Conformity is defined as “changing one’s behavior or belief as a result of group pressure” (Myers, 2009, p. 192). There are two forms of conformity: obedience and acceptance. When a person is showing obedience, he or she is complying or going along with the opinion of a group while internally not quite agreeing or outright disagreeing with it. Acceptance, on the other hand, is when a person acts the way a group tells him or her to act but also believes it to be the right choice.
One relevant example that illustrates the differences between obedience and acceptance is Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment, which involved two participants: one fulfilling the role of teacher and one fulfilling the role of learner. First, the teacher taught the learner a list of word pairs. Then the two participants were placed in separate rooms. The teacher was given a so-called “shock generator” to operate and was told to ask the learner to repeat the words he or she just learned. In the case of a wrong answer, the teacher was instructed to zap the learner with a mild electric shock by pulling a switch on the shock generator (Milgram, 1963). The researcher ordered the teacher to increase the intensity of the charges every time the learner gave a wrong answer. Soon, the teacher began to lose his composure and pleaded with the researchers to end the experiment. Even so, the researchers only reminded the teacher to regard silences from the learner as wrong answers and to increase the shocks all the same. Out of 40 men, 26 “progressed all the way to 450 volts” (Meyers, p. 200), regardless of their complaints. This outcome could only mean that the participants were more afraid to disobey orders than they were to cause harm to their co-participants.
If obedience is essentially compliance out of fear, then acceptance is voluntary compliance. There are two reasons that people usually want to comply: the wish to be liked and the wish to be right. These two conditions are respectively called “normative influence” and “informational influence” (Myers, 2009, p. 216). Normative influence means convincing others to accept you by performing normative (for this particular group) actions, while informational influence makes other people from the group respect and follow your opinion. Myers makes an example of a media studies professor by the name of David Myers (who bears no relation to the author of the book).
Myers played the online game “City of Heroes” and generated a considerable amount of ill-will among the other players for not conforming to the customs of the game. Though he did play by the rules, his customized character was far too powerful for other players to take down. The conflict came in the fact that the other gamers primarily played to socialize while occasionally going after some AI enemies. When Myers played, he challenged other players to fights and defeated them, which completely ruined the game for them (Plunkett, 2009, para. 3). The other gamers started hating him for defying their original purpose of playing. This situation is a great of example of a failure to form normative influence, as Myers did with this group. On the other hand, if players had not criticized his gaming style so harshly and had followed his example by creating superheroes to fight each other themselves, it would have become the perfect example of informational influence.
Conformity also depends on the characteristics of particular people; some people give into influences easily, while others are really hard to impress. Impressionable, obedient people have no choice but to comply. Independent ones might be harder to control into fulfilling their roles in a group simply because they do not seek a group’s approval and do not consider its opinion in any way valuable.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal And Social Psychology, 67(4), 372-378.
Myers, D. (2009). Social Psychology. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Plunkett, L. (2009). College Professor Trolls For Science, Finds People Hate Him. Web.