Conformity and Group Dynamics
Most people have had the experience of standing in a crowd of excited sports fans, cheering for the home team. In the moment, it is easy to be infected by the enthusiasm of a group. A sense of pride and camaraderie with the group is a common experience, and many people find themselves following along with the cheers and applause of others.
Conforming to the Group
Going along with the beliefs or actions of a group can also influence individuals to do harmful and destructive things. A group of peaceful protesters can turn into an angry, riotous mob when only a few members of the group become aggressive and violent.
Groups use peer pressure to encourage conformity, and because of natural desires to be liked and belong to a group, many go along with group decisions, even if they are suspect or wrong. In his classic 1955 study on the impact of group size on conformity, Solomon Asch found that a group of just three or four people can significantly influence and distort the perceptual judgments of others. In this experiment, the group was asked a simple question, “Which of these three lines is the same length as the one I am pointing to?”
Ninety seven percent (97%) of subjects got the right answer when asked this question individually. However, when the majority of a group (confederates) gave pre-planned wrong answers, over a third of the subjects in over 50% of the trials, went along with the incorrect group perception. As many as 70% of the students caved in to the group’s false view at least once. Some yielded so as not to appear different from the majority– in this case they were strangers– while others begin to see the wrong answer as the right perceptual judgment. Their subjective reality became distorted!
Mechanisms Behind Conformity
There are two main forces at work in a group situation:
- Informational Influence: the belief that the group has a better understanding of the situation, or has special information or expertise.
- Normative Influence: the extreme discomfort that comes from speaking out against the group, even when one knows they are wrong. The desire to be accepted and liked convinces group participants to keep disagreements to themselves.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Deutsch, M. & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and information social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636.
Latane, B. (1981). The psychology of social impact. American Psychologist, 36, 343-365.