Explanations for conformity - Social influence

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Explanations for conformity
Social influence


Deutsch & Gerard (1955) suggested 2 explanations of conformity, informational social influence (ISI) and normative social influence (NSI).

Underlying ISI is a need for certainty that brings a sense of control. ISI occurs in ambiguous situations with no clear ’correct’ way of behaving, as well as in novel situations not experienced before. In such situations individuals look to the majority for information on how to behave. This involves social comparison with others in order to reduce uncertainty. For instance, when eating in a restaurant for the first time you may look to others for which cutlery, glasses etc. to use. ISI therefore involves stronger types of conformity, such as identification and internalisation, where public and private agreement with a majority occurs.

Underlying NSI is a need to belong, by being accepted and avoiding rejection and ridicule. Individuals agree with others because of their power to reward and punish — for instance, giving in to peer pressure to smoke, even though you may not wish to, in order to be accepted by the group. NSI therefore tends to involve a weaker form of conformity, compliance, where public, but not private, agreement occurs.


Fig 1.2 How many jellybeans are in the jar?

Focal study

Jenness (1932) investigated the effect of group influence on individual judgements, by getting participants to estimate the number of jellybeans in a jar, first as individuals, then in a large group or several small groups, and finally as individuals again. It was found that participants’ second individual estimates moved closer to their group estimates than their first individual estimates, with a greater effect seen among females than males. This suggests that ISI occurs in ambiguous and new situations where there is no clear correct answer. This study is more ethical than most conformity studies, as there is no deliberate deceit involved. However, like Asch’s study, it was a laboratory-based experiment using an artificial and non-lifelike situation and as such lacks realism. There may also be an element of NSI, with some participants conforming due to a desire for acceptance and not just to be correct.


• Sherif (1935) used the autokinetic effect, a visual illusion, to find participants’ second individual estimates — of how far a dot of light in a dark room appeared to move — converged towards a group norm after participants heard the estimates of others. This supports ISI and suggests that participants internalised others’ judgements and made them their own.

• Bogdonoff et al. (1961) measured the stress levels encountered by participants on an Asch-type task, by recording galvanic skin responses — a measurement of electrical conductivity. High stress levels were found when participants gave true answers that went against the majority, but lower levels when individuals complied with obviously wrong answers, which suggests that NSI not only involves compliance, but is also a healthy thing to do.

• Eagli & Carli (1981) found in a meta-analysis of 48 studies that females conform more in public situations, suggesting that females’ more nurturing, co-operative nature causes them to have a greater need for social agreement.

Positive evaluation

Image As well as having research support, both NSI and ISI can be used to explain and understand real-life examples of conformist behaviour, giving them additional support as explanations.

Image Asch initially criticised Jenness’ earlier study as inferior due to having no obvious wrong answer to conform to. However, both studies are equally effective in helping to highlight explanations for conformity: ISI in Jenness’ case and NSI in Asch’s case.

Image NSI and ISI should not be seen as opposing explanations; they can be combined together to give an overall explanation of conformity. Different individuals in the same situation may be conforming for reasons of NSI or ISI.

Negative evaluation

Image ISI can have harmful consequences in crisis situations, where negative emotions and panic can spread quickly. Jones et al. (2000) reported that psychogenic illnesses, such as mass hysteria, can occur in crisis situations through individuals having little time to think and so looking to others for cues as to how to behave.

Image NSI can also have harmful consequences. Jordan (1996) reported that due to ridicule, punishment and rejection of non-conforming group members, 12 teenage victims of such bullying killed themselves in 1 year in Japan. NSI can also lead to destructive inter-group violence.

Practical application

To help create group cohesion (unity) in sports teams, ambiguous tasks with no correct answer/behaviour could be set, so that team members are drawn closer together through ISI.