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Social Psychology – Conformity

Answers the Question

What causes us to go along with others’ views rather than stand strong and resist the pressure to conform?

How it Began

Solomon Asch set out to study social influences and how social forces affect a person’s opinions and attitudes when he began his conformity study in the 1950’s. After studying the works of Jean Martin Charcot, and subsequent psychologists, Asch noted that participants in these past studies often changed their differing opinions to those of the majorities, when confronted with opposing views. The conformity study that he subsequently designed tests whether or not one can change someone’s judgment of a situation without changing their knowledge or assumptions about the situation.

Asch argued that conformity can best be studied by seeing if people agree or disagree with others who give an obviously wrong answer on tasks with an obvious and unambiguous answer. In his original 1951 study, Asch devised 20 slightly different line judgement tasks. On these tasks,participants have to say which of the 3 lines labelled A, B, and C is the same length as the line to the left of them.

Line Judgement Studies

Asch conducted a pilot study to ensure that the tasks actually did have an obvious and unambiguous solution. In the pilot study, he tested 36 participants one at a time on each of the 20 tasks. So, with 36 people each doing 20 tasks, a total of 720 judgements were made. Asch found a wrong answer was given only 3 times. Therefore, participants got the answer right 717/720 times (99.6%), and this showed that the tasks were very easy and did have one obviously correct answer and two obviously incorrect answers.

Asch then carried out the study itself. He wanted to see how much conformity male students at the university he worked at would show. Some of the participants (Ps) in the pilot study were asked if they would act as stooges (or confederates). Asch told them that they would be doing the tasks again, but this time in a group, with each person saying out loud their answers. The stooges were told that they would be seated around a table, and that there would be one other person (called the naïve participant) who was completely unaware that they were stooges, and that the study was about conformity.

Asch told the stooges that he would be acting as the experimenter, and that they would be seated around a table in such a way that the naïve participant would be the last but one to answer.

The stooges were also told that there would be a total of 18 trials on which they would be asked to do the line judgement tasks. Of these, 6 would be neutral trials, and the stooges were told to all give the correct answer. The other 12 trials would be critical trials, and the stooges were told that they should unanimously give a wrong answer (i.e. they would all give the same wrong answer).Asch informed the stooges that he would give a ‘secret signal’ when he wanted them to give a unanimously wrong answer. The critical trials and neutral trials were mixed up so that there was less chance of the naïve participant suspecting that the set-up wasn’t what it appeared to be.

On average, participants conformed on 3.84 out of the 12 trials, which is where the figure of 32% conformity comes from. Given these results, Asch concluded that even on a task which has an obvious and unambiguous answer, a unanimous numerical majority can influence the behaviour of a numerical minority.

Key Terminology

Conformity – conformity can be defined as ‘yielding to group pressure’, and for this reason it is also referred to as majority influence.

Social Comparison Theory – We determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others. As a result, we are constantly making self and other evaluations across a variety of domains (for example, attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, and success). Most of us have the social skills and impulse control to keep our envy and social comparisons quiet but our true feelings may come out in subtle ways.

Normative Influences – The influence of other people that leads us to conform in order to be liked and accepted by them. This often leads to public compliance—but not necessarily private acceptance—of the group’s social norms.

In Brief

The Asch conformity experiments are often interpreted as evidence for the power of conformity and normative social influence, where normative influences is the willingness to conform publicly to attain social reward and avoid social punishment. From this perspective the results are viewed as a striking example of people publicly endorsing the group response despite knowing full well that they were endorsing an incorrect response.

The conformity demonstrated in Asch experiments is problematic for social comparison theory. Social comparison theory suggests that when seeking to validate opinions and abilities people will first turn to direct observation. If direct observation is ineffective or not available then people will then turn to comparable others for validation.In other words, social comparison theory predicts that when physical reality testing yields uncertainty, social reality testing will arise. The Asch conformity experiments demonstrate that uncertainty can arise as an outcome of social reality testing. More broadly, this inconsistency has been used to support the position that the theoretical distinction between social reality testing and physical reality testing is untenable

What does this  mean for OD

Conformity is a lubricant that keeps society running smoothly. Complicated social movements become easier when we conform; we like other people who act like us. There’s something to be said for toeing the line and not ruffling feathers. And in some circumstances, we need the people around us to find out not just the expected way to behave, but also the right answer to important questions.

But especially in an individualistic culture like in the West, it sometimes seems distasteful, all this going along with the majority, especially when we do it just to fit in. These are competing forces, the pressure to conform and our drive for independence. It’s the yin and yang of life in the presence of others.

Conformity can affect organizations and individuals as a whole, and it can be both positive and negative. Conformity can be considered good when it forces people to be respectful and show courteous manners. It also poses less problems in a work environment where people are expected to behave in a certain way and there is no room for rebels. Lastly, it discourages people to do indecent acts in public or to make a scene before a crowd, which can cause others to feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Conformity is considered bad in the form of peer pressure. To conform in the face of injustice or actions which are detrimental to organizational performance is another bad effect. In an organization where workers are treated unfairly, individuals are afraid to speak up because no one else is. Often, they end up silent and take the abuse.

When an alliance of workers is formed with the aim of rallying against the management or decision, that is when more people join in and gain the confidence to voice out their complaints, concerns or ideas for improvement. If there’s anything we can learn from history, never underestimate the power of numbers. It is amazing to learn that it always starts with a single person who is not afraid to be an individual and go against the current.

OD requires people to go against the norm and ask questions about what the current norm is in society. OD interventions require non-conformity and creating an environment where it is acceptable. But conformity will be the bond that glues the organization together and ensures that changes are sticky once decisions have been made and changes made. New norms only survive if there is conformity to stay the course.