Conformity is a powerful and pervasive aspect of human behavior where we humans try to fit in by giving in to social or group pressure. Conformity is a type of social influence that changes mindset, behavior, and beliefs just to be part of the majority. Society today is even more driven to conformity due to the variety of digital content and social media influencing lifestyle, opinion, decisions, and mindset. Conformity can serve several important social functions, especially when characterized by positive features such as maintaining order, healthy living, discipline, and morality. But, just as conformity can be positive, it can be negative too, with harmful ramifications driving masses towards hate, chaos, and crime.
The Meaning of Conformity
The concept of conformity was first studied by Arthur Jennes (1932), who explained how it works with an experiment using a glass bottle full of beans. The term indicates a desire to fit in with or agree with a majority decision because of the desire to be correct or conform to social roles. At its core, conformity is all about social acceptance and seeking to avoid rejection. It isn’t good or bad, but its moral outcome and consequences depend on how it is used and practiced.
Why Do People Conform?
People conform to the ideals of society or their social groups for various reasons. Research, including Jennes’ experiment, has found that people prefer trusting a group decision rather than their own, even changing their behavior to suit the opinion of their peers. However, the effect of social influence on trust is yet to be understood.
Several people look to social clues on how to behave. Conformity could then be productive, especially when a group includes knowledgeable and influential people whose influence is instructive and constructive. On the other hand, quite a few simply conform not to look foolish, stupid, or unintelligent, typical of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. This is a typical example of one of the biggest problems of humankind called “Groupthink,” in which the desire for conformity in a group results in dysfunctional decisions and irrational outcomes.
The Two Main Types of Conformity
Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard are now widely referenced for their interpretation of social influence and for identifying two main reasons why people conform. According to a study in 1955, they explained how there are two types of conformity: normative social influence and informational social influence.
- Normative Influence: An influence to conform to the expectations of another. It also includes agreeing with the majority to avoid ridicule, rejection, or punishment and gain reward through agreement. Deutsch and Gerard also felt that normative influence involves compliance with the views of a group, even though a person might personally reject them. For example, a student might pretend to like a particular music genre just because their friends do, even if they genuinely dislike it.
- Informational Social Influence: An influence where people attempt to make decisions by following the example of people more knowledgeable and experienced than them. Thus, informational influence occurs in those who desire to change their opinions, views, and behavior to be correct. An example would be following the dietary choices of a nutrition expert when trying to lose weight.
Other Types of Conformity
Internal and External Conformity
Internal Conformity involves a genuine change in an individual’s beliefs and attitudes to match the groups. In contrast, external Conformity involves outwardly conforming behaviour without a corresponding shift in personal beliefs. Someone who adopts certain religious practices without truly believing in them is displaying external Conformity.
While Conformity is typically associated with the majority, minority influence is when a smaller group of individuals can sway the beliefs or behaviours of a larger group. This can occur when the minority’s arguments are compelling and persuasive, leading some majority members to adopt their views.
Compliance is changing your behaviour to adapt to a group environment despite disagreeing with the group’s views. For example, you liked a certain movie, but in your social circle, you find no one else did, so you simply agree the movie was bad rather than argue the group’s opinion. Compliance can arise from a desire to conform to the group or avoid conflict.
Positive Impacts of Conformity
- Social unity: Conformity contributes to social harmony by establishing shared societal norms and values. Social unity is crucial for a stable and functional community. In social settings, conformity creates a more amicable and happier environment, unifying people and preventing conflict.
- Learning and adaptation: Conformity helps in the transmission of knowledge and skills. Through conformity, individuals can quickly learn from others and adapt to new situations, accelerating social progress.
- Social norms enforcement: While it may not always be so, conforming to the norms of society has its advantages, unity being one. Conformity and social pressure encourage individuals to deviate from accepted standards and realign their behavior with societal expectations.
- Increases cooperation: In the workplace, conformity encourages cooperation, improves communication, fosters inclusivity, and facilitates the sharing of ideas. The result is productivity, faster growth, and development.
Negative Impacts of Conformity
- Low self-esteem: Changing one’s mindset, appearance, and behavior to conform to a group can result in low self-esteem.
- Potential for illegal behavior: Conforming to peer pressure runs the risk of illegal behavior such as drug abuse or petty crime. It could also lead to inaction, where conforming to group behavior leads to a bystander effect and not helping someone in need.
- Suppression of individuality: Rigid conformity stifles individual thought, ideas, and creativity, preventing innovation and growth.
- Groupthink: Groupthink silences dissenting opinions, which could be critically valuable ideas.
- Prejudice and discrimination: Conformity can encourage prejudice and discrimination, reinforcing harmful stereotypes against minority groups.
- Cultural stagnation: Conformity can prevent cultural evolution and failure to adapt to changing trends and circumstances
When conformity should be resisted
While conformity should be embraced for its benefits and advantages, individuals should learn to identify situations when it should be resisted especially where it could have detrimental effects. Independently evaluating information, considering diverse viewpoints, and engaging in discussions with people of different mindsets can help one decide whether to conform to general action and opinion or not. Practice assertiveness to express your opinions and preferences without fear of rejection or disapproval. Most of all, be informed and aware of topics in general to reduce the influence of informational conformity.
Conformity is complex, with both positive and negative consequences. It can promote social unity while at the same time breaking it to promote disharmony and discrimination. It could also lead to poor outcomes arising from bad decisions, so it needs a careful evaluation in every given situation, conforming only where there is potential for social and individual growth and progress.