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‘Yielding to Group Pressures’ – Leon Mann



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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

    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

    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

    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

    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%

    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

    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.


    ‘Yielding to Group Pressures’ – Leon Mann. (2018, Jun 06). Retrieved from

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