Conformity: Key Definitions and Key Research

AO1, Description, Key Definitions:

Social influence can be defined as, “the way in which a person or group of people affect the attitudes and behaviour of an individual” (Brody and Dwyer, 2002).

Conformity (majority influence)

 Yielding to group pressure – When an individual’s beliefs and/or behaviours are influences by a larger group of people. Conformity can have both a positive and negative impact;

-Negative when it reduces a person’s independence

-Positive when it helps society to function smoothly and predictably.

There are 3 types of conformity:

1.Compliance                         2. Identification                               3. Internalisation

1.    Compliance


·Change in behaviour only

·Beliefs remain unchanged

·For group acceptance and avoid disapproval

·Done because of a desire to fit in/be liked

·Public not private acceptance

·Weak form of conformity

·Temporary – dependent on group membership

2.   Identification


·Change in behaviour and beliefs

·For group acceptance, membership is desirable

·Done because of a desire to fit in

·Public and private acceptance

·Stronger form of conformity

·Temporary – dependent on group membership

3.   Internalisation




·True conformity

·Change in behaviour and beliefs

·Belief that the group is correct

· Public and private acceptance

·Strong form of conformity

·Permanent – not dependent on group membership

Description, AO1 – Research into conformity – Asch (1951)


Aim: To investigate the degree to which individuals would conform to a majority who gave obviously wrong answers.

Procedure: 123 American male undergraduate volunteers took part in what they were told was a visual perception study.

In small groups (between 7-9) they were shown a series of lines (The ‘standard line’ and 3 comparisons, one of which was the same length as the standard line).  All but one of the participants were “confederates”.

Asch instructed the confederates to give the same incorrect answer on 12 out of the 18 trials – he called these “critical trials”.  The true (naïve) participant was always the last or last but one to answer.

A control group was created for comparison purposes, of 36 participants who were tested individually (without group influence) on 20 trials. This was done to test how accurate individual judgements were.


  1. The control group had an error rate of 0.04% (3 errors from 720 trials)
  2. There was a 32% conformity rate on the 12 critical trials
  3. 75% of participants conformed at least once (25% never conformed)
  4. 5% of participants conformed on all 12 of the critical trial

Post-experiment interviews revealed 3 reasons for participant conformity –

  1. Distortion of action – publically conformed to avoid ridicule
  2. Distortion of perception – some believed their perception must actually be wrong
  3. Distortion of judgement – participants had doubts about own perception and so followed group

Conclusion: The judgements of individuals are affected by majority opinions, even when the majority are obviously wrong.

The video below is a clip from Asch’s Line Judgement study:


Evaluation, AO3 of Research into Conformity – Asch (1951)


(1) Point: It was a laboratory experiment and therefore there is a high degree of control over variables:  Evidence: For example, Asch was able to control where the confederates sat, the incorrect answers that they gave etc…Evaluation: This is positive because it suggests that the IV (agreement of the confederates) was the only variable affecting the DV (conformity) allowing a cause and effect relationship to be established giving the study high internal validity.


(1) Point: Asch’s study can be criticised as being a ‘child of its time.’ Evidence: For example, Asch’s study was conducted in America, in the 1950’s during the era of McCarthyism (a feeling of strong anti-Communist feeling in America) when people were scared to be different. Evaluation: This is a weakness as the study can be criticised as lacking ecological validity, because it is possible that the findings are unique to one particular culture and time (zeitgeist) therefore the findings may not be reflective of the current time.


(2) Point: Asch’s research can be criticised as lacking ecological validity. Evidence: For example, the participants were placed in an unfamiliar group of strangers (the confederates) and were expected to carry out an artificial task. Evaluation: This is a weaknesses as the study is not reflective of the participants real life behaviour and therefore the findings from the study cannot be generalised beyond the artificial setting.


(3) Point: The study can be criticised on ethical grounds for deceiving the participants. Evidence: Evidence for this comes from the way in which Asch told his participants that all of the people sat around the table were participants when they were really confederates, deliberately misleading the individual. Evaluation: This is a problem and it is now recognised in the BPS guidelines that deception should be avoided and by using deception, it is also not possible to gain full informed consent for the experiment until afterwards during a debriefing (this is known as retrospective consent).