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Why do People Conform?

Updated on March 24, 2012

What is conformity?

Conformity refers to a “change in one’s beliefs or behaviors as a result of real or imagined pressure from a group or individual.” Conformity encourages citizens to obey rules and follow orders to provide for a safe and orderly society. On the other hand, conformity also provides occasions such as soldiers following orders to shoot and kill. There exist several types of conformity including compliance, acceptance, and identification. Compliance refers to “behavior change in response to a direct request.” Acceptance refers to the internalization of social pressures while identification refers to adopting the values of others. Conformity seems to imply deliberate choice. However, recent research indicates that “social behavior can be activated automatically, seemingly with no conscious thought or meditation.” Such research raises questions around the unconscious nature of conformity and allows one to speculate on the difference between unconscious conformity and induced compliance or obedience.

All the Same . . .


Causes of Conformity

Group situations produce conformity. Most people do conform to social norms. People don’t often want to stand out from the crowd and get picked on or ostracized from their social community. Sometimes in a group situation it is just easier to “go along with the crowd” to avoid distinguishing yourself as “different.” If you have ever been in a group situation, it is easy to witness and see conformity in action. People tend to agree with one another and “go with the flow.”

There are classic studies on conformity such as Milgram’s obedience study in the 1960s. This study was an attempt to understand the behavior of Nazis during the Holocaust. He did an experiment to illustrate people’s willingness to obey authority and go against their own moral compass by showing how people would obey an authority figure’s orders to “shock” someone, even though the person being shocked was in clear pain and the shocker wanted to stop.

While this experiment illustrates an extreme situation, there are pressures to conform all over the place. We are influenced by a number of different factors such as our status within a group ~ if we don’t want to be at the bottom we conform, and the rewards we get from conformity as opposed to the punishments we receive from nonconformity, as well as the need for cohesion and consistency in our daily lives. We seek to create patterns of cognitive thoughts that impact our behaviors and provide us with indicators of what we should or should not do and create our knowledge of how we expect others to behave. Many incidents in which we find ourselves conforming may be unconscious and influenced by the indicators above. In these situations, we don't even realize we are conforming.

A Word about Nonconformity

Ironically, many leaders are nonconformists, and they stand out in a crowd, are the trendsetters and cause others to follow. Nonconformity is in part influenced by individual personality and the need for people to rectify any cognitive dissonance. Personality is powerful. Some people are very creative and move to the beat of their own drum. Strong personalities and a strong sense of individually may cause people to act in a nonconformist manner as they are pursuing their own passions and interests.

Others may engage in nonconformity in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to the need for people to reconcile their beliefs, ideas and emotions with their world. We align our thoughts with our behaviors and often change our views to suit our needs. For example, a person who engages in extramarital affairs may justify his behavior by magnifying the neglect he feels from his wife to reduce the cognitive dissonance that comes from guilt in order to continue his behavior. In the same manner, someone who has a very positive outlook on life may reconcile anything negative that happens as a minor bump in the road or abnormality in order to have that event not interfere with her rosy picture of the world, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance between a world view and what happened.

Dare to be You

There are many reasons why people behave in the ways that they do. Conformity and nonconformity are complex issues that we need to be aware of so that we may better assess our reasons for conformity and gain the courage to be different and separate from the pack to try something new, be a leader or set a new trend. Conformity can be dangerous when we bully others for not "fitting in" or go along with situations, behaviors and ideas that we find morally wrong in our hearts. Yet conformity can be good when it causes people to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Why not just be you? To be free means to be spiritually in touch with yourself. Get to know yourself and your beliefs and talents and have them guide you through life. Knowing what is right and correct for you is better than conforming just to please others.

Some resources I used in preparation for this article

Petri, Herbert J. & Govern, John M. (2004). Motivation: Theory, Research, and Applications. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Ridgeway, C. L. (1978). Conformity, Group-Oriented Motivation, and Status Attainment in Small Groups. Social Psychology, 41(3), 175-188.

Walthier, E., Bless, H., Strack, F., Rackstraw, P., Wagner, D., Werth, L. (2002). Conformity Effects in Memory as a Function of Group Size, Dissenters and Uncertainty. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 16, 793-810.

Meyer, D. & Anderson, H. (2000). Preadolescents and Apparel Purchasing: Conformity to Parents and Peers in the Consumer Socialization Process. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15(2), 243-257.

Epley, N. & Gilovich, T. (1999). Just Going Along: Nonconscious Priming and Conformity to Social Pressure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 578-589.


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    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      Fitting in is a strong inborn desire for most people. Lots of experiments have been done in psychology on this subject and more often than not, people will even undermine what is in their own best interests in order to fit in. They will give wrong answers in the classroom, they will do things that are often out of character and risky for one reason or another, fully knowing what they are doing is wrong. Conforming in order to fit in is more important to them.

      There are a few of us who rock the boat, and I have been Ms. Popularity wherever I go most of my life for the very reason that I refuse to fit in at the expense of doing or believing or saying something I know or believe to be wrong. (Being facetious here, regarding my title.) I have written on this subject too.

      Generally, people who are part of a group have better survival rates. People who go along to get along tend to get along very well. People like people like themselves and there is nothing like being told you're right and having people agree with you.

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Thanks for reading smw1962.

    • smw1962 profile image

      smw1962 4 years ago

      Very interesting and informative. I learned some new things from this hub.

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 5 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Thanks for the support umeraziz.

    • umeraziz profile image

      umeraziz 5 years ago

      good explanation of difference b/w conformity, compliance and acceptance.. its interesting..

      great work..

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 5 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Thanks for adding your personal story to my article viking305. And thanks very much for the vote up.

    • viking305 profile image

      L M Reid 5 years ago from Ireland

      Very interesting ideas in this article on conformity. Yes I saw that experiment on TV about people shocking others!

      I could never really follow the crowd as a child teenager or an adult.

      I tried very hard when I was young because I wanted to have friends and NOT be different. But it was just too hard and in my late 20's I decided to be myself.

      Work was a different situation and as everyone knows if you do not socialise with co workers and be 'nice' to the boss then your working life is difficult.

      So I was two people for most of my working life. Conforming to the 'norm' in work and being myself when not.

      Thanks for SHARING. Voted up and interesting

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 5 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Thanks to you uzma shaheen. And thanks for the follow as well.

    • uzma shaheen profile image

      Uzma Shaheen Bhatti 5 years ago from Lahore,Pakistan

      you shared such a valuable information,I learnt from your hub.thanks for sharing.I am following you now.

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 5 years ago from Roseville, CA

      I'm glad, truthfornow, and I'm glad to be a follower!

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 5 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Judah's Daughter ~ the pressures to conform are intense and I am glad that you brought up religion as another avenue in which we are molded to be a certain way. Sometimes our own religious path involves being true to God and not to a church doctrine. Thanks for making such informative comments to my hub.

    • Judah's Daughter profile image

      Judah's Daughter 5 years ago from Roseville, CA

      This is outstanding. It's a reality that I've never been one to conform to the norm, especially if it didn't make any sense to me, or if chaos/dysfunction was/is fostered by it.

      In my professional life, I started on the ground floor with a company and developed methods that made most sense (and profit) from the beginning, which resulted in my becoming a leader of sorts, establishing policies and procedures and coaching a team; being considered a 'right arm' to my superiors.

      However, when I had to change companies due to the economy and became the 'new kid on the block' the pressure to conform to their 'norm' did include bullying and some of the factors you mention. I thought I didn't like change, but it's obvious habitual conformity hates change.

      This world is full of social politics in many forms. We call it 'politics'. There's family, professional, governmental and even spiritual 'politics'.

      On the spiritual side, I see conformity to particular doctrines or churches to be an obvious reality. I can't say Jesus conformed to the "ism" is Judaism, but rather was their King and leader. They were to conform to His image, not the other way around. As Christians we are told to follow Him, yet we are still used to conforming to whatever teacher(s) our families or we choose on this earth, many times compromising the higher call. Each denomination ostracizes the others, competition all around, disassocation, incivility...or, on the other hand, conformists receive special treatment by those of the same group to keep them entrenched.

      This is a very important subject and can be applied in so many fascets of life. Thank you for encouraging readers to just be themselves, be leaders if that is what they are, conform for the right reasons and don't conform when it means compromising being true to God and self. Awesome.

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 5 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Thanks for the vote up teaches12345. Conformity is very complex.

    • profile image

      Maria V. Eyles 5 years ago

      Very well done, truthfornow! I shall copy it so I can quote it sometime. Thank you, Maria V. Eyles

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      This hub is loaded with powerful truth in deciding whether to conform is beneficial. I agree that to conform just for the sake of peace or to please someone is never a good choice. As you stated, people conform at times just to justify their decisions. And, this always leads to other problems. Thanks for the posting of this article. Voted up!