Types of Conformity

Conformity: When an individual changes their behaviour or beliefs to fit in with those of a group, due to group pressure.

Internalisation: When an individual changes their public and private views or behaviour to match those of a group- the group has genuinely changed the person’s mind. This is a long-lasting change and will continue outside of the group situation.

Identification: When an individual changes their public views to match those of a group, because they value the group and wish to be part of it (identify with it). There may be a difference between the individual’s public and private views. The change is likely to last as long as the individual is with the group.

Compliance: When an individual changes their public, but not private, behaviour or views to match those of a group-this is a superficial type of conformity. This is a short-term change and will only last as long as the individual in in that situation.

Explanations of Conformity

Informational social influence (ISI): When someone is influenced because they look to others for guidance- they are uncertain how to behave and believe the group knows more than them. This happens in new or uncertain situations (for example starting a new job and being unsure of the correct procedures). ISI tends to lead to internalisation.

Normative social influence (NSI): When someone is influenced to fit in with the social norms and values of a particular group to gain their approval- they conform in order to not stand out or appear different (for example checking what your friends are wearing before meeting up, so you can dress similarly). The individual’s private views can differ, so NSI often results in compliance.

Conformity, figure 1


  • Lucas _et al _(2006) found that when presented with difficult maths problems to solve, participants were more likely to conform to the majority answer, showing that people will conform due to the need for information (ISI).
  • Asch (1951) found that people conformed to a majority, even giving an obviously wrong answer. This supports that people will conform in order to fit in with a group (NSI).
  • Individual differences are not considered- the explanations assume everyone is affected by ISI and NSI in the same way. Some people do not wish to fit in with a group, due to their personality- these explanations do not account for this.

Asch’s Research(1951)

Aim: to see if people will conform to a majority, even with an obvious answer.

Procedure: 123 American males took part. They were in groups of 6-8, but only one of them was a true participant- the rest were confederates (told how to act by the researcher). They had to answer out loud which line, from a choice of three, matched a ‘control’ line. The answer was obvious. There were 18 trials, and on 12 of them (‘critical trials’), the confederates all gave the same wrong answer. The real participant gave their answer last or last-but-one.

Findings: 36.8% of the answers given by the participants were conforming answers. 75% of participants conformed at least once.

Conclusions: People will conform to a majority, even if that majority is wrong. Afterwards, participants said they conformed in order to fit in.

Variation - Group size: Asch found that a majority of 3 (e.g. 4 against 1) causes conformity to rise significantly, to around 30%. Adding people onto the majority did not make much difference.

__Variation - Unanimity: __Asch found that introducing a dissenting confederate, who disagreed with the others, caused conformity to drop significantly. This freed the participants from the pressure to conform.


  • The task Asch used was insignificant (judging line lengths) and not a reflection of real-life conformity, so there were no real consequences of disagreeing with the group. This does not tell us much about conformity in everyday situations (lacks external/ecological validity- how far the research task and results can be applied to real life)
  • Asch only tested American men of undergraduate age, so it is hard to generalise the results to other populations (lacks population validity)
  • The results may be specific to that era- 1950s USA may have been more conformist due to the fear of communist spies (it was the height of the Cold War), so people did not want to appear different. The results may be different if the study was repeated today (lacks temporal/historical validity)

Zimbardo’s Research

Aim: To investigate if behaviour in prisons is due to the roles people play, and whether people will conform to a social role

Procedure: the study was set up in the basement of the Psychology department of Stanford University. Participants were advertised for, and randomly assigned to the role of prisoner or prison guard. When the prisoners were arrested, they were taken to a local police station, before being transported to the prison. They had to wear a ‘uniform’ and were given numbers to replace their names. The guards were given their own uniform, including sunglasses that meant their eyes couldn’t be seen. The guards were told that they could do whatever was necessary to keep order in the prison (short of physically assaulting the prisoners).

Findings: The prisoners were rebellious at first, not taking the situation seriously. After this, the guards acted increasingly brutally, so much so that the study had to be stopped after 6 days (instead of the planned 14). The guards used tactics to control the prisoners, for example waking them in the night to perform head counts, trying to break alliances, and making them perform degrading tasks such as cleaning toilets with their bare hands. The prisoners fell into their roles and became subdued and depressed One prisoner went on hunger strike, and was confined to the ‘hole’, a small windowless closet. Prisoners showed signs of psychological disturbance, and some had to be released early. By the end, the guards and prisoners were fully immersed in their roles.

Conclusions: The behaviour of the participants can be explained by conformity to social roles. All were psychologically healthy, but the guards acted in extreme ways, perhaps due to the lack of constraints on their behaviour. This shows the power of the situation in shaping peoples’ behaviour.

Conformity, figure 1


  • Prisoners and guards were randomly assigned to their role, increasing the control Zimbardo had over the internal validity (whether the study actually measured what it intended to) of the study
  • It has been argued that the participants were acting in a stereotypical way. For example, one guard said that he based his behaviour on a character he had seen in a film. This means that the study was not really measuring conformity to a role, but conformity to a stereotype
  • There were ethical issues with the study- the participants were subjected to psychological harm, which could have been long-lasting. The right to withdraw was made difficult, perhaps because Zimbardo himself was playing a role (the superintendent), so made it hard for one prisoner to withdraw from the study
Discuss explanations of conformity. (It's a 16 marker, which means around 3 paragraphs outlining and 3-4 evaluation points.)
Your answer should include: Normative / Social / Influence / Informational / Conformity / Asch / Lucas / Individual