In one of the most famous demonstrations of the power of a group to push people to conform, psychologist Solomon Asch brought in students in the mid-1950s to participate in what they were told was a study on ‘visual discrimination’. The findings from this study provided clear evidence of conformity.
Solomon Asch’s Study
Conformity is defined as the tendency to change our perceptions, opinions, or behaviors to fit in with other members of our group. Solomon Asch’s study observed the workings of it very clearly during their experiment. The design of the experiment was simple: Participants were asked to look at a target line, and then at three other comparison lines. They were then asked to determine which of the three options was the same length as the target line.
This is an easy task, and when people do it on their own, they make virtually no errors. However, what Asch was interested in determining was not the accuracy of the answers but whether people would give, what they knew to be a wrong answer, in order to fit in with the group.
Asch brought in students to do this study in groups of seven to nine, but in reality, only one person per group was not in on the game. The others were all accomplices of the experimenter and had been told to deliberately give a wrong answer. By the time the only real participant was asked to give an answer, he had already heard five people give a wrong answer.
Now, on the first few line judgment trials, everyone gave the correct answer. But then, the other people start giving what were clearly the same wrong answer. Thirty-seven percent of the time, people also gave this wrong answer in order to conform with the rest of the group. What’s so remarkable about these findings is that the people in this study had no particular need to fit in with the other people in their group. They weren’t their friends, or fraternity brothers, or teammates. Yet, people frequently gave an answer that they knew was wrong in order to fit in with other members of the group.
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Informational Social Influence
Now, one might think that this was just conforming on a meaningless task with no consequences. But other research shows that social groups influence virtually all aspects of our lives, from what we wear, to the car we drive, to how we vote. For better or for worse, humans are social beings, and hence our attitudes and behavior are shaped both indirectly and directly by the people around us.
We sometimes conform because we assume that other people provide important information that we need. This type of conformity is motivated by informational social influence. So, let’s say one moves to a new town, and you ask people who already live there for their recommendations on a hair salon or dentist. This makes sense and it’s probably an efficient way of making a decision.
But in other cases, we conform not due to a belief that other people have insight or information we don’t have, but because we want to be liked and accepted. This type of conformity is motivated by normative social influence.
Normative Social Influence
Normative social influence explains why we often follow what those around us are doing, in terms of how we dress or the music we prefer. In these examples, we are following what other people are doing because we want to fit in and be accepted by those around us.
It begs the question, why do we feel so much pressure to conform? It seems that this is in part because people who deviate from the norm often experience negative consequences—embarrassment, awkwardness, and even rejection from the group. Hence, it’s far more comfortable to fit in with others than to stand alone. And it’s not just more comfortable psychologically, it also feels better physically in our brains.
Researchers in one study, published in 2009, asked women to rate other women’s attractiveness and then showed them how others had rated these same women. Brain imaging data showed that when the participants discovered that their ratings differed from those of others, particular parts of the brain—the rostral cingulate zone and the ventral striatum—were activated. These patterns of brain activity were similar to those seen when someone makes a mistake while learning.
So, the brain is basically saying, ‘You’ve made a mistake; please correct it’. This finding helps explain why we conform: conforming feels good, like we’re correcting a mistake, while deviating from the group feels like we’re making a mistake.
Similarity Between Physical and Social Pain
Similarly, the experience of social pain—going through a bad break-up, being ostracized—is neurologically similar to physical pain such as twisting an ankle. Both, social ostracism and physical pain, activate similar parts of the brain, including the anterior insula, which is involved in regulating pain and negative emotions. They also both activate the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is believed to serve as an alarm system for the brain signaling, ‘Something is wrong here’.
In a powerful demonstration of the similarity between physical pain and social pain, researchers asked people to keep a record of how frequently they had their feelings hurt every day for three weeks. All of the people in this study were also given a pill to take each day; half were given acetaminophen—a drug that reduces physical pain—and the other half were given a placebo. People didn’t know which pill they were given.
At the start of the study, there were no differences between the two groups in how often they experienced hurt feelings. But, over the course of the three weeks, people who were taking acetaminophen showed lower levels of hurt feelings than those taking the placebo pill. So, taking a drug known to reduce physical pain—headaches, muscle aches, backaches—also reduces social pain, providing clear evidence that both types of pain activate the same part of the brain.
Common Questions about Understanding Our Urge to Conform
Conformity is defined as the tendency to change our perceptions, opinions, or behaviors to fit in with other members of our group.
We do so because people who deviate from the norm often experience negative consequences—embarrassment, awkwardness, and even rejection from the group. Hence, it’s far more comfortable to fit in with others than to stand alone.
The experience of social pain—going through a bad break-up, being ostracized—is neurologically similar to physical pain such as twisting an ankle.