Variables affecting conformity
Asch conducted variations of his study to identify situational variables, aspects of the environment that influence levels of conformity. These included:
• Group size, which showed that as a majority’s size increased, so did the level of conformity, up to a maximum level, after which increases in group size did not lead to any further rise in conformity levels
• Unanimity, which showed that conformity rates decreased when majority influence became less unanimous, with group members dissenting against other group members’ behaviour
• Task difficulty, which showed that greater conformity occurred when task difficulty increased, as the correct answer was less obvious and so individuals increasingly looked to others for guidance as to the correct answer.
Research has also identified individual variables, characteristics of people that influence conformity levels. Important variables here include:
• Gender, with females conforming more, possibly due to females being socialised to be more submissive to social influence
• Mood, with individuals seen to conform more when in happy moods and when moving to more relaxed emotional states, possibly because they are then more amenable to majority influence
• Culture, with some cultures conforming more, as they possess shared values and uniformity, thus making agreement with others easier.
Fig 1.3 Norwegians are conformist as they share cultural values and norms
Asch’s variations (1956)
1 With 1 participant and 1 confederate, conformity was very low, rising to 13 per cent with 1 participant and 2 confederates, and up to 32 per cent with 1 participant and 3 confederates. Increasing confederate numbers (up to as high as 15) produced no further increases in conformity.
2 If 1 confederate sided with the real participant by giving the correct answer, conformity dropped from 32 per cent to just 5.5 per cent. More interestingly, if a confederate went against the group but gave a different wrong answer, conformity still dropped, down to 9 per cent. This suggests that the important factor is the reduction in the majority’s level of agreement, rather than an individual being given support for their private opinion.
3 When task difficulty was increased, by having comparison lines more similar to each other, conformity to wrong answers increased, demonstrating the effect of task difficulty on conformity.
• Maslach et al. (1987) found males conform less, as they are more independent and competitive, while females conform more, as they are sensitive to others’ needs and like to maintain harmony, thus explaining gender differences in conformity levels.
• Tong et al. (2008) found participants were more likely to conform to wrong answers to maths questions given by confederates when they were in a positive mood rather than in a negative or neutral one, demonstrating the effect of mood on conformity levels.
• Milgram (1961) found that Norwegians conformed more than French participants to obviously wrong answers. Avant & Knudson (1993) believe this occurs as Norway has shared cultural values, a dislike of individualism and fewer ethnic minorities with different cultural norms than France, suggesting a cultural basis for differences in conformity levels.
Pike & Laland (2010) found that stickleback fish show increased imitation of ’demonstrator’ fish eating at food-rich sites, but that the rate of such conformity declines as the number of demonstrator fish increases, suggesting an evolutionary survival value to conformity.
Asch’s study became a paradigm study, the accepted method of investigating conformity. Indeed it is still relevant, as it forms the basis of Mori & Arai’s (2010) study (see page 2).
Probably the best way to understand conformity is to see situational and individual variables as acting together to determine overall levels of conformity, rather than them acting on their own.
Higher female conformity may actually result from poor methodology. Eagly & Carli (1981) reported that male researchers find females conform more, possibly because they use experimental materials more familiar to men, thus creating an artificial form of ISI for females to conform to.
Even if females do conform more, it may not be because women are socialised by society, but instead because evolution has acted upon women to be more co-operative with others.
There are studies that cast doubt on Asch’s findings. Gerard et al. (1968) found conformity rates do rise as more confederates are added (though at an increasingly smaller rate).
Advertisers focus on the unanimity of majority influence to sell products. This relates to the ’bandwagon effect’, where if individuals believe all members of a group have a product, like a certain mobile phone, then purchase of that phone will allow them to be accepted into the group.