Explanations of conformity

What are the psychological processes involved in conforming to majority influence?

Normative social influence

Informational social influence
Normative social influence
Most instances of conformity to the influence of a majority are due to informational social influence. This means that individuals tend to adopt the behaviours of the majority of a group because they do not want to be left out. Individuals do not believe the majority, they simply comply in order to be accepted. An example might be a person who openly agrees with the racist views of his or her new work colleagues, but is not themself racist and does not believe racism is right.

We do not believe what we say, and we do not say what we believe!

Informational social influence
When the situation is ambiguous, people have a tendency to conform to the majority because it is a source of information. In other words, if an individual is unsure as to the correct answer or behaviour then they tend to believe the majority opinion and behave accordingly. Individuals internalise the majority opinion because they want to be right. An example might be someone who cannot decide which way to vote in a general election who, after finding out how everyone else in their group is voting, starts to believe the opinion of the group and votes the same way.

We believe what we say and we say what we believe!

Sherif (1935) - the auto kinetic effect
This was one of the earliest studies of conformity. Sherif placed groups of three participants into a darkened room and projected a small stationary point of light onto a screen. In the auto kinetic effect, a stationary dot of light in a darkened room appears to move slightly and Sherif asked his participants to estimate how far the point of light was moving.

Sherif found that when participants gave their initial estimates they were very different from one another, however when participants were told what other participants had estimated then the estimates became more similar over successive trials.
after Sherif autokinetic effect conformity

Sherif concluded that people have an in-built tendency to conform to the group opinion rather than remain individual in their opinions. In other words when they are unsure about the correct answer, they will look to others as they may know more or be more skilled. This is especially the case when people do not have the information necessary to make their own opinions, but they still have the desire to be right. The participants had conformed due to informational social influence.

Evaluating Sherif (1935)
  • Ambiguous stimulus. The auto kinetic effect is a particularly ambiguous stimulus as participants imagine that a stationary spot of light is moving when it is not. Because it was impossible for Sherif to measure how far it was moving, and because it was impossible to provide a ‘correct’ answer, then it was also impossible to say for certain that the participants in the experiment had actually conformed.
  • Ecological validity. The task used by Sherif is far from an everyday task that represents everyday life. It is hard to imagine that people would often discuss how far a point of light appears to be moving in a darkened room, and so the study lacks ecological validity.

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
Describe one study of informational social influence (4 marks)
4 AO1 marks come from defining informational social influence (there is no need to also define normative social influence), and outlining the aim, procedure, findings and conclusion of Sherif (1935)

What is the difference between informational and normative social influence? (2+2 marks)
2 AO1 marks come from defining informational social influence and normative social influence. The other 2AO1 marks come from explaining how they differ, for example by stating that in informational social influence people internalise the opinion of the majority because the situation is ambiguous, and in normative social influence people go along with the majority in order to fit in.