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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.

Why We Conform

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.

Why do I care so much about fitting in?

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.

Is conformity good or bad?

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.

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How Conformity Influences Behavior

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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.

When can conformity be good for society?

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. 

Is the bystander effect related to conformity?

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. 

What Are the Different Types of Conformity?

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.

What’s the difference between conformity and groupthink?

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.

Is obedience the same thing as conformity?

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.

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