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.
The need to belong is deeply wired into human biology. In evolutionary terms, going against one’s group could be costly, and social cohesion was critical for the group’s overall success. Today, the desire for acceptance—or the drive to “fit in”—remains a basic human instinct for the vast majority of people.
Conformity is not inherently positive or negative. When conformity occurs because of fear, concern for one’s social standing, or has dangerous consequences, it may be seen as negative. However, conformity that protects the overall well-being of the group—mutually deciding to respect private property, for instance—can help societies succeed.
One reason is called social proof; it’s common to assume that if most other people are doing something, it must be correct. A desire for social harmony is another major driver of conformity. Going along with what others are doing reduces the possibility of disagreements that could lead to one group member being ostracized.
It appears to be. Conformity is a universal feature across societies, leading researchers to suspect that it gave us an evolutionary advantage. But despite its evolutionary roots, conformity is not universally beneficial and can prove dangerous—either to individuals or to the group itself—when its resulting norms and practices are never questioned.
Generally, yes; though individuals prioritize fitting in to varying degrees, virtually everyone who interacts with society conforms to it in some way. This may manifest in their appearance, behavior, or the social norms they choose to follow. While some people strive to be “non-conformist,” conformity is a fact of life for the vast majority of humankind.
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.
A healthy amount of conformity can lead to increased social harmony, on both interpersonal and societal levels. For instance, a society in which all members collectively agree to conform to certain driving-related behaviors—driving on the right side of the road, perhaps, or yielding to pedestrians—will experience fewer traffic accidents than a society without such agreements.
The bystander effect—in which the presence of others discourages individuals from intervening in a situation—is likely influenced, in part, by conformity: If we see others choosing to do nothing, we’re more likely to do nothing ourselves. Diffusion of responsibility—in which no individual feels like it’s up to them to intervene—may also partially motivate the effect.
If you lack information about something and need to make a quick decision, copying the behavior of those around you may be the best move—though there are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If conforming to a norm will help your group solve a collective problem, it’s likely beneficial for you to follow suit.
Unfortunately, yes. A desire to be accepted, to not make waves, or to punish “non-conformists” has motivated bullying, exclusion, and even large-scale atrocities. The Holocaust is often cited as an example of the dangers of unchecked conformity and blind obedience to authority.
Conformity motivated by deference to authority or fear of punishment is likely to be harmful. When group members conceal critical information from each other in order not to rock the boat, or are willing to deny the evidence of their own senses, the group is at risk of groupthink or extreme polarization.
Even one voice of dissent can dampen a collective urge to conform to harmful behaviors. Freely sharing any and all relevant information, regularly assessing group norms to determine if they’re helpful or harmful, and having the courage to speak up when things aren’t right can stop groups from engaging in destructive behaviors.
Not all kinds of conformity are the same. Though psychological research has examined many aspects of conformity and related concepts, researchers have typically focused on two main 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. Of the two, normative conformity may be the most dangerous, as it can motivate someone to go along with a group even if they know the group is wrong.
Conformity denotes a wide-ranging phenomenon in which people (intentionally or unintentionally) shift their behavior or beliefs to fit in with a larger group. Groupthink refers to a specific kind of dysfunctional decision-making in which a group of well-intentioned people make irrational decisions. Groupthink is often, but not always, spurred by a desire to conform.
No, though they both can influence the behavior of individuals or groups. Obedience requires a social hierarchy in which lower-ranking people comply with demands from authority figures above them. Conformity, on the other hand, can occur among people of equal or unequal social standing, through spoken or unspoken influence from others in the group.
Informational conformity occurs when individuals look to the group to seek information—deciding what products to buy, for instance, or which non-group members can be trusted. Normative conformity refers to the shifting of behaviors and beliefs resulting from this information gathering. Thus, the two types of conformity work together to shift behavior and encourage social cohesion.
According to Harvard social psychologist Herbert Kelman, compliance is the outward appearance of conformity, regardless of whether or not one’s internal beliefs have changed.
In Kelman’s conceptualization of conformity, the term identification refers to conformity that is 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. In other words, they're not just behaving in accordance with the group's beliefs; they actually believe them, too.