Conformity is a common personality trait that can cause individual members in society to become increasingly more similar over time. Social experiments have demonstrated that people will sometimes abandon all reason and conform, and that taking on certain roles can increase conformity. However, experiments have also shown that conformity can have benefits.
The Asch Experiment
The Asch experiment had participants engage in a "vision test." One of the participants was the real participant, while the other participants were actors pretending to be participants. The participants were shown lines of different lengths, with one line obviously longer than the other lines. Then, the experimenters asked the participants questions such as "which line is the longest?" When not put under pressure by the fake participants, 34 out of the 35 participants correctly answered all of the questions about the lines. When the fake participants insisted that another line was longer, the real participant got the answers wrong 37 percent of the time, and 76 percent of the participants got at least one answer wrong. Asch discovered that for the real participant to succumb to peer pressure and achieve the maximum number of wrong answers, there had to be at least three fake participants.
Stanford University Prison Experiment
Stanford University sought to determine if prison guards were brutal because of personality traits or because of their environment. Students were recruited to engage in role play. One group played the role of prisoners and another group played the role of prison guards. The university used consultants to help them set up the most realistic prison possible. While normal middle-class students, once they assumed the prison guard roles, many became increasingly more sadistic towards the inmates. For example, prison inmates had sanitation buckets, but the prison guards would sometimes not let them empty the sanitation buckets. This experiment showed that some individuals can conform if they're given new identities.
Conformity and Divergence Experiment
Conformity serves as an identity signal. Individuals choose to conform to one group because they see that group as a part of their identity. But they may not conform to another group because that group is seen as divergent from their identity. Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania discovered that individuals were likely to conform to those they didn't view as being in their group as long as they were not asked to change something they saw as a part of their identity.
Conformists and Mavericks
Charles Efferson et al. sought to study how group members become more similar over time. Group members were asked to choose between one of two software programs. Some of the participants were told which software program would increase their earnings more, while the other group was told how many prior participants choose a particular software program. Those who weren't told the earnings they'd receive from the software tended to choose the software program more frequently chosen by the other participants.
- Utah State University: Social Influence and Conformity; Tamara J Ferguson; 2004
- DeAnza College: Conformity; Mary Mhaire Fraser
- University of Pennsylvania: When Does Social Influence Attract versus Repel?; Jonah Berger
- University of California, Davis: Conformists and Mavericks: the Empirics of Frequency-Dependent Cultural Transmission; Charles Efferson et al.; 2008
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