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Influencing and Conforming

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Chapter Learning Objectives

  1. The Many Varieties of Conformity
    • Describe some of the active and passive ways that conformity occurs in our everyday lives.
    • Compare and contrast informational social influence and normative social influence.
    • Summarize the variables that create majority and minority social influence.
    • Outline the situational variables that influence the extent to which we conform.
  2. Obedience, Power, and Leadership
    • Describe and interpret the results of Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience to authority.
    • Compare the different types of power proposed by John French and Bertram Raven and explain how they produce conformity.
    • Define leadership and explain how effective leaders are determined by the person, the situation, and the person-situation interaction.
  3. Person, Gender, and Cultural Differences in Conformity
    • Summarize the social psychological literature concerning differences in conformity between men and women.
    • Review research concerning the relationship between culture and conformity.
    • Explain the concept of psychological reactance and describe how and when it might occur.

Genocide via Conformity?

The term “Holocaust” is commonly used to describe the murder of approximately 6 million Jews by Nazi Germans and their collaborators during the 12 years between the election of the Nazi party in 1933 and then end of World War II in 1945. Although the Nazis also targeted a variety of other groups, including homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s witnesses, and the Roma, the Holocaust remains unparalleled in the systematic and industrial fashion in which those deemed to be of Jewish descent were targeted for worldwide annihilation.

Although psychopathology and personality traits such as authoritarianism may be used to explain the motivations or actions of Hitler and other leading Nazis, one of the enduring questions posed by social psychologists in the years since concerns which situational forces may have compelled so many ordinary men and women to follow the orders of the Nazi leadership. This question has yielded many interesting answers, including self-interest and material gain, a reclamation of national pride following the humiliation of defeat in World War I, a desire for strong leadership following political instability and high unemployment, and a history of anti-Semitism, dehumanization, and scapegoating. But perhaps the most surprising explanation is that of conformity.

Is there any evidence to suggest that ordinary Germans may have gone along with the Nazis’ so-called final solution to the Jewish problem out of a desire to go along with the group? As it turns out, there is plenty. An important study of the interrogations of 210 members of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 (responsible for the killing of 38,000 Jews and the deportation of 45,000 others) revealed that although the individual members of the group did not have orders to kill, almost 90 percent committed murders by the end of the Holocaust. Furthermore, their actions could not be attributed to psychopathology or a previous history of violence. In fact, records indicate that 80 percent to 90 percent of the men were initially horrified and disgusted by what they were doing. However, the desire not to face isolation and ostracism or not to be perceived as “weak” motivated many of them to perpetrate truly horrific acts of violence and murder. The ordinary desire to get along with their comrades, not to stick out, and to avoid social rejection appears to have been a primary motivating force for many of them.

Figure 6.1 Krakau, Razzia von deutscher Ordnungspolizei 


Browning, C. R. (1998). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.

Waller, J. (2007). Becoming evil: How ordinary people commit genocide and mass killing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Have you ever decided what courses to take by asking for advice from your friends or by observing what courses they were choosing? Have you picked the clothes to wear to a party based on what your friends were wearing? Can you think of a time when you changed your beliefs or behaviors because a person in authority, such as a teacher or a religious or political leader, gave you ideas about new ways to think or new things to do? Or perhaps you started smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, even though you didn’t really want to, because some of your friends were doing it.

Your answers to at least some of these questions will be yes because you, like all people, are influenced by those around you. When you find yourself in situations like these, you are experiencing what is perhaps the most basic of all social psychological processes—social influence, defined as the influence of other people on our everyday thoughts, feelings, and behavior (Hogg, 2010).

This chapter focuses on the social influence that leads individuals, sometimes against their will, to adopt and adhere to the opinions and behaviors of others. The outcome of this social influence, known as conformity, refers to the change in beliefs, opinions, and behaviors as a result of our perceptions about what other people believe or do. We conform to social influence in part to meet cognitive goals of forming accurate knowledge about the world around us, for instance, by using the opinions and recommendations of others to help us make better decisions. But conformity also involves affective processes. Because we want to be liked and accepted by others, we may sometimes behave in ways that we might not really have wanted to if we had thought about them more carefully. As an example, we may we engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or alcohol abuse, simply because our friends are engaging in them.

There are many types of conformity, ranging from the simple and unconscious imitation of the other people around us to the obedience created by powerful people who have direct control over us. In this chapter, we will consider both conformity and leadership, which is the ability to direct or inspire others to achieve goals. We’ll look at the potential benefits of conforming to others but also consider the costs of doing so. And we will also consider which people are most likely to conform.

Although conformity sounds like it might be a negative thing (and in some cases it is), overall the tendency to be influenced by the actions of others is an important human adaptation. Just as birds conform to the movements of those around them when they fly together in a flock, social influence among humans probably increases our fitness by helping us live and work well together (Coultas, 2004; Fincher, Thornhill, Murray, & Schaller, 2008; Henrich & Boyd, 1998; Kessler & Cohrs, 2008). Conformity is determined by the person-situation interaction, and although the situation is extremely powerful, different people are more or less likely to conform.

As you read this chapter, keep in mind that conformity is another example of the ongoing interactive dynamic among people. Just as you are conforming to the influence that others have on you, your behavior is also influencing those others to conform to your beliefs and opinions. You may be surprised by how often these influences are occurring around you.


Coultas, J. (2004). When in Rome…An evolutionary perspective on conformity. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 7, 317–331;

Fincher, C. L., Thornhill, R., Murray, D. R., & Schaller, M. (2008). Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275, 1279–1285

Henrich, J., & Boyd, R. (1998). The evolution of conformist transmission and the emergence of between-group differences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19, 215–242;

Hogg, M. A. (2010). Influence and leadership. In S. F. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 1166–1207). New York, NY: Wiley.

Kessler, T., & Cohrs, J. C. (2008). The evolution of authoritarian processes: Fostering cooperation in large-scale groups. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 12, 73–84.