What Is Conformity?
Conformity is the tendency for an individual to align their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of the people around them. Conformity can take the form of overt social pressure or subtler, unconscious influence. Regardless of its form, it can be a powerful force—able to change how large groups behave, to start or end conflicts, and much more.
As much as most people like to think of themselves as unique individuals, in reality, humans are social beings—and for the sake of group cohesion, people are evolutionarily driven to fit in. That usually means copying the actions of others, looking to the group when deciding how to think or behave, or doing what is "expected" based on widely accepted (if often unspoken) social norms.
Though it's often derided, conformity isn't necessarily a malevolent force. At its best, conformity offers a sense of belonging and group identity, and can encourage people to adhere to moral standards. At its worst, though, it can bring out a person's darkest impulses and even be used to justify—and carry out—large-scale atrocities.
How Conformity Changes Behavior
Conformity is typically motivated by a person's identification with a specific group. In theory, to be truly accepted as a member, an individual must adopt the norms and rules that govern the group's behavior. These actions may, at first, differ from their own personal values. In time, however, the individual's underlying beliefs and attitudes may begin to shift as the opinions and behaviors of the group become ingrained and automatic.
People learn social skills at an early age by observing and copying the behavior of others. As an individual grows older, the social pressure to conform with group norms becomes stronger. Established group members may use a variety of tactics to persuade outsiders to conform, including praising, criticizing, bullying, or modeling "correct" behavior.
Some people are more resistant to the pressures of the group than others; naturally non-conformist, they value their independence and self-reliance over the approval of others. Very few people, if any, however, are completely immune to the pressures of conformity.
What Are the Different Types of Conformity?
Psychological research has typically focused on two types of conformity: informational and normative. Informational conformity is the tendency to turn to a group to glean information, make decisions, or form opinions. Normative conformity is the tendency to behave in certain ways in order to be accepted by a group.
Some researchers—most notably Herbert Kelman of Harvard—have identified additional types of conformity. In Kelman’s terminology, three types exist: compliance, identification, and internalization. Compliance is the outward appearance of conformity, though one's internalized beliefs may be unchanged. Identification is conformity motivated by a desire to be accepted by a specific person or group. Internalization occurs when the ideas and behaviors to which the individual is conforming reflect their sense of self and have become congruent with their values.