Conformity is a change in behavior or belief to meet a group standard. It makes individual groups more cohesive, and increases the distinctions between different groups. It is also a fundamental social process that allows people to live and work together - for example, people are conforming by driving on the right side of the street. There is always a conflict between conformity and alternate beliefs or behaviors, but conformity usually wins out because people want to be accepted by the group. Usually this does not create a problem, but it can halt innovation by silencing other opinions. There are two major types of conformity. Informational influences occurs when the group defines reality for the subject because they assume the majority is more accurate. This happens primarily in ambiguous situations. Normative influence is when people retain their own opinions, but go along with the group’s behavior to earn a reward or avoid a punishment, including rejection.

Many psychologists have explored conformity, but two have had a huge influence on the field. In 1936, Muzafer Sherif conducted an experiment using the autokinetic effect, or the perceived movement of a stationary dot of light in a small room. First, subjects were asked to make estimates individually. Next, they were placed in groups of two or three people, who were asked to make estimates out loud for several apparent moves. Over a few estimates, the group would generally converge on a single estimate, which varied between groups. When subjects were re-tested a week later, most claimed they had not been influenced by their group, but still used the group’s estimate as their own.

In the 1950’s, Solomon Asch performed another experiment designed to reduce the ambiguity of Sherif’s experiment by providing a problem with one correct solution. Participants were presented with a line and a card with three lines of different lengths, and were asked to determine which line on the card matched the first line. They had a 98% accuracy rate individually, showing the simplicity of the problem. Next, the participants were placed in groups of researchers pretending to be other participants. The group gave correct answers for some trials, and incorrect answers for the remainder of the 12 trials. When the group was unanimously incorrect, participants were also incorrect a third of the time, and three quarters of the participants gave at least one incorrect answer. However, a dissenting voice, even one the participant disagreed with, dramatically reduced the percentage of incorrect answers by reducing the need for conformity.
Conformity can be seen throughout society, and is often encountered in everyday life. For example, many game shows have an option where the contestant can choose to survey the audience on what they think is the correct answer to a question. If the contestant uses the option, they are deciding that the majority is more likely to be correct than they are, like Asch's participants believed the group chose the right line. People also conform all the time, without even realizing it, because other ways of doing things seem weird. They eat meals three times a day, they marry one person and have children with that person, they work at a "normal"job, and many other details that make up the average American life. There are more extreme examples of conformity found in fiction, notably George Orwell's 1984. Orwell's characters are forced to conform to exacting standards, or risk severe punishment. However, most of the characters have no problem with the standards, because they see everyone else following along, and assume whatever the group is doing must be the best option.
High school also includes many instances of conformity. Students are expected to do everything that everyone else does: watch the same television shows, listen to the same music, wear the same clothing brands, and so on. Many people who refuse to conform are branded as outsiders or freaks, so the majority of students try to fit in to avoid rejection by their peers. Conformity also extends beyond obvious examples, to influence more subtle aspects of high school life. Most people believe going to college is important because everyone around them thinks it is, and within a group of friends, most people get similar grades because it starts to seem like the best, most natural choice.
For more information:
www.experiment-resources.com/asch-experiment.html

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Debriefing

Bibliography:
__Encyclopedia of Sociology__. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001. p400-406. From Gale Virtual Reference Library.

__The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology__.Ed. Bonnie Strickland. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2001. p149-150. From Gale Virtual Reference Library.