The are many studies that investigate conformity, but one example is Sheriff’s study from 1935. In this experiment, he looked at how group norms develop and pressure people into conforming to those norms. He researched this by using the autokinect effect.
The autokinect effect is an optical illusion, where a person’s own movements are interpreted as being caused by someone else. In this study, participants were placed in groups of 3 and asked to estimate the number of dots they could see on a screen.
The confederate (an actor pretending to be a participant) either gave the correct answer or an incorrect one. The results showed that the participants were more likely to go along with the confederate’s answer if they thought they were in the majority, and give an incorrect answer. This suggests that people conform to what they think is the norm, even if it is wrong.
One problem with this study is its ecological validity. The autokinect effect is not a real life situation, so it may not be representative of conformity in general. Another issue is informed consent; the participants may not have been fully aware of what the study entailed and how their behaviour would be interpreted. Finally, there is a lack of internal validity as there are many extraneous variables which could have influenced the results, such as demand characteristics (the cues in the environment which tell participants what is expected of them).
A second study into conformity is Asch’s (1951) line study. In this, participants were shown a card with 3 lines on, one of which was longer than the other 2. They were then asked to state aloud which line was the longest. The confederates had been given instructions to give the same incorrect answer on 12 out of 18 trials. The results showed that the majority of participants went along with the group on at least 1 occasion.
A beam of light is projected onto a dark room and appears to move around. The autokinect was first shown with individuals, then in groups, and then reversed so the group was shown first and then as an individual. Sheriff observed that when people are faced with an ambiguous situation, they look to others for guidance and will adjust their judgment to match those around them.
There are 4 main types of conformity: compliance, identification, ingratiation and internalization. Compliance is when an individual goes along with the group, but does not necessarily believe in what they are doing. For example, a student may answer a question in class even if they do not know the answer just to avoid looking foolish in front of their peers. Identification is when an individual conforms to a group because they want to be like the people in that group.
Ingratiation is when an individual changes their behavior in order to make themselves more likable to the group. For example, someone who is shy may act more outgoing around new people in order to make friends. Internalization is when an individual believes in what the group is doing and conforms because they want to uphold the group’s values.
Conformity can be helpful in some situations, such as when people need to come to a consensus or when safety is at stake. For example, if a group of people are lost in the woods, it would be beneficial for them to all agree on a plan so they are more likely to be found. However, conformity can also lead to negative outcomes, such as when people go along with the majority even if they believe the majority is wrong.
Internal validity is the extent to which an experiment measures what it is supposed to measure. In order for an experiment to have high internal validity, any extraneous variables must be controlled.
As well, people adopt group norms and make them their own. Another study into conformity comes from Asch (1951). The goal of the study was to see if people would conform even when they knew the majority was wrong. To test this, Asch placed cards on a table – one with the standard line and the other with comparison lines. participant were then asked to state which of the comparison lines was the same as the standard.
The answer was obvious. Confederates were placed in the room and given the task of giving the wrong answer on 12 trials. The pps were alone on 1 trial. The findings showed that most pps conformed to the group on at least some of the trials – 36%. On average, pps conformed about 1/3 of the time. There are many criticisms of Asch’s study – e.g. low internal validity as only white males studied in artificial situation. Also, lack of informed consent as pps weren’t told about the true aims of the study.
The majority of the time, they were allowed to choose the incorrect answer, promoting public compliance through brute force. This study finds that Asch’s findings are correct- one advantage of Sheriff’s research was to eliminate irrelevant variables by conducting it in a laboratory situation.
It’s important to consider the internal validity of this study- did the participants know they were being observed? It’s possible that their responses may have been affected by this knowledge. Another issue is informed consent- did the participants know what they were agreeing to before taking part in the study?
Asch’s findings on conformity have been replicated many times, in different settings and across cultures. Sociologists use his work to help explain why people conform- it’s often easier to go along with the majority than to swim against the tide.
While Sheriff’s study provides valuable insight into Asch’s original experiment, there are some limitations to consider. Overall, though, it supports Asch’s findings and helps us better understand why people conform.