “I follow the crowd because if everyone is doing/thinking/saying this, it must be right.” Have you ever doubted your facts because the group of people you were talking to said otherwise? Then you’ve succumbed to informational conformity. Psychologist Sherif (can’t remember his first name…) did a study on this, around the year 1936. He had people estimate the distance a beam of light, directed at their eyes in a pitch black room, flickered. The light did not actually move, however. The movement was a result of the autokinetic effect, the phenomenon in which your eyes try to prevent damage to your photoreceptor cells by inadvertently moving your eyeballs to reduce damage in a single area within the eye. As such, the beam of light never actually moved, but each person saw an illusion of it moving.
So basically, when Sherif put three people into a room to estimate the distance the light flickered out loud, at first their estimates were completely off from one another. By the end of the study, all the participants agreed on an average distance the light appeared to be moving from its initial position. They were conforming to one another’s estimates.
The second theory is known as the normative conformity theory. This is basically when you agree with everyone else not for the sake of being right, but under peer pressure. If you’ve ever sat back and listened to your friends or just a group of people discuss something you knew was utterly wrong or did not agree with, without countering the discussion, you have subjected to normative conformity. The noted researcher for this theory was psychologist Solomon Asch. In 1951, he conducted a study to understand how so many Germans had come to follow the Nazi beliefs during the Second World War. He did a study where a participant and four under-cover actors would be seated in a row in a classroom. The actors would make sure, upon entering the classroom, to arrange themselves such that the real participant would be seated at the far end of the table. Asch would then show the group a series of slides containing one diagram of a single vertical line, and the second diagram with three vertical lines. The goal was to choose the correct line from the set of three that was the same length as the individual line, in a “verbal multiple-choice quiz” fashion. Asch then asked each of the ‘participants’ to give their answer out loud, beginning with the actor furthest away from the participant, and ending with the real participant.
Participants were told the study was about memory or general cognition, or something of the sort. For the first part of the study, the actors would choose the correct answers. The questions themselves were very simple and the correct answers were always obvious. On a predetermined signal by Asch, all the actors would then start to answer incorrectly, choosing the same false answer. At first, the participant would show signs of confusion, but as the actors continued to answer incorrectly, participants would become very pressured and feel a good deal of anxiety. Of Asch’s participants, 2/3 gave in and answered whatever the other ‘participants’ had answered, even though it was wrong. Of the 2/3, one-third of the participants, when taken out of the study and interviewed individually, refused to admit they had been following the lead of the other participants and insisted they were simply answering the right answer every time.
Here’s a funny little video showing social influence in elevators.