Conformity Bias

Conformity Bias

The concept of belonging versus the idea of fitting in may seem highly similar but are different on a deeper level. Brene Brown, an American Professor and Author, puts these two concepts into perspective exceptionally well. Brown states, “fitting in is becoming whom you need to be accepted and belonging-is being your authentic self and knowing that no matter what happens, you belong to you.” Oddly enough, we all have this desire to belong, the desire to be our authentic selves and to be accepted by those we surround ourselves with. However, (and almost counterintuitively), we also have this innate need to fit in.

Sometimes, we find it easier to hide parts of ourselves or our beliefs for the sake of blending in with the crowd. But where strictly does this innate feeling to “fit in” come from? Psychologists have associated this need to fit in with a phenomenon known as the conformity bias. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines the conformity bias as “the adjustment of one’s opinions, judgments, or actions so that they become more consistent with (a) the opinions, judgments, or actions of other people or (b) the normative standards of a social group or situation” (American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/conformity).

These adjustments can surface in a variety of social and professional situations. For example, if you were with your friends and the whole group wanted to watch a movie, but you preferred to take a trip to the park, the conformity bias implies that you would suppress that suggestion. Another example could involve the workplace. Someone may make an inappropriate joke or comment you disagree with, but if you see that everyone else in the group is laughing, you may not speak up or even join in on the laughter. Additionally, the conformity bias affects a variety of age groups. Most often, we see the phenomenon of conformity bias within younger populations in various social settings.

However, to better understand how youth are affected by this concept, we must first understand how the conformity bias functions. Many researchers have studied the influential variables that reinforce this notion of changing our behaviour to meet the masses. A study conducted by Zhenyu Wei, Zhiying Zhao, and Young Zhen found two leading types of conformity that drive changes in behaviours (Zhao, Zheng Zhen, 2018). The first is normative conformity, where one may change their beliefs, behaviours, and actions to “fit in” with a particular group.

Conformity bias and work pressure

Conformity Bias, understanding instances

The second is informational conformity, where one may agree with or look to one specific group in instances where one lacks knowledge on a particular topic. However, three other types of conformity can influence our behaviour: identification conformity, internalization conformity, and compliance conformity. Internalization conformity is one’s willingness to change their behaviour to be more like someone else. Compliance conformity refers to changing one’s thoughts, behaviours, and actions while still internally disagreeing with the group. Identifying conformity refers to changing one’s behaviours based on their role in society. Let’s look at research relating to a few of these types of conformities to provide real-world context.

When it comes to identification bias, there is a renowned and controversial study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, which psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted in 1971. This experiment involved the factors of social roles on human behaviour. It was an extension of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s study. In short, Zimbardo’s research entailed studying human behaviour in response to being placed in a confined environment and labelled with the title of a prisoner or correctional officer. It consisted of 24 physically and mentally healthy undergraduate students and took place in the basement of one of Stanford University’s psychology buildings.

The basement transforms to mimic an actual prison environment, and the 24 participants are prison to guard group. Essentially, the research found that each of the participants began to conform to their assigned roles. The correctional officers began to exude aggressive and hostile behaviours towards the prisoners. The prisoners began to undergo extreme bouts of anxiety and depression. Even Zimbardo himself, who was the “warden”, began to overlook the hostile and dehumanizing acts of the prison guards. Due to all participants endured, the experiment was shut down after only six days (Zimbardo, 1971). Despite the controversy, this experiment has significantly contributed to psychology and demonstrated that societal roles could be heavy influencers over human behaviour.

Furthermore, research conducted by a Polish American psychologist provided some insight into normative conformity. In this series of experiments (known as the Asch conformity experiments), a group of college students were asked to independently select a line that matches the line previously shown to them among three varying line lengths and then asked the same question in a group setting. Alone, the participants all chose the correct answer, but many of them selected incorrect answers when asked among the group. Participants labelled as Confederates were participants who knowingly and openly chose the wrong answer—having Confederates select the incorrect answer allowed for 75% of the participants who previously selected the correct answer to choose the incorrect answer.

At the end of the experiment, participants were asked why they switched their answers. A significant number of them reported that despite knowing they were correct, they had fears of being ridiculed for going against the group. Others admitted that they genuinely believed the group was right (Asch, 1951). Thus, Asch’s experiment revealed important information on the factors of normative conformity. It showed that the size of the group plays a role in one’s decision to conform; that agreement decreases when analyzed on an individual basis. That conformity can change based on the level of difficulty at the task at hand.

Conformity Bias
Conformity Bias Illustration

One final experiment that adds to our understanding of conformity is conducted by a Turkish-American psychologist Muzafer Sherif. Sherif conducted an experiment that tested people’s estimation of how far a dot in a dark room moved independently and as a group. Relying on what is known as the autokinetic effect, the dot appeared to move but, it was just static that seemed to move in a dark room. The autokinetic result is a visual perception that a small beam of light in a dark or featureless environment appears to be moving. Sherif’s experiment showed that when asked individually, the participants’ answers had a significant difference. Still, when asked in a group setting, their answers coincided in the direction of a central mean (Sherif, 1935). The more ambiguous a situation is, the more likely people are to conform and lean into informational conformity.

Conclusion

So, what exactly do these experiments tell us? Well, the answer is both complex and straightforward. In a variety of circumstances, numerous factors influence human behaviour. The driving force behind this is our innate desire to want to fit in. Let’s revisit our example of someone (possibly yourself) spending time with their friends. Let’s say that there are five of you in this group and you are the only one who wants to go to the park, whereas everyone else would like to stay in and watch a movie. How likely are you to voice your opinion? Based on our understanding of conformity, you are more likely to conform because of the size of the group, relationship status, and interests in going to the park.

On the other hand, we can use our understanding of these conforming factors to analyze how the opposite may prevent us from conforming. Referring to our friends’ example, one is more likely to voice their opinion among the group if they feel more comfortable and hold a high interest in going to the park. When these factors check out, it points to our innate ability to take risks when low costs. We can apply this understanding to our previous example of being at work. For example, if you are in the workplace and one of your colleagues makes an inappropriate joke or comment, would you speak against it? Would your answer change if you knew there were no consequences for speaking out? What about if you knew you would be a socially outcast from the group? These factors affect how likely you are to conform in this situation.

This situation is widespread in the workplace and is often referred to as work pressure. In a work environment where employees feel comfortable, safe, and included, there is a notable decrease in conformity, as these can be the mitigating factors to alleviate conformity. Same how is how we move from fitting into belonging.

Overall, we have this innate desire to want to fit in with the groups we associated. However, we should all aspire to get to a place of belonging in our individual and interpersonal relationships. It is easier said than done, especially among youth where this bias is in experience frequently. Nevertheless, we must first accept ourselves as who we are and recognize instances where we engage in conformity. Then, we can move towards getting others and establishing a milieu based on belonging. Our society must start normalizing the idea of being one’s authentic self without the fear of ridicule or persecution. If this concept is both taught and practised, it would be possible to normalize belonging, equity, and justice.

Credits –


1. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association.

2. Cherry, K. (2020, March 26). Why Do We Try so Hard to Be Like Other People and Conform? Verywell Mind.

3. Cherry, K. (2021, April 16). Why the Stanford Prison Experiment Is Still Infamous Decades Later. Verywell Mind.

4. Cherry, K. (n.d.). Asch’S Seminal Experiments Showed the Power of Conformity. Verywell Mind.

5. Wei Z, Zhao Z, Zheng Y. Following the Majority: Social Influence in Trusting Behavior.

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Tags: Conformity Bias, Social Conformity, social psychology,


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