Conformity can be defined as yielding publicity to group pressure, and sometimes yielding privately as well. Most of the research on conformity has been North American and has focused on the way majority pressure can control and distort the judgement of the individual. American researchers are more likely to have seen conformity in a negative light, as a threat to individual liberty. This view has been seen as a reflection of American culture which emphasizes (at least after the McCarty era of the early 1950s) individual freedom. McCarthy ‘witch hunters’ were out to hunt communist sympathizers. ‘Subversives’ who failed to conform to the American way had to face the house of un-American activities when thousands of people lost their jobs and were imprisoned. So, did the experiment of Soloman Asch only reflect 1950’s America? His experiment was repeated by Nicholson in the 1980s and found that there was less conformity but still people do not ‘in general want to get disapproval even from complete strangers ‘. (Aronson).
Starting from the assumption that independence is good and conformity is bad can influence both research design and the way that the results of the research are interpreted. It can be argued that conformity studies are often designed to highlight the dangers of conformity. The Stanford Prison experiment can be seen in this light. Looking back on the experiment, Zimbardow et al. (1995) see it as a valuable warning to us all. The aim of his experiment was to make the participants’ experiences as realistic as possible. The experiment lasted 6 days instead of 2 weeks. One prisoner left early because of a psychosomatic rash. The level of conformity was exceptionally high. Asch’s line-matching experiment is shown in many textbooks as an example of minority influence. Yet only 37% of the judgements made by the participants were incorrect. In other words, in 63% of their judgements, they were not swayed by the influence of the majority. Thus emphasis can be seen as a reflection of the values that Americans put on individuality and independence. By focusing on the minority of incorrect judgements, they see the Asch experiment as a warning of the threat of majority influence to individual freedom.
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The preoccupation with majority influence may help to explain why it was European psychologists, particularly Moscovici, who developed the study into minority influence. It has been debated that conformity is viewed in a more positive light in Europe where it is more likely to be seen as the result of negotiation rather than the burden of majority opinions. Are results of conformity studies reflective of USA cultures? Cultures can give different meanings and interpretations of the same stimuli or situation. Asch’s experiment was performed again in 1993 in Belgium and Zimbabwe. In the original experiment, 37% of people gave incorrect answers. In this version, only 14% of incorrect answers occurred in Belgium but in Zimbabwe, 51% of given answers were incorrect. Social psychologists, therefore, talk about the distinction between individualist and collective cultures. Individualist cultures show freedom, individuality, self-reliance and self-responsibility. Collectivist cultures show group co=operation, a collective effort and dependence upon groups. Culture is therefore an important variable, affecting human behaviour.
It must therefore be taken into account to assess the results of psychological research. All societies require a certain level of conformity in order to function. Imagine a situation where social norms were constantly violated. This results in confusion and disorder. On the other hand, conformity can be seen as harmful, producing ‘blind’ obedience and herd-like behaviour. Nonconformity can be explained in terms of displaying reactance; reacting against attempts to restrict personal choice. Nonconformity can be seen as good or bad depending on the situation. A certain level of nonconformity can be seen as beneficial to society. If conformity were total, society would fester – there would be no change, improvement, new ideas or creativity. There would be no advances in technology or science. Nonconformity has also been seen as positive in order to resist cruel or evil behaviour, for example opposing Hitler’s dictatorship during the Nazi regime. However, breaking social norms can be dangerous. For example, by breaking the Highway Code, one can endanger life and limb. I feel that the arguments for and against conformity have been explained well and that conformity can be seen as good and bad. It is usually but not always a desirable social influence.