Conformity: an angst-free write-up

The only thing worse than a conformist, as Jhonen Vasquez loves to remind people, is a trendy non-conformist. Thousands upon thousands of blogs, LiveJournals, user homepages and bulletin board discussions proclaim loudly the individuality and non-conformity of the author, usually with a healthy heap of haughty headshaking at anyone who's ever worn a denim jacket, or bought a Blink-182 album, or plays team sports, or whatever the author just happens not to like but lots of people do.

To most people, conformity and non-conformity are about being trendy. They're about wearing the 'right' labels, listening to the 'right' music, having the 'right' haircut. They're about consuming the right identity.

In this context, conforming is considered almost definitionally bad. It is associated with vapidity, shallowness, all the social and hormonal pitfalls of the teenage popularity game. But the binary concept of conformity and independence (as opposed to individuality) is a crucial aspect of the human condition. To see it just as a conceptual weapon on the battleground of youth culture is to fail to understand one of the most important forces of social life.

The study of conformity is primarily conducted in the fields of Psychology, Sociology, and Social Psychology, though it is extremely important in Anthropology, Gender Studies, and virtually any humanity or 'liberal' subject. The way in which conformity is treated in an academic or professional context is totally different to the popular usage.

What is conformity?

In order to conform, a person must be conforming to something. Obviously, you can't just "conform," the way you can "wave" or "see".

The thing to which one conforms is a norm. Definition of what actually constitutes a norm can be very difficult — people often define them tautologically as 'things we conform to'. A good working definition, though, is that a norm is an attitudinal or behavioural uniformity among a set of people.

As that definition reveals, norms are a property of groups, not of individuals. One person on their own cannot form a norm. However, if a person is a member of a group, even when alone, they might conform to those norms. When there's nobody else home, for example, most people still wear clothes.

Conformity and Obedience

Conformity is not be confused with obedience. While they both shape an individuals actions because of membership of a group, there are many important differences.

  • Equality: Obedience occurs between unequal levels in some hierarchy. Conformity, on the other hand, occurs between equals.
  • Imitation: Conformity usually involves some kind of imitation between group members. Obedience is not based on imitation, it is based on direction.
  • Implicit vs Explicit: The norms of obedience, generally speaking, are explicit norms — you are informed of what is expected of you. Conformity, on the other hand, is typically based on implicit norms, though when you are joining a group with established norms, you may need to be told what those norms are (particularly if you have already committed a faux pas).
  • Admissibility: Nobody likes to admit to conforming. "Just following orders", on the other hand, can't be said frequently or loudly enough.
  • Negotiation: Obedience is typically imposed. Conformity requires that the norms have been negotiated by group members (more in this later).

Reference and membership

This is an important aspect of conformity that is often ignored. Individuals can belong to two distinct kinds of groups: reference groups and membership groups.

A membership group is a group to which one belongs because of some external criterion — for example, the groups "redheads" or "living on Vulture Street". A reference group, on the other hand, is any group that is psychologically significant for one's behaviour or attitudes. This might include the groups "police officers", "star trek fans", or simply a group of friends.

Some groups fall in a bit of a grey area. Take, for example, the people living in a prestigious suburb. One might assume this is a membership group, since a person is counted in the group for no other reason than where they live. If, however, living in that place somehow affects their attitudes or behaviours — say, makes them talk derisively of people from another neighbourhood, or makes them trade their Jag for a Beamer — then one must assume that it is a reference group. What is a membership group for one person might be a reference group for another. Groups based on ethnicity are a common (and treacherous) example of this.

Experiments in conformity

There have been countless experiments into the phenomenon of conformity. Some of the original experiments are very famous, and I'll focus on them.

Sherif and the negotiation of arbitrary norms

Perhaps the single most important experiment in the study of the creation of arbitrary norms and individual conformity to those norms is Muzafer Sherif's famous Autokinetic effect experiment, conducted in the mid 1930s.

Sherif believed that social norms emerge in order to guide behaviour under conditions of uncertainty. To investigate this idea, he took advantage of a perceptual illusion. Autokinesis is an optical illusion in which a fixed bright point of light in a dark room appears to move — it's caused by eye movements that occur without any visual frame of reference. People asked to estimate how much the light moves find the task very difficult, and generally feel uncertain about their estimates.

Sherif presented the point of light to test subjects several times, and had participants, who were unaware that the movement was an illusion, estimate the amount the light moved on each trial. He discovered that, when asked alone, each person used their own estimates as a frame of reference: over a series of 100 trials they gradually focussed in on a narrow range of estimates, with different people adopting different ranges.

However, Sherif also ran the experiment with participants in groups of three or four taking it in turn to call out their estimates. Under these circumstances, participants used others' estimates as the frame of reference, and converged very quickly indeed on the group average, so that after a few trials they gave virtually identical estimates. This norm seems to have become internalised, because when subsequently making autokinetic estimates on their own, participants remained strongly influenced by the norm that was negotiated in the group.

Asch: conformity, cognition, and decision-making

Another important set of experiments was conducted by Solomon Asch in the early 1950s. Although highly controversial in their interpretation and implications, they are an essential part of understanding the role that conformity plays in decision-making.

Asch designed an experiment that put a test subject into the position of having their own senses contradicted by a unanimous group of people. He presented a series of three lines of unequal length and one "comparison line" to a group of 7 participants. Six of these participants were co-operating in the experiment, however. Only one was unaware of what was going on.

Example of Asch's comparison lines:
+-----------+ +-----+
|           | |     |
|     |     | |     |
|  |  |     | |  |  |
|  |  |  |  | |  |  |
|  |  |  |  | |  |  |
|  |  |  |  | |  |  |
|  A  B  C  | |  X  |
+-----------+ +-----+

Asch showed 18 different sets of comparison lines to each group, asking each participant in the order of their seating at the table which of lines A, B or C was the same length as line X. On twelve of those eighteen trials, however, he would have everyone except for the naive participant (seated 6th at the table) give the same wrong answer.

When faced with a situation where every other member of the group gave the same answer, people whose judgement and motivation the participant had no reason to doubt, 75% of participants allowed the influence of the group to change their answer at least once. Over all, though, this situation only caused a 37% error rate — in other words, 37% of the time, Asch's participants conformed to the norm of the group, and 63% of the time they said what they could see was correct.

Conformity and life

Face it. We all conform.

Why do we do this? So that, as Deborah909 says, we don't get jostled so much in the streets, so that we can walk up the right hand side of an escalator.

We conform to norms so that we can hold conversations with people: I say a sentence or two, my turn's up, you say a sentence or two, my turn again. We conform to norms to reduce uncertainty: I'm not quite sure how to behave with this group, so I'll follow other people's lead.

Waiting in line is conforming to a norm. Saying 'please' and 'thank you' is conforming to a norm. The way you talk to and touch your friends are norms that you conform to. Not nodevertising is definitely conforming to a norm. Some norms are arbitrary — like fashion, or telephone greetings — but they still play a role in identity formation, social distinction, and group cohesion.

So, no matter how much of an individualist you think you are, no matter how different you want to be, remember this: you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, and almost every group that you identify with forces you to conform, or lose your membership.