What are the answers to the psychology of conformity? Why exactly do we do it?
In today’s crowded society, we all seek to find something about ourselves that is unique. However, by its very definition, conformity means to change behaviours in order to fit in with the people around you. We want to be unique, but we want to fit in? And, what exactly is it we are all trying to fit in to?
Conformity, by definition.
The psychology of conformity has been examined by a number of psychologists.
Breckler, Olsen and Wiggins (2006) said: “Conformity is caused by other people; it does not refer to effects of other people on internal concepts like attitudes or beliefs. Conformity encompasses compliance and obedience because it refers to any behaviour that occurs as a result of others’ influence – no matter what the nature of the influence.”
There are a number of reasons behind the psychology of conformity. In fact, sometimes we actively conform, and seek clues from a group of people as to how we are should think and react.
The psychology of conformity: why do we do it?
Many people like to recognise themselves as an individual, or unique. Whilst we all possess specific characteristics that distinguish us from the crowd, the majority of human beings comply with some set of societal rules most of the time.
Cars stop at red traffic lights; children and adults attend school and go to work. These are examples of conformity for obvious reasons. Without compliance with certain rules of society, the entire structure would break down.
However, there are other instances where we conform but for less important reasons. What is the psychology of conformity behind college students playing drinking games? Deutsch and Gerard (1955) identified two main reasons we do this: informational and normative influence.
Informational influence happens when people change their behaviour in order to be correct. In situations where we are unsure of the correct response, we often look to others who are more knowledgeable and use their lead as a guide for our own behaviours.
Normative influence stems from a desire to avoid punishments and gain rewards. For example, an individual might behave in a certain way in order to get people to like them.
There are further breakdowns within the informational and normative influences, such as:
- Identification which occurs when people conform to expectations of them in line with their social roles.
- Compliance involving changing one’s behaviour while still internally disagreeing with the group.
- Internalisation occurs when we change our behaviour because we want to be like another person.
A very promising model proposes five main motivations for conforming, outside of Deutsch and Gerard’s theory.
Nail, MacDonald, & Levy (2000) proposed the five motivations behind the psychology of conformity. These are to be correct to be socially acceptable and avoid rejection, to accomplish group goals, to establish and maintain our self-concept/social identity, and to align ourselves with similar individuals.
Conforming can make us more agreeable to live and work with – it makes us normal.
To conform is the norm
Conformity itself comes from a deep psychological need to belong, therefore, understanding the psychology of conformity can be a good thing – and very normal!
We must conform in order to survive. The earliest conformity took place when our ancestors formed tribes. One cannot live without sustenance so aligning with a group for the purpose of attaining food. There is argument that an individual could surely find enough food on their own to survive, but we had many predators. When fighting off inevitable attacks from wild animals, the many are more effective than the one.
If our early ancestors had not formed groups, they would not have been as successful in fending off predators and, therefore, would not have survived. Conformity in this sense has survival value.
To this day, people rely on the group for satisfying their individual survival needs. People depend on being part of a group for protection. People now must protect themselves from other human groups. When an individual is under threat, the group steps up to protect in the form of family, police, and military.
As Lumbert pointed out in her paper, “Conformity and Group Mentality: Why We Comply,” the more rewarding it is to conform, the more likely a person is to go along with the group in that circumstance. Survival in the face of a threat is by far the greatest reward from conforming.
People prefer life over death so if living means they must conform, then they will and they have. Early man made groups to fight off predators. We continue this behaviour today because we have been reinforced since the beginning of humankind.
The thing is, conforming isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every person conforms on a daily basis through a number of activities. Wearing clothes that are a trend, driving on the right side of the road, agreeing with a political movement, and following a particular religious group are all examples of ways in which people conform. However, these are also identifiers of our own “unique” identities.