Conformity is when people adhere to the attitudes, beliefs, values and the behavior of their in-group having been exposed to them. In other words, conformity is where people change their perspective of normative standards to that of society’s norms. There are two different types of conformity: private conformity where the individual privately adheres to the social norms, or public conformity where the individual overtly accepts the social norms but does not privately agree.

Conformity can be influenced by a number of factors for example normative influence, this is where the individual conforms to the expectation of others. This is based on our need to be liked and accepted, in fear of social disapproval and rejection.

A study which supports this theory is Asch’s paradigm study. Asch aimed to investigate conformity in a non-ambiguous situation (i.e. where the correct answer is explicit). This study involved 50 male American undergraduate students where they were unknowingly placed with a group of 6 other participants which were confederates. The group of the participant and the confederate were then tasked to take part in a visual study asking them to compare the lengths of lines and identify which line was equal in length to that of the model. The answer was so explicit that if the participants performed it alone, they would get the answers all correct. The group was then asked to publicly announce which line they thought was identical, however, the confederates were previously arranged to give the wrong answer to 12 out of the 18 questions. This was then repeated for every participant.

Asch found that 32% of the participants went along with the wrong answer, 76% of the participants conformed at least once to the wrong answer and 24% of them did not conform at all. Asch then asked the participants that conformed, why they did. The participants explained that it was due to them wanting to avoid criticism and social disapproval.

Another factor that influences conformity is informational influence, this is the conformity whereby there is no explicit answer of which is the correct decision or action therefore individuals would conform to the social norm. This can be shown through Sherif’s ambiguous study in 1935 which was based on the autokinetic effect. This is an optical illusion where a small spot of light is projected in a dark room, though it is still, individuals see it as moving. Sherif tasked his participants to individually estimate how much the spot had moved (eg 20 cm), this is was their personal norm. He then recorded this answer and put the participants in groups of 3 where 2 of the 3 participants had similar estimates and the other participant had a very different estimate. The groups were then asked to call out their estimate of the movement of the spot, this was repeated 100 times.

Sherif found that as the groups were asked more of the questions, the answer of the participant who originally had the most different personal norm started to conform to the answers of the other group members, this formed a convergence in the participants’ answers which became the social norm. Sherif concluded that in ambiguous situations where individuals doubt their own answer, they would often look to others as sources of information, thus conforming to the social norm which formed the basis of informational conformity.


Compliance Techniques

Aronson et al. defined compliance as ‘a form of social influence involving direct requests from one person to another.’ Put differently, compliance techniques is an umbrella term which includes ways in which we persuade others to achieve a precedented goal. For example if you want to coax a co-worker into doing you a favor, you might present the request in a nicer manner so to say.

A compliance technique demonstrated by Freedman and Fraser (1966) is the foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique. This technique states that an initial smaller request should be placed preceding a larger request (the ultimate goal). The requests should also be placed where there is a delay in presenting the larger request as our desire for commitment will force us to comply to the latter request. This is supported of their study on whether or not householders in California would volunteer to put up an aesthetically unpleasing sign saying ‘Drive Carefully’ in their front yard. The participants were split into 2 groups where the first group were directly asked if they would volunteer to house that sign and the second group where the participants were initially asked to put up a smaller and nicer looking sign, and after two weeks were asked to put up the original ‘ugly’ ‘Driver Carefully’ sign. The researchers found that in the first (direct) condition, only 17% of the participants volunteered, however, when following the FITD technique in the second condition, 76% of the participants volunteered.

Another compliance technique is the lowballing technique. This is where after a person is presented and has agreed to a deal, the deal is then changed to be less attractive, i.e. to the target request. It sounds unfathomable that you would continue to agree to a deal after it has shown to be less attractive but the study of Burger and Cornelius (2003) clearly demonstrates the effects of this technique. This study involves students which were asked, through the phone by a female caller if they would donate $5 to an unprivileged students scholarship fund. The students were then split into 3 conditions: lowballing condition where the caller initially said that the participants would receive a coupon for a free smoothie and was later informed the students that she had run out of coupons, the interrupt condition where when the caller was making the request, before the participants had agreed, she interrupted and said they had run out of coupons, and finally the control condition where the participants were asked to donate and was not told about the coupons. The researchers found that in the lowball condition, 77% of the participants agreed despite the change in deal, and in the control condition, 42% of the participants agreed, however in the interrupt condition, only 16% of the participants agreed. This study supports the initial agreement factor in the lowballing technique as only after the participants had agreed to the more attractive deal, did they still settle for the less attractive alternative (shown in the difference in percentage of compliance).

Social Learning Theory

Social norms are acceptable ways of behavior by our society, for example saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’s. Behaviorists have long believed that the elements which govern our way of learning and applying social norms are rooted from direct forms of learning which emphasize reinforcement, this is called operant conditioning. In other words, it has been believed that we learn from experiencing the consequences (punishment or praise) of an action we have made. However, Albert Bandura theorized that not only do we learn from direct experiences, but also indirect (vicarious) methods. Thus, forming the social learning theory. The social learning theory explains the way we learn from indirect means, it concentrates on overt behaviors of other people that can be observed and measured by ourselves. It illustrates the way in which we learn from observing one another. Consider a child learning table manners from his mother. His mother is the model in which he observes the actions of, then the child imitates the actions of the model and thereby learning the action. In this scenario, reinforcement of the environment (in terms of punishment) was completely unnecessary as the child had already learned the behavior of the model without the need for punishment.

Bandura’s Bobo doll study, clearly demonstrates the social learning theory in terms of learning aggression. This study was conducted in 1965 which consisted of young children (36 boys and 36 girls, aged between 3-6 from Stanford Nursery School) being shown a film of an adult aggressively punching the Bobo doll. The adult displayed violence such as kicking the Bobo doll to the other side of the room, throwing it around, and hitting it with hard objects. The children were split into 3 conditions: control condition where the film shown was just of the adult showing aggression to the Bobo doll without reinforcement, the model-reward condition where after the adult was seen to punch the Bobo doll and received positive reinforcement (sweets), and the model-punished condition in which after the adult performed violent acts, the adult received negative reinforcement (being scolded and spanked).

Having seen these films, the participants (children) were sent into a playroom with toys which included a Bobo doll, Bandura then observed the children’s behavior in that playroom for 10 minutes, especially towards the Bobo doll. He found that in the classic and model-reward condition, the children displayed equal amounts of violent acts, however in the model-punishment condition, the children displayed less violent acts.

Bandura extended this study so that after observing the children’s behavior, he then told all of them that they would be rewarded for each aggressive act performed to the Bobo doll and found that regardless of the condition the children were previously in, they all displayed equal amounts of aggression.

This study supported the vicarious learning methods of the social learning theory as the children learned from merely watching the film. It also supports that the unneeded reinforcement factor of the theory as the children themselves were not punished or rewarded and therefore reinforcement wasn’t necessary for learning as all the participants showed the same level of aggression towards the Bobo doll despite the condition they had been in before.

However, this study received criticism as many people doubt that hitting an inanimate object can be classified as an act of aggression. It was also criticized in terms of the ethical side effects as the children learned to be aggressive and violent which could negatively affect their behavior towards other inanimate or animate objects. The participants could also owe their behavior due to demand characteristics where the participants understood what the aim of the research was and that they had to act accordingly regardless of if it isĀ  natural. Also the findings of this research can only be extended to the sample of participants i.e. children between 3-6 with the same culture as those in the Stanford Nursery School. Hence it cannot be generalized to show that the social learning theory applies to adults.