aqa Types of conformity: internalisation, identification and compliance. Explanations for conformity: informational social influence and normative social influence, and variables affecting conformity including group size, unanimity and task difficulty as investigated by Asch.


Explanations for Conformity

Informational Social Influence (ISI) – The desire to be right. This happens when there is no obvious right answer so we look to others for information in order to be right. For example, in an emergency situation we may look towards the actions others are taking.

Normative Social Influence (NSI) – The desire to be liked. This happens when we go along with the crowd because we want to be accepted or liked or because we want to avoid embarrassment or being ridiculed. Real life examples: smoking because others in your peer group smoke, dressing like your friends in order to fit in or avoid bullying.

Types of Conformity

Internalisation Internalisation is a conversion or true change of private views to match those of the group. New attitudes and behaviours become part of your internal value system; they are not dependent on the presence of the group. For example, a person searching for some greater meaning to life may be influenced to convert to a religious faith if the members if that faith seem able to provide the answers being searched for. A true conversion will survive even if the person loses contact with those who influenced them originally.

Compliance – Compliance is publicly conforming to the behaviour or views of others in a group but privately maintaining one’s own view. For example, if you are with a group of friends who support a particular football team, you might not reveal that you support a different one, even when asked directly.

Asch (1951)


Brief procedure: Participants are deceived into taking part in a study on visual perception.  They are seated at a desk with others that they believe to be fellow participants but who in reality are in league with the researchers (stooges or confederates).  Lines are presented on a screen and participants simply have to say which line (out of 3 possibilities, is the same length as the target line).  The stooges get the right answer on the first two trials but then start to make deliberate mistakes. Conformity is measured by counting the number of times the real participant conforms when stooges give the wrong answer.

Findings: Overall conformity rate was 37% (sometimes reported as 32%)This means that participants conformed on 37% of all trials. However, within this there were substantial individual differences: Nobody conformed on 100% of trials. 13 out of the original 50 never conformed at all. Highest rate of conformity was a participant who conformed on 11 out of 12 trials 75% conformed at least once.

Also mention what Asch found in his variations:

Factor Description and conformity
Size of group One stooge (3%), two stooges (14%), three stooges (32%).  Further increases in group size do not increase conformity.  With very large groups conformity actually begins to fall!
Supporter If one of stooges also disagrees with others conformity drops sharply
Difficulty of task As task becomes more difficult conformity increases
Familiarity of task We are less likely to conform when we are confident in our ability, e.g. men are less likely to conform to incorrectly named tools than they are to incorrectly named kitchen utensils.  Clearly research of the 1950s!


Ecological Validity: The procedure is very artificial (it lacks ecological validity) in that participants are being asked to conform when there is clearly a different and obviously correct answer.  In everyday life disagreements occur over politics, religion, tastes etc., when correct answers are not obvious.

Temporal (Historical) Validity: Results do not appear to be consistent over time.  Later studies such as Perrin and Spencer’s in Britain in the 1980s found much lower levels of conformity.  It has been suggested that Asch’s original was post war when America was very wary of Communist take over when US citizens were worried about being seen to be different for fear of incrimination.  Levels of conformity did fall in the late 60s when it was popular for students in particular to protest against the Vietnam War, showing low levels of conformity.  More on this later.

Androcentrism: The study is androcentric.  Only male participants took part and worse still, only male students.  As a result we can hardly generalise to other groups of people.  In fact when Eagly and Carli (1981) carried out a meta-analysis of research into conformity they found that women were morelikely to conform than men.  However, they also report some bias in studies.  When the researchers were male they tended to choose test material that would be more familiar to men than it would be to women, perhaps explaining some of the differences.  

Informed Consent/Deception: Participants were deceived so were unable to give their informed consent.  Note: whenever stooges are used there is always deception.

Psychological Harm: Participants were clearly stressed and some must have been embarrassed by the procedure and suffered some loss of self esteem once they had been informed that it had all been a big con.  This all constitutes ‘psychological harm.’

Other Studies into Conformity

Sherif (1935) investigated the emergence of group norms using the autokinetic effect. This is an optical illusion experienced when a person is placed in a totally dark room in which a stationary point of light appears to move because the person’s perceptual system has no frame of reference for it. In fact, the light remains stationary. The study showed that when faced with an ambiguous situation, the participants looked to others in the groups for guidance, that is, they experienced informational social influence. Furthermore, one a group norm had been established, participants continued to use it when they were asked to make individual judgments later.

Cruchfield (1955) – The ‘Question Booth’ Cruchfield thought Asch’s experiment was far too expensive, time consuming and inefficient.  Lots of stooges were required to test each participant.  So he devised a method of testing lots of participants quickly and cheaply.  They were sat in cubicles and questions projected onto a screen.  In one corner were the answers given by other participants.  In fact these were made up and often wrong.  Conformity was measured by the number of times participants would go along with these incorrect answers.

Example of question used: ‘The life expectancy of the average US male is 25.’

Participants answer true or false.  Since the screen indicates that the majority have answered ‘true’ many of the real participants do the same.  In fact Cruchfield found about the same level of conformity as Asch; 30%.


Extension Resources

Here are some great