Research Findings Relating to Conformity
Conformity is the social process by which people in a group or in a social circle engage in behaviour which appears to be socially acceptable, that is they go along with the social expectations apparent at the time. One of the key factors in conformity, however, is yielding to group pressure, as defined by Mann (1969):
“ The essence of conformity is yielding to group pressures but it may take other forms and be based on motives other than group pressures”
One of the first empirical studies to illustrate conformity was conducted by Jeness (1932) where he asked individual students to estimate the number of beans in a bottle and discuss it to arrive at a group estimate. When they were asked individually to make a second estimate there was a distinct shift towards the group estimate. Sherif (1935) conducted a similar experiment using a visual illusion called the autokinetic effect, whereby a stationery spot of light seen in a dark room appears to move. He moved the light around and asked participants to estimate how far the light had moved. They were tested individually being asked to estimate the extent of movement several times. The estimates fluctuated but then settled down and became more consistent. There were wide differences between participants. After hearing the estimates of other participants (the group situation) the estimates of different participants converged to form a group norm which represented the average of individual estimates. According to Sherif, the participants used others estimates as a frame of reference in what was an ambiguous situation. When participants were asked to individually make a second estimate their answers closely resembled the norm.
Asch (1951) was critical of Sherif's findings and claimed that the task used by Sherif was ambiguous which made it difficult to draw any conclusions about conformity. He believed that conformity should be measured in terms of the individual’s tendency to agree with other group members who unanimously give the wrong answer when the solution is obvious. If people yield to group pressure under these conditions then this is a much stricter test of conformity. In 1951, Asch performed the Asch paradigm where he gave participants the simple perceptual task of matching one line (standard line) with another line (comparison line); each presented on a separate card. They had to say which of A.B or C was the same length as the standard line. A group of 36 control participants made three mistakes when tested 20 times. In the original experiment students were tested in groups of 7 – 9 in which only one person was a real participant, the others being confederates of Asch who had been instructed to give the wrong answers. They were seated either in a straight line or round a table so that the real participant was the last to answer. In the first two trials (neutral trials) the confederates and the real participant gave the...