Conformity and Its Influences

There are ten “timeless influencers” of conformity, suggests the literature on the topic, and by understanding what these influences are–and how to use and counteract them–we are provided with some insight into our and others’ behaviour in many situations.

To that end, PsyBlog helpfully provides a summary of the ten core factors that influence conformity.

  • Group size: Maximum conformity is seen in groups of between three and five people. More than five makes little difference, less than three and conformity is “substantially reduced”.
  • Dissent: A ‘competent dissenter’ in the group can reduced conformity from 97% to 36%, even on obvious visual judgement tasks. “Dissenters must be consistent, though, otherwise they’ll fail to convince the majority”.
  • Ingroup bias: We like to conform with those we perceive to be in our ‘group’, especially if they are attractive. This is very strong, negating even the dissenter and group size influences. We will also go to lengths to avoid conforming with a perceived ‘outgroup’.
    Professor Richard Wiseman, in 59 Seconds, notes that “Regardless of whether the similarity is dress, speech, background, age, religion, politics, drinking and smoking habits, food preference, opinions, personality or body language, we like people who are like us, and find them far more persuasive than others.”
  • Mood: Good moods make us more likely to conform than bad moods. The ‘fear-then-relief’ tactic (“make someone afraid of something, then relieve that fear”) is particularly effective.
  • Need for structure: Those with a ‘need for structure’ in their lives are more likely to conform than others.
  • Social approval: “Non-conformity and self-confidence go hand-in-hand”. Those with a desire for social approval will confirm more often than not.
  • Culture: Those from individualist cultures are less likely to conform than those from collectivist cultures (typically Western and East Asian cultures respectively). Conformity rates range from 25-58% in collectivist cultures and 14-39% in individualistic cultures.
  • Authority: Conformity can be transformed into obedience in the presence of a perceived authority figure (think: Milgram experiment). Obedience levels range from 12-92%, “depending on the social context”.
  • Social norms: Our level of conformity is “strongly influenced by thinking about how others would behave in the same situation we are in, especially when we are unsure how to act. The higher we perceive the level of consensus, the more we are swayed. We are also more easily swayed if we know little about the issue ourselves or can’t be bothered to examine it carefully”.
  • Reciprocation: The desire to reciprocate is “incredibly strong and influential across all human cultures”.