Conformity refers to the change in beliefs, opinions, and behaviors that occurs as the result of social influence. The typical outcome of conformity is that people’s beliefs and behaviors become more similar to those of others around them.
The change in opinions or behavior that occurs when we conform to people who we believe have accurate information is known as informational social influence. Informational social influence usually results in private acceptance, which is real change in opinions on the part of the individual.
Normative social influence occurs when we express opinions or behave in ways that help us to be accepted or that keep us from being isolated or rejected by those we care about. The outcome of normative social influence is frequently public compliance—a change in behavior that is not accompanied by an actual change in one’s private opinion.
Majority influence occurs when the views or behaviors of a larger number of individuals in the current social group prevail. Majority influence may frequently produce public compliance. One powerful example of majority influence can be found in the line-judging studies of Solomon Asch.
Minority influence occurs when the views of a smaller number of individuals prevail. Although less frequent than majority influence, minority influence can occur if the minority expresses their views consistently and confidently. An example is Moscovici’s color-judgment study. Because minorities force group members to think more fully about a topic, they can produce more creative thinking.
The extent to which we conform is influenced by the size of the majority group. The increase in the amount of conformity that is produced by adding new members to the majority group, known as the social impact of each group member, is greater for initial majority members than it is for later members.
Conformity decreases sharply when there is any disagreement among the members of the group that is trying to create influence. Unanimity is powerful in part because being the only person who is different is potentially embarrassing, and because we want to be liked by others, we may naturally want to avoid this.
Milgram’s study on obedience is an example of the power of an authority to create obedience. Milgram found that when an authority figure accepted responsibility for the behavior of the individuals, 65% of the participants followed his instructions and administered what they thought was a severe and dangerous shock to another person.
The conformity observed in Milgram’s study was due in part to the authority of the experimenter. In a replication when the experimenter had lower status, obedience was reduced. Obedience was also reduced when the experimenter’s ability to express his authority was limited by having him sit in an adjoining room and communicate to the teacher by telephone. Milgram’s studies also confirmed the role of unanimity in producing conformity.
Social power is the ability of one individual to create behavioral or belief changes in another person. Five types of social power—reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert power—vary in terms of whether they are more likely to create private acceptance or public compliance.
Leaders use many types of power to influence others. Some approaches to understanding the nature of leadership have focused on the personality of the leader, finding that variables such as intelligence and sociability are associated with good leaders. Other leadership styles, such as those exhibited by charismatic and transformational leaders, have also been studied. Other approaches, including the contingency model of leadership effectiveness, examine the conditions under which different types of leaders are most likely to be effective.
People with lower self-esteem are more likely to conform than are those with higher self-esteem, and people who are dependent on and who have a strong need for approval from others are also more conforming.
Men, on average, are more concerned about appearing to have high status by acting independently from the opinions of others; they are more likely to resist changing their beliefs in public than are women. In contrast, women, on average, are more concerned with connecting to others and maintaining group harmony; they are more likely to conform to the opinions of others in order to prevent social disagreement.
Men and women differ in their preferred leadership styles, such that women use more relationship-oriented approaches than men use. Although men are perceived to be better leaders than women, and often are more likely to become leaders, there is no evidence that either men or women are more effective leaders.
When individuals feel that their freedom is being threatened by influence attempts, and yet they also have the ability to resist that persuasion, they may develop psychological reactance and not conform at all. Reactance has been shown to occur in many real-world contexts.