Conformity and Its Implications


Micole Abdelhak, Staff Writer

To what extent do we find ourselves or others conforming to the world around us in order to find acceptance and comfort? Conformity describes how we structure our behavior or thoughts to parallel those of the group to which we belong or want to belong.

There are two types of conformity: compliance and internalization. When we comply, we simply change our behavior to seek acceptance. When we internalize, we not only conform in behavior but also in thought. All of us have, at some point, conformed to our society. Even in simple ways such as following rules, forming polite greetings, and dressing in certain ways, everyone conforms. 

Why do people conform? Human beings seek out the norms of their group in order to create a basis for their own behavior and create a sense of order. This provides comfort in the ability to predict the behavior of others and understand others’ actions. But how far are we willing to go in order to gain this sense of assurance? 

Psychologist Muzafer Sherif asserts that when making a judgment on an ambiguous test, people will base their judgment off the judgments of others. But what if the test isn’t ambiguous? Surely if the answer is obvious, there is no need to go against better judgment. One study conducted by Psychologist Solomon Asch set out to see just how far people are willing to adapt to acquire uniformity within their group. In the experiment, a group of people was shown line A with a short length, line B with a long length, and line C with a medium length. They were also shown a fourth line whose length obviously matched that of line C. They were then asked whether the fourth line matched Line A, B, or C. The whole group of participants, minus one person, was told to choose the same wrong answer. When it came time for the odd-one-out to answer, it was found that 76% conformed to the rest of the group’s incorrect answer. The results were astounding. Could it be true that an individual would change even the most obvious of answers to conform to the group? The results provided the basis for what we know of today as The Asch Effect, which identifies the strong influence of the group majority on an individual’s judgment. 

Psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment not only measures conformity to one’s own group, but also the implications that conformity has on how we view and treat “the other.” In the experiment, 22 boys at summer camp were divided into two groups, unaware of the existence of the other group. After one day in which the boys bonded within their group, they were introduced to the other group. A series of games were set up over the next few days in which the groups competed with each other. The winning group received prizes and the losers, nothing. As the games progressed, and subsequently got more heated, the groups began lashing out at each other. They went as far as burning the other’s flag, ransacking the other’s cabin, and getting physically violent. The groups were then told to fill out surveys on the other group. In the surveys, the boys shared the many negative ideas that they formed concerning the other group. 

The Robbers Cave Experiment would go on to become an integral aspect of the Realistic Conflict Theory, which is based on inter-group conflict becoming tense when the groups have to fight for limited resources. Examples of such resources include food, respect, or power. Similar to William Golding’s famous novel Lord of the Flies, this experiment resonates so deeply perhaps due to its real-world implications. Some include the Salem Witch Trials, race-based slavery, and even many small and large-scale wars. The experiment also depicts conformity to one’s group. Even in the absence of inherent differences between respective groups of people, a rivalry can spark. Perhaps the Capulets and Montagues, for example, have something to learn from The Robbers Cave Experiment and the deep implications of group conformity.