The Echoes of the Mind (151) Conformity


“Cynicism and tribalism are very closely related. You protect your tribe, your way of life and thinking, and you try to annihilate anything that might call that into question.” ~ American journalist Dean Nelson

Conformity is acting in accord with prevailing social standards, attitudes, or practices. Conformity is a universality of human behavior.

“Humans conform.” ~ German social psychologist Daniel Haun & American psychologist Michael Tomasello


In 1958, American social psychologist Herbert Kelman distinguished 3 types of conformity: compliance, identification, and internalization.

Compliance happens “when an individual accepts influence because he hopes to achieve a favorable reaction from another person or group, or avoid specific punishments or disapproval.” Belief has nothing to do with compliance.

(In 1969, Australian psychologist Leon Mann distinguished compliance to avoid a negative reaction from conforming to make a positive impression or gain favor, calling the brown-nosing variety ingratiational conformity.)

Identification occurs “when an individual accepts influence because he wants to establish or maintain a satisfying self-defining relationship to another person or group. The individual actually believes in the responses which he adopts through identification, but their specific content is more or less irrelevant. He adopts the induced behavior because it is associated with the desired relationship. Hence, the satisfaction derived from identification is due to the act of conforming as such.”

Internalization happens “when an individual accepts influence because the content (ideas and actions) of the induced behavior is intrinsically rewarding. He adopts the induced behavior because it is congruent with his value system. Behavior adopted in this fashion tends to be integrated with the individual’s existing values. Thus the satisfaction derived from internalization is due to the content of the new behavior.”

“The 3 processes represent three qualitatively different ways of accepting influence.” ~ Herbert Kelman

◊ ◊ ◊

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

In-groups exert a tremendous conforming force upon its members. People in individualistic cultures often like to think that they are independently minded, immune to something as superficial as group influence. Experimental studies demonstrate otherwise.

In 1932, American social psychologist Arthur Jenness asked experiment participants individually how many jellybeans were in a jar. Then he put the group in a room with the jar and asked them to provide a group estimate. Asking individuals afterwards for a bean count, their answers, with rare exception, moved toward the group estimate.

A spot of stationary light in a dark room often appears to be moving: a phenomenon labeled the autokinetic effect. The illusion is so compelling that most people insist that the motionless light is moving. Turkish American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif used the autokinetic effect in 1935 to study conformity. He first established how much autokinetic movement individuals perceived: typically, 2–6 inches. Then Sherif put 2 or 3 people in a room and asked them to agree on the degree of autokinesis.

When individuals face a new and unstable situation first individually and then in a group, each establishes a range and a norm (standard) within that range; the range and the norms tend to converge when the subjects come into a group situation. But the convergence is not as close as when they start with the group situation first.

“When individuals face a new, unstable situation as members of a group for the first time, a range (a scale) and a norm (standard) within that range are established which are peculiar to the group, and afterwards, when they face the same situation alone they stick to the range and norm established in the group.” ~ Muzafer Sherif

In 1951, American social psychologist Solomon Asch asked student participants about simple comparisons of line lengths, with answers so obvious that a child could feel assured about the correct answer (see figure below). But, as the test progressed, others in the group – who were actually confederates – began to consistently and uniformly give wrong answers.

35% of the participants conformed to the confederate (wrong) answers at least half the time. 40% gave numerous wrong answers. Only 25% stuck with correct answers, in defiance of the invisible conformity pressure.

◊ ◊ ◊

Conformity – like other common psychological traits not viewed altogether favorably – is more readily detected in others than in oneself. People often fail to recognize their own susceptibility to social influence.

“When hearing about classic experiments on conformity, students often marvel at how far people will go to conform, but note that they would never act that way in the same situation.” ~ Emily Pronin et al


“Many groups make their decisions through some process of deliberation, usually with the belief that deliberation will improve judgments and predictions. But deliberating groups often fail, in the sense that they make judgments that are false or that fail to take advantage of the information that their members have.” ~ American behavioral economist Cass Sunstein & American behaviorist Reid Hastie

A misinformation cascade is the cultural equivalent of a rumor wrongly taken to be true and occurs much more commonly than it would among rational beings. A mistruth is proposed and finds positive reception, whereupon it becomes accepted as conventional wisdom. Those who dispute such a “fact” risk damage to their reputation and censure.

 Fat & Heart Disease

In the late 1940s, American doctors started treating more patients who had heart disease. American physiologist Ancel Keys became interested in the issue. Keys was piqued by seemingly counterintuitive data: American business executives, presumably well-fed, had high rates of cardiovascular disease (cvd), while cvd rates were dropping in post-war Europe, which had reduced food supplies.

Keys hypothesized a correlation between cholesterol levels and cvd. Keys compared diets and heart disease in the US and other countries selectively.

Satisfied that his hypothesis was correct, Keys promoted his research upon becoming a member of the American Heart Association. He convinced the AHA to recommend a low-fat diet to Americans.

Keys’ findings were considered so important that he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1980, the US government incorporated his idea into its “food pyramid,” which it promoted throughout the country for what constituted a healthy diet.

Soon everyone “knew” that diets rich in fats led to heart attacks. In 1988 the Surgeon General of the United States announced that ice cream had become a major health hazard.

Researchers who disagreed with Keys and published contradictory findings were either ignored, or the results treated as exceptions.

Keys’ cherry-picked the countries he used to draw his conclusion. If he had bothered to include all 22 countries for which he had available data, rather than eliminating those which did not provide the results he wanted, he would have found no correlation between fat and heart disease.

The problem of cardiovascular disease is more complicated than fat consumption. Lifestyle, especially exercise regularity, sugar consumption, and overall diet are significant factors.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” ~ Voltaire