Do People in Other Countries Conform More than Americans?

Studies find large cultural differences in levels of conformity.

Posted Sep 01, 2018

Most readers of Psychology Today are familiar with Solomon Asch's classic study of conformity. Asch placed a single individual in a group of seven to nine other individuals, all of whom (unbeknownst to the true subject) were confederates who had been trained to respond in a particular way.

 Lawrence White
Examples of cards used by Asch.
Source: Lawrence White

Asch told the subjects they were participating in a study of perception. He showed the group a card that displayed a single vertical line of a particular length. He then showed the group a second card that contained three vertical lines of varying lengths, each line identified by a different letter.

Asch instructed subjects to identify the line on the second card that matched the length of the standard line on the first card. The subjects announced their choices in a predetermined order, with the true subject usually responding next-to-last.

Asch presented 18 trials of the line judgment task. Twelve of the trials were so-called critical trials, in which all of the confederates gave the same incorrect answer. For example, with the two cards shown above, the confederates said Line A was the correct choice, even though Line C is clearly the better answer.

Overall, true subjects capitulated to peer pressure on one-third of the critical trials. That is, they went along with the group and gave an answer that was at odds with what their own eyes told them. Across all 12 critical trials, 75% of the true subjects conformed to the erroneous majority at least once.

Published in 1956, the Asch conformity studies became an instant classic in psychology. Millions of high school and college students around the world have learned about the study and its findings.

Unfortunately, most of these students never learned the answer to an important question raised by the Asch study. Can we generalize Asch’s findings to other historical periods and to other cultures and nations? Or were the study's findings a product of its particular time (the 1950s) and place (the United States)?

The first cross-cultural investigation of conformity was conducted by Canadian social psychologist John Berry in 1967. Berry had read ethnographic reports of subsistence societies. According to these accounts, high-food accumulating societies (like farmers and herders) socialize children to be obedient and responsible (because they need adults who are conscientious and compliant). Low-food accumulating societies (like hunters and fishermen) raise children to be independent, self-reliant, and achievement-oriented (because they need adults who are individualistic and assertive).

Using a modified version of Asch's procedure, Berry found high rates of conformity among the farming Temne people of Sierra Leone in West Africa and low rates of conformity among the hunting and fishing Inuits of Baffin Island, Canada.

In 1996, social psychologists Rod Bond and Peter Smith conducted a meta-analysis of 133 Asch-type studies. The studies were published between 1956 and 1994 and were conducted in 17 different countries, although nearly three-quarters of the studies were done in the U.S. The size of the majority (that is, the number of trained confederates in the group) ranged from 2 to 13.

Bond and Smith found that, in the U.S. studies, levels of conformity declined slightly but steadily over time. They also found, not surprisingly, that larger majorities produced more conformity.

Perceptually-ambiguous stimuli (like spoken words recorded against a noisy background) produced higher levels of conformity than perceptually-objective stimuli (like line lengths). They also found lower levels of conformity when the majority consisted of out-group members.

When Bond and Smith examined all of the published studies, they discovered that levels of conformity were higher in collectivist (C) societies than in individualist (I) societies. Surprisingly, the impact of the I-C dimension was larger than the impact of any other variable, including size of the majority and ambiguity of the stimuli.

Cultural psychologists have offered two somewhat different explanations for the I-C differences observed in studies of conformity. In 1989, Harry Triandis published a seminal article about three versions of the self: the private self, the public self, and the collective self.

The private self refers to one's beliefs about one's self. For example, "I am introverted." The public self refers to one's beliefs about how other people view one's self. For example, "People think I'm honest." The collective self refers to how members of some specified group view one's self. For example, "My family thinks I'm good at math" or "My teammates think I work hard."

In collectivist societies, the collective self is more complex and more easily and frequently accessed. As a result, the norms and values of the in-group are more salient. When individuals think in terms of their collective self, they're more responsive to the needs of the group, especially the in-group. Consequently, they're more likely to go along with the group, even when they privately disagree with the group.

In 1991, two years after Triandis published his article, Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama published their own blockbuster article. In it, they distinguished two different senses of self—an independent self and an interdependent self.

Someone who grows up in an individualistic society is likely to have an independent sense of self. These individuals derive self-esteem from being autonomous and having the freedom to express themselves and validate their personal attributes. In the Asch paradigm, they're less likely to conform because, in their world, going against the grain can be a good thing.  After all, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

In contrast, someone who grows up in a collectivist society is likely to have an interdependent sense of self. They're motivated to belong and fit in rather than be unique; they derive self-esteem from their ability to adjust to other's needs and maintain social harmony.

Interestingly, most collectivistic societies have some version of the saying, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." The implication for Asch-type studies is clear. Collectivists with an interdependent sense of self are more likely to conform because, in their world, going against the grain is a bad thing.

References

Berry, J. W. (1967). Independence and conformity in subsistence-level societies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology7(4, Pt. 1), 415-418.

Bond, R., & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch's (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin119(1), 111-137.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review98(2), 224-253.

Triandis, H. C. (1989). The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts. Psychological Review96(3), 506-520.

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