Essay, Research Paper: Conformity


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Use some psychological studies of conformity to discuss reasons for conforming.
According to Leon Mann, conformity means ‘yielding to group pressures’.
Everyone is a member of one group or another and everyone expects members of
these groups to behave in certain ways. If you are a member of an identifiable
group you are expected to behave appropriately to it. If you don’t confirm and
behave appropriately you are likely to be rejected by the group. Like
stereotypes, conforming and expecting others to conform maintains cognitive
balance. There are several kinds of conformity. Many studies of conformity took
place in the 1950’s which led Kelman to distinguish between compliance,
internalisation and identification. Compliance is the type of conformity where
the subject goes along with the group view, but privately disagrees with it.
Internalisation is where the subject comes to accept, and eventually believes in
the group view. Identification is where the subject accepts and believes the
group view, because he or she wants to become associated with the group. Leon
Mann identifies normative conformity which occurs when direct group pressure
forces the individual to yield under the threat of rejection or the promise of
reward. This can occur only if someone wants to be a member of the group or the
groups attitudes or behaviour are important to the individual in some way. Apart
from normative conformity there is informational conformity which occurs where
the situation is vague or ambiguous and because the person is uncertain he or
she turns to others for evidence of the appropriate response. Thirdly, Mann
identifies ingratiational conformity which occurs where a person tries to do
whatever he or she thinks the others will approve in order to gain acceptance
(if you make yourself appear to be similar to someone else, they might come to
like you). The first major research into conformity was conducted in 1935 by
Sherif who used a visual illusion, known as the auto-kinetic effect. Sherif told
his subjects that a spot of light which they were about to see in a darkened
room was going to move, and he wanted them to say the direction and distance of
the movement. In the first experimental condition the subjects were tested
individually. Some said the distance of movement wasn’t very far in any
directio, others said it was several inches. Sherif recorded each subjects
response. In the second experimental condition, Sherif gathered his subjects
into groups, usually of three people, and asked them to discribe verbally the
movement of light. He gave them no instructions as to whether they needed to
reach any kind of agreement among themselves but simply asked them to give their
own reports while being aware of the reports that other members gave. During the
group sessions it became apparent that the subjects reports strarted to converge
much nearer to an average of what their individual reports had been. If a
subject who had said that the light didn’t move very far when tested
individually said ‘I think it is moving 2 inches to the left’ then another
who had reported movement of 4 inches, when tested individually, might say ‘I
think it may have been 3 inches’. As the number of reported movements
continued the more the members of the group conformed to each others reports.
This spot of light was in fact stationary so whatever reports were made was the
consequence of the subject imagining they saw something happen. So they were not
certain about the movement they observed and so would not feel confident about
insisting that their observations were wholly correct. When they heard other
reported judgements they may have decided to go along with them. The problem
with this study, for understanding of conformity, as one aspect of social
psychology is that it is a total artifical experimental situation - there
isn’t even a right answer. Requested reports of imaginary movements of a
stationary spot of light in a darkened room when alone, or with two others,
hardly reflects situations we come accross in our every day lives. Generalising
from its conclusions to real life might be innacurate. However, some of them do
have a common sense appeal. Ash was a harsh critic of Sherifs experimental
design and claimed that it showed little about conformity since there was no
right answer to conform to. Ash designed an experiment where there could be
absolutely no doubt about whether subjects would be conforming or not and it was
absolutely clear what they were conforming to. He wanted to be able to put an
individual under various amounts of group pressure that he could control and
manipulate and measure their willingness to conform to the groups response to
something that was clearly wrong. Ash conducted what are now described as
classic experiments in conformity. This is not to say they aren’t criticised
today or that its conclusions are wholly acceptable now - they showed the
application of the scientific method to social psychology and we used as models
of how to conduct psychological research. In an early experiment Ash gathered a
group of seven university students in a classroom. They sat around one side of a
large table facing the blackboard. On the left side of the board there was a
white card with a single black line drawn vertically on it. On the right of the
board there was another white card with three vertical lines of different
lengths. Two of the lines on the card on the right were longer or shorther than
the target line. Matching the target line to the comparison line shouldn’t
have been a difficult task however for these seven students, all but one was a
confederate of Ash and they had been instructed to give incorrect responses on
seven of the twelve trials. The one naive subject was seated either at the
extreme left or next to the extreme left of the line of students so that he
would always be last (or next to last) to answer. He would have heard most of
the others give their judgements about which comparison line matches the target
line before he spoke. The naive subject was a member of a group he didn’t know
and might never see again who suddenly and for no apparent reason started saying
something which directly contradicted the evidence of his own eyes. In
subsequent experiments Ash used between 7 and 9 subjects using the same
experimental procedure. In the first series of experiments he tested 123 naives
on 12 critical tests where 7 were going to be incorrect. Each naive therefore
had 7 opportunities to conform to something they could see to be wrong. One
third of the naives conformed on all 7 occasions. About three quarters of them
conformed on at least one occasion. Only about one fifth refused to conform at
all. Just to be certain that the result was due to the influence of the
confederates responses and not to the difficulty of the task Ash used a control
group. Each control subject was asked to make a judgement individually - there
were no pressures at all. Over 90% gave correct responses. Hollander and Willis
give some criticisms of the early research into conformity. Firstly the studies
do not identify the motive or type of conformity. Do the subjects conform in
order to gain social approval? Are they simply complying? Do they really believe
that their response is correct? Secondly Hollander and Willis claim that the
experiments do not identify whether the subjects are complying because they
judge that it’s not worth appearing to be different, or because the actually
start to believe that the groups judgement is correct. Hollander and Willis also
claim that the studies cannot show whether those who do not conform do so
because they are independant thinkers or because they are anti-conformists. And
Lastly, they claim that the studies seem to assume that independance has to be
good and conformity has to be bad. However conformity is often benificial.
Sherif and Asch have each conducted fairly artificial laboritory experiments
which showed that about 30% of responses can be explained by the need or desire
of the subjects to conform. These experiments may not accurately reflect real
life when conformity might be benificial and sometimes contribute to
psychological well-being.
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