I still remember my first day of American Government class freshman year. The teacher asked us, “What are the three branches of government?” I wanted to raise my hand and say “Judicial, congressional, and executive.” But no one else raised their hands. I thought to myself, “No one else knows it, maybe I don’t know it. I don’t want to stand out on my first day. Better just keep my hand down.” As it turns out, my answer was correct. However, conformity got the better of me. Conformity is modifying one’s behaviors or actions because of others. The influence of conformity can be subdivided into informational (being influence because of information) and normative (being influenced because of social pressure) influence. Conformity is an important topic because conformity has a profound impact on human behavior in groups. Collective human behavior can almost be defined by conformity. Humans constantly look to others for support and knowledge, and when we see others act in a specific way, we mimic it in the form of conformity. To take on a more global view of conformity, it is important to understand how cultural differences between different civilizations impact the ways in which the people of those cultures will be affected by conformity. Perhaps someone from the United States will conform more than someone from Germany, or China, or Mexico. Then we must undertake the question, “how does culture influence social conformity to groups?”
In this essay we will first take a look at what conformity is and what may cause it within a culture, and then we will discuss three aspects of a culture that may modify that culture’s levels of conformity. The first major factor we will examine is the level of food accumulation within the society. The second major factor we will examine is the impact of a country’s industrial development on conformity. The third major factor that we will examine is how individualism or collectivism will influence a
culture’s level of conformity.
Social Causes of Conformity
Sherif defined conformity as “being influenced by the judgments of others.” (Sherif, 1935) In the context in which we are speaking, conformity can be defined as the modulation of one’s behavior or judgment due to influence of a group. Sherif’s conformity experiment was designed to show how the judgments of others would influence the judgment of a test subject. Sherif used the autokinetic effect as the subject of judgment. The autokinetic effect is when a dot of light in a dark room appears to move because the eye has no other frame of reference. Subjects were instructed to observe the light and tell researchers the distance the light moved. Sherif operationalized his variable by first testing subjects individually and then testing them in groups to see how this would affect their reported observations of how far the light moved. If the reported observations of the dots movements converged to a central measure, Sherif would know that conformity had played a role in altering his subject’s judgment. What Sherif discovered was that when subjects were tested individually, their judgments of the dots movements varied greatly, anywhere from 2 to 15 inches (Sherif, 1935). When the subjects were then tested in groups, their measurements maintained a distinct level of divergence from each other. However, when the subjects were tested first within a group, the subjects’ average judgments of the dot movements converged within a particular range that would imply that the subjects were abiding to a common norm that had been established in the group. In addition, when the subjects were later tested individually, their judgments on the dot movement would diverge from the group norm, but less significantly than when the subjects were first tested individually. Sherif wrote that he felt this was the most significant observation of his experiment.
What Sherif observed is one of the key factors of conformity- that the norms which people conform to are not always intentionally established, but can occur naturally, and these naturally occurring norms will be conformed to due to man’s tendency to want to fit in as a part of the group. This is reinforced by another one of Sherif’s observations during this experiment. During the last session of his experiment, Sherif added the question “Do you think you were influenced by the judgments of the other persons in the experiments,” to which 25% of the subjects responded that they were. Sherif commented that this was a comparatively small amount of subjects relative to the results. Although it is possible that some subjects lied and responded no to this question, it is possible that some of the 75% of subjects who said they were not influenced by the other subjects in the experiment were likely unaware of the fact that they were being influenced, showing that people can unknowingly conform to naturally established norms. Although Sherif’s experiment was not cross-cultural, it can still help us understand why people conform to their individual cultures. Sherif speculated that the cause of conformity was man’s desire to fit in to the group. In a cultural context, this means that if a person is a part of a culture, then that person would have desire to modulate their actions so that they fit into their specific culture. This also suggests that the more immersed one is in their culture, the more conformity will be emphasized in that culture and the more they will conform to their culture. So although Sherif’s experiment was not cross-cultural, the conclusions drawn from his experiment can still help us understand the relationship between culture and conformity.
In 1951, Asch sought to try another conformity experiment that would respond to the critique of Sherif’s experiment that the stimulus was too ambiguous. Instead of using an ambiguous stimulus like the autokinetic effect, Asch used a very concrete stimulus. For his experiment, four lines were shown on a projector and subjects were asked which line of three matched the other line. In groups of 8, what subjects didn’t realize was that the other 7 people in the group were actually confederates of Asch, instructed to all unanimously give the wrong answer twelve out of eighteen times. Asch’s aim was to see if this unanimous agreement in the group of a blatantly wrong answer would socially pressure the subject into going along with the group. In this experiment, unlike Sherif’s, the group was intentionally trying to get the subject to conform, and the group’s response to the stimulus was clearly incorrect. Under normal circumstances, subjects gave incorrect responses less than 1% of the time. However when the pressure of the group was applied, the number of incorrect responses rose to 37%, with 74%
subjects conforming to the confederates’ responses on at least one critical trial. Asch had shown something about conformity that Sherif was unable to prove- that conformity could cause a subject to go against their own judgment and conform to the group. Asch speculated that conformity could occur due to a distortion of the subject’s on any one of three levels: perception, judgment, or action. If there is distortion on perception, then the subject perceives the stimulus incorrectly and is unaware of the conflict, and believes the group to be correct. If there is distortion of judgment, then the subject is aware of the conflict but conclude the majority is correct and reject their own judgment. If there is distortion on the action level, the subject is aware of the conflict, concludes the group is incorrect, but goes along with them anyways due to pressure. Asch also determined the two types of group influence. If the subject is influenced because they think the group is better informed than them, this is informational influence. If the subject conforms because they want to fit in with the group, this is called normative influence. Asch also performed tests in this experiment to see how other factors would affect a subject’s conformity. One variation of this experiment Asch performed was adding and subtracting people. Asch discovered that as few as only three confederates was enough pressure to get the subject to conform, but that the more confederates there were in the experiment the more likely it was that the subject would conform. Asch also performed experiments where subjects gave their answers in private, where one confederate would agree with the subject, and where the differences between the lines was smaller. When subjects gave their answers in private, normative influence is eliminated and conformity dropped significantly.
When one confederate would agree with the subject, conformity dropped to only 5%, an 80% decrease. This is one very crucial fact about conformity. When one person breaks the unanimity of a group, the normative influence is eliminated. When Asch made the differences in the line lengths less significant, conformity increased. The data collected from this experiment and Sherif’s observations, demonstrate another significant aspect of conformity. The more ambiguous something is, the more humans will tend to conform. This is because when humans are uncertain of what to do in a situation, we look to other humans for information. This is applicable to a real life scenario such as the “grey area” of morals. When humans see something morally wrong, they will typically go along with what the majority is doing, and will usually not intervene. Although Asch’s experiments were not cross-cultural, the conclusions of his experiments and the theories of conformity formulated from them can most definitely be applied to a cross-cultural context, such as how culture affects conformity. First of all, Asch determined that there were two types of conformity; normative, which is the influence caused by social pressure, and informational, influence caused by insecurity in one’s own knowledge. These can both be applied to how people conform to cultures. Normative influence can be caused by. If one is completely immersed in a culture, there is normative influence to fit into that culture. Informational influence can be a creation of culture. If a part of the culture is teaching the youth of that culture, than they are subject to the informational influence of their culture. Second, Asch showed that the more people in a group, the stronger the social influence. This could imply that a larger culture may have higher levels of conformity than people of smaller cultures. Third, Asch showed that unanimity is extremely significant to a culture’s levels of conformity. This may imply that the stricter a culture is, and the fewer dissenters from the culture there are, the stronger the social influence the culture will have on its subjects.
The Effect of Levels of Food Accumulation on Conformity in a Society
In 1967, J. W. Barry wished to replicate Asch’s conformity experiment as a cross-cultural experiment to see how differences in the cultures would correlate with their levels of conformity. Barry divided the peoples he was studying into two basic groups. The first group was societies with high levels of food-accumulation such as agricultural and pastoral societies, and the second was societies with low levels of food-accumulation such as fishing and hunting peoples. Barry recreated Asch’s line-length conformity test between the Temne peoples of Sierra Leone in Africa, an agricultural people, and the Eskimo of Baffin Island, a hunting people in northeastern Canada. Barry’s aim was to see how levels of conformity would vary between these two distinctly different cultures. Barry formulated his hypothesis by studying each culture and observing characteristics of their cultures that he thought would be pertinent to levels of conformity.
Barry studied cultural characteristics of each peoples such as how they characterized success in their cultures, how lenient each culture was when rearing their young, if the peoples were typically group reliant or self reliant for success in their cultures, and of course, if they were a high food-accumulating society or if they were a low food-accumulating society. Barry hypothesized that there would be a correlation between the different cultures’ levels of food accumulation and their levels of conformity; more specifically, in the Temne’s agricultural, high food-accumulating society would show higher levels of conformity than the Eskimo’s hunting-oriented, low food-accumulating society, where he expected to find lower levels of conformity. Barry tested the two different cultures using a variation of Asch’s line test. Instead of having eight confederates supply false responses to the test subject, the subject was presented with a sheet of paper with 9 lines on it, and was asked to match the top line with one of the lower lines by length. But before responding, the researcher would say, “I am going to give you a hint. Most Temne (or Eskimo) people say this line (an incorrect line) is equal in length to the one at the top. Which one do you say?” (Barry, 1967) After performing his experiment, Barry found that the difference in conformity rates between the Temne and Eskimos was great enough and with statistical significance, so it confirmed his hypothesis that the Temne peoples did in fact show higher rates of conformity than the Eskimo peoples. Barry’s conformity experiment shows how culture affects conformity. Barry studied two different cultures and noted significant differences between them, and then tested each culture the same way to measure their respective levels of conformity. Barry discovered a key characteristic about conformity- the connection between how a society collects food and their conformity levels. Although that is a broad connection, Barry’s theory was that how food is accumulated in a culture affects other aspects of that culture such as leniency in parenting, levels of independence granted to children, and what characterizes success, and these factors are what determine the levels of conformity for cultures. Low food accumulating societies have very independent individuals and characterize success with independence whereas high food accumulating societies have very interdependent individuals and characterize success
Impact of Modernization on a Country’s Levels of Conformity
Another significant difference between cultures that can impact levels of conformity is how industrialized and modernized they are, and studying how this has affected levels of conformity among the people of that country. In 1984, Kagitcibasi did just that.
Kagitcibasi performed a study on the “value of children” (Kagitcibasi, 1984) to attempt to understand how several cultures on different levels of modernization would place the importance of raising children (with reference to quantity), and what characteristics the peoples of those cultures would find desirable in their children. Kagitcibasi studied nine countries- Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Germany, and the United States. Kagitcibasi performed 20,403 interviews with families from these countries and asked them questions regarding what characteristics they would find most desirable in children. Subjects from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines said the most desirable quality in a child was to obey their parents.
On average, 86.5% of subjects from Indonesia said obedience of parent was the most desirable quality in children, and 82% of subjects from the Philippines agreed, as opposed to the United States, where only 39% of subjects said obeying one’s parents was the most desirable characteristic in children. On the contrary, 49% of American subjects surveyed said being independent and self-reliant was the most important characteristic in children, whereas only 20% of Indonesian subjects said the same thing. In the United States, being independent and self-reliant was the second most chosen characteristic among subjects surveyed, second only to being a good person. However, even higher than the United States’ percent of subjects putting emphasis on independence and self-reliance is that of Singapore and Korea. This is an interesting observation because many studies have found collectivist (predominantly Asian) cultures to be more oriented towards conformity and less towards individual independence. But if this observation
is studied with respect to industrialization and modernization, it is observed that these countries have gone under extremely rapid industrialization, which could have modulated the nuclear family model in these countries to be more westernized, thereby emulating the west in levels of conformity as well.
Kagitcibasi observed that overall, it is the nuclear family level which most impacts the levels of conformity in a culture; by which it is meant that factors such as industrialization impact the nuclear family model, which in turn impacts a country/culture’s levels of conformity. Kagitcibasi developed the “Old Age Security Value” theory (Kagitcibasi 1982a). The Old Age Security Value is the theory that there is additional value in raising children in underdeveloped nations because if they are raised in a conforming way, which stresses values such as family loyalty, they will be more likely to take care of their parents when they become elderly. The Old Age Security Value is less significant in industrialized nations because industrialized, modernized nations typically provide services such as healthcare, whereas a more traditional, less developed nation would not, meaning the elderly are more dependent on their children to care for them in old age, which will encourage raising children to be more compliant to parents. The Old Age Security Value concept relates to industrialization and conformity because the more industrialized a country is, the more the less significant the Old Age Security Value is, and therefore the less conformist the society will be.
What we can ultimately understand from Kagitcibasi’s research on the correlation between industrialization and conformity is that less industrialized countries will be more culturally inclined to compliance, due to a modulation of the nuclear family model in which families are more dependent on each other for care and therefore put emphasis on compliance when raising children to encourage family loyalty and obedience of one’s parents.
Impact of Collectivism vs. Individualism on Conformity
Collectivism is the social belief that the good of the group is more important than the good of the few or the individual. On the other hand, individualism is characterized by the belief that each member of the group should be independent and self-reliant, without a need to consider the wellbeing of the group as a whole. When one considers the characteristics of conformity – compliance, assimilation, putting the group above oneself, etc., it seems logical that collectivists would have a greater predisposition to conformity than individualists. Professor Oh of Konkuk University wanted to test this premise with relevance to normative and informational influence. Oh’s aim was to see if in an experiment, subjects from a collectivist culture (in this case India) would conform more than subjects from a collectivist culture (America). He also wanted to see if they would conform more in normative influence tests than in informational influence tests. Oh hypothesized that the Indian subjects would not only conform more, but would conform more specifically in normative influence tests. Oh performed an experiment with half Indian and half American subjects, in which subjects were asked what the lowest appropriate probability of successfully for a risk to be taken, such as winning an election of a sort. Under the condition of exposure, subjects were only informed of what “other subjects” had said was an appropriate probability of success for the risk to be taken, but not why. Because the reason why was not explained to subjects, any conformity on this test must have been because of normative influence because they were given no further information to better their judgment. Under the condition of persuasion, subjects were informed of “other subjects’” responses, and as to why they made their decisions. Subjects were then left to decide for themselves based on more given information relevant to be given stimulus their own response. If subjects modified their judgments under this condition, it would be because they felt they were then better informed of the conditions of the stimulus. The average of the subjects’ conformity scores was measured by the change in pretest to posttest response. The results of this experiment showed that Indian participants were far more inclined to conform then American participants. In addition, changes in conformity levels due to internalization were not shown with statistical significance between Indian and American subjects, while changes in conformity levels due to compliance were shown with statistical significance. This confirmed Ho’s hypothesis that collectivists are more inclined to conform to the group norm then individualists with regard to normative influence. One limitation of Ho’s experiment however, was that he did not use face-to-face social influence, but only informed subjects of what other “subjects” had stated in a second-hand manner. This would’ve negated some level of the compliance influence, which could have produced responses of higher levels of conformity between American and Indian subjects.
Ho’s experiment examined a direct relationship between culture and conformity- the collectivist vs. individualist relationship. He studied two cultures and saw how subjects from each would respond differently to tasks involving conformity. Ho’s research helps us better understand this relationship between collectivism and conformity in a culture because his research showed that subjects of a collectivist society showed higher levels of conformity than subjects of an individualist culture.
In this paper, I analyzed three aspects of cultures that can influence a culture or society’s levels of conformity. I analyzed the relationship between food accumulation and conformity, the relationship between modernization and conformity, and the relationship between collectivism and conformity. Examining each of these relationships, it is evident that cultures that are characterized by community and societal unity tend to have higher levels of conformity than their more individualistic counterparts. This was shown by the Temne in Sierra Leone, Africa, who were culturally very focused on the community. This was also shown by the several less modernized countries in Kagitcibasi’s study of modernization on conformity, whose cultural focus is care for the family. Lastly, this was shown by the Indians in Ho’s study, who showed high levels of social conformity as a sample of a collectivist society. From all these results we can conclude that culture influences social conformity to groups in that people in cultures characterized by community and social unity are more subject to social conformity than peoples of individualistic cultures because the emphasis they put on community causes the peoples of those cultures to be more conscious of the judgments of others and therefore more likely to modify their own judgments and conform to match those around them.
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