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Less is more: the level of choice affects conformity.

How often do we unwittingly find ourselves doing the same thing everyone else does? The impact of other people's presence on our behavior is well-documented, and derives from two motivations: forming an accurate interpretation of reality and behaving correctly, and obtaining social approval from others (Cialdini & Trost, 1998; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). Conformity is a specific category of social influence in which an individual changes his or her behavior to align with the behavior of other people (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). People may conform to the responses of group members even when the response may be undesired or incorrect (Asch, 1955; 1956; Sherif, 1935). Numerous situational factors contribute to the likelihood of conformity (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).

One situational variable that creates ambiguity that has been overlooked as a contributor to conformity is quantity of response choice. A comparison across conformity studies shows varying levels of choice options, but none have manipulated choice quantity as the variable of interest in conformity. Given what is currently known about social cognitive variables such as cognitive load (i.e., Gilbert, Pelham, & Krull, 1988) and the way people deal with choice (i.e., Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), it seems reasonable to question what effect varying amounts of choice might have on conformity.

What happens in the case where people encounter multiple options for which no clear choice is apparent? Research on the ways in which people choose from among a variety of options suggests that a larger number of options makes for a more difficult choice and presents a conflict for the chooser (Tversky & Shafir, 1992). Choosing from among several options comes at the cost of missing out on one or more of the options not chosen. In cases where the correct choice is clear, there is no conflict. However, when the correct choice is not clear, the chooser experiences a conflict to be resolved, and may adjust their focus of attention more closely to the choices at hand or to other available information that might help resolve their dilemma. From what we know about normative influence, the others' responses provide information that may help the chooser, and thus, will likely have an impact.

What is unclear, however, is whether people are more influenced by others in situations in which more rather than fewer choice options exist or vice versa. To explore this issue, we compared people's responses to normative influence in an Asch-type paradigm modified to create an ambiguous situation in which greater or fewer choice options existed from which to choose. It could be expected that people might conform more when there are more options from which to choose simply because others' answer choices help to narrow down the possibilities. On the other hand, people might be expected to conform less when there are more options. Dissention from the group's responses would likely be more obvious with fewer choices, possibly making conformity to the group more likely. However, dissention from the group would be less obvious when there are more choice options, making independence from the group more feasible. Further, when there are a large number of possible answers, people may perceive that they have just as good a chance of getting the right answer as anyone else and go with their own answer and venture away from the group's responses. Thus, the purpose of the current studies was to determine whether a larger or smaller number of choices would impact the tendency to conform to others' responses.


This study was designed to detect if stimulus choice plays a role in conformity and, if so, to what degree. Conformity rates were measured in two choice conditions: small choice condition (SC) and large choice condition (LC). In order to isolate the variable of interest, the study consisted of stimuli that were ambiguous in nature. Through use of such stimuli, certain confounds such as choice preference, accuracy, and importance were removed. The researchers were uncertain with regards to the impact that stimulus choice would have upon pressure to conform to a majority group. More choices could be cognitively taxing for participants, leading to seeking information from the group members. Equally, it was reasoned that fewer choices could allow participants to dedicate more resources to the social influences. Due to reasoning that each hypothesis was equally viable, study 1 was exploratory in nature.


Participants. Sixty-six students were recruited from two introductory psychology courses and one critical thinking course at Sam Houston State University. All participants were granted extra credit for participation. The participants' average age was 20 years (M = 20.2; SD = 1.82), and the sample consisted of 51 females and 15 males.

Materials. Five desks, positioned in a semi-circle, faced a projection screen in a classroom. A podium for the experimenter was placed in a front corner of the room, which was angled to face the five student desks. Also, two desks for the research assistants were placed behind the five desks.

An informed consent, demographic form, post-questionnaire, and a debriefing form were used. The post-questionnaire served as a manipulation check and was used as a criterion to reveal participants who did not understand the task. The post-questionnaire consisted of six questions, which asked the participants to rank their understanding and experience during the study on a five-point Likert-type rating scale (1 = Not at all, 5 = Completely). The questions asked about understanding the task, certainty of responses, knowledge of subject, amount of time to answer questions, perceptions of correct responses made, and perceptions of correct responses others made.

Two PowerPoint presentations were constructed, each consisting of 18 slides. Each slide contained the map of a country and letter-choices. Both presentations were similar by encompassing the same eighteen maps and the same 10 letter-choices on each slide for slides 1 through 9. The presentations differed on slides 10 through 18, with one presentation consisting of 17 letter-choices on each slide and the other consisting of 3 letter-choices for each slide. Examples of the PowerPoint slides for differing choice conditions are displayed in Figure 1.

Design. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two choice conditions: small choice condition (SC) or large choice condition (LC). Participants identified cities by viewing maps on a PowerPoint presentation and provided verbal responses in the presence of four confederates. For both choice conditions, participants underwent nine preliminary trials during which they were shown various maps, with each map containing 10 city choices. Following the nine preliminary trials, participants completed nine additional trials during which the level of choice options was manipulated. Participants in the SC condition were given three cities to choose from; participants in the LC condition were given 17 cities.

Conformity was measured as the number of times participants' responses were identical to the confederates' responses on critical trials. All of the confederates provided a unanimous response on the critical trials. There were five critical trials for each choice condition.

Procedure. Prior to conducting the study, four confederates were recruited and all practiced their roles. Participants were initially informed that they would be completing a study that would help assess college students' general knowledge of geographical locations. Each participant made a previous commitment, by telephone call, to meet a research assistant at a scheduled time in the department's main office. One confederate waited in the office prior to each participant's arrival.

A research assistant met with and escorted the participant and confederate into a classroom. Upon entering the classroom, three confederates were seated in the first three chairs nearest to the experimenter. The escorted confederate took the fifth chair, which required the participant for each experiment to be seated in the fourth chair from the experimenter.

Following completion of informed consent, the confederates and participant completed a demographic form. Next, they were informed that they would view PowerPoint slides with a different map on each slide with the goal of identifying the location of a particular city from each map. They were told that they would have 10 seconds to view the slide, and after viewing the slide they would verbally give their answer starting with the individual closest to the experimenter and continuing away from the experimenter. After directions were discussed, the experimenter asked if everyone understood what to do and if they were ready to continue. As the experimenter proceeded with the trials, the two research assistants sat to the back right of the confederates. One research assistant recorded the responses of everyone and the other assistant observed any behavior of the participant that might indicate suspicion. After viewing the slides, everyone completed a post-questionnaire and was debriefed.


The post questionnaire indicated that all the participants felt that they had enough time to answer each question. Only one participant did not understand the tasks involved and this participant was not used in statistical analyses.

Two-tailed t-tests were used to compare the conformity rates for each condition. The results revealed a statistically significant difference in the SC, in which there was a greater difference in conformity between the larger choice set and the smaller choice set (10 choices, M = 1.94, three choices M = 3.18), t (32) = -7.13, p < .001. Thus, participants conformed more when the amount of stimulus choices decreased. There was no statistically significant difference between conformity rates within the LC (10 choices M = 1.97, 17 choices M = 2), t (32) = -1.50, p = .882. Participants' conformity behaviors did not change when stimulus choice increased when both groups had a relatively large number of choices. Also, both conditions contained no statistically significant difference between the preliminary trials (small choice M = 1.94, substantial choice M = 1.97), t (64) = -0.09, p = 0.93. Thus, participants' baseline conformity behaviors were the same for both groups.


Results of the current study revealed that conformity is greater when fewer choice options are available. Participants' responses matched the responses of the confederates more when three choice options were available than when 10 choice options were present. However, greater choice options than 10 did not produce less conformity. When choice options increased from 10 to 17, there was no statistically significant difference. We believe that conformity rates stabilize when the amount of choices reaches a certain point.

The current study is limited because of the repeated measures design. The amount of choice options within each group was manipulated but was not counterbalanced. A counterbalance match for each choice condition would isolate the variable of interest, stimulus choice. Furthermore, counterbalancing conditions would control for any fatigue or exposure effect.


The second study was designed with three primary objectives: (a) replication, (b) investigating the effect of specific choice quantity, and (c) exploring the possibility of an exposure or fatigue effect. The design was enhanced by adding two counterbalanced choice conditions. In line with findings from the study 1, greater conformity was expected when few choice options were present than when many choice options were present. Specifically, three choice options were expected to bring about higher conformity rates than either 10 or 17 choice options. Conformity rates were not expected to differ when choice size reaches a particular level, in that individuals conform at approximately the same rate when presented with either 10 or 17 choices. Predicting no fatigue effect, no statistically significant differences should occur in the rates of conformity between each choice condition and its counterbalanced match.


Participants. One hundred twenty-two undergraduate students were recruited from Sam Houston State University. Students enlisted from introductory psychology courses and all were provided an opportunity for extra credit. Only 115 students completed the study due to experimental errors (e.g., confederates not providing the proper responses on critical trials; critical trials not being unanimous). Due to comparing conformity rates with equal critical trials, these participants were not included in the analyses.

Materials. The research room was similar to the layout from study 1. An informed consent, demographic form, post-questionnaire, and a debriefing form were used. The post-questionnaire served as a manipulation check and was used to reveal participants who did not understand the task. The post-questionnaire contained various questions that asked participants to rank their understanding and experience during the study on a seven-point Likert-type rating scale (1 = Strongly disagreeing, 7 = Strongly agreeing).

PowerPoint presentations were constructed for each choice condition. Two presentations were similar to the presentations constructed in study 1, in which each presentation consisted of eighteen slides and each slide contained a map of a country with letter-choices. Two additional presentations were constructed for study 2, in which the presentation of letter-choices was reversed for counterbalancing. A presentation of 10 letter-choices followed by three letter-choices were would be counterbalanced by a presentation of three letter-choices followed by 10 letter-choices.

Design. The study used a 2 x 2 x 2 (condition x order x critical trials) mixed model analysis of variance with repeated measures design. Condition and order were constructed as between-subjects factors, whereas the conformity rates were a within-subjects factor. The two levels of the condition factor were the small choice conditions (3 and 10 choice options) and the large choice conditions (10 and 17 choice options). The order factor was broken down into two levels by whether fewer choice options were presented initially with greater choice options following or vice versa. The critical trials were divided, based on the number of choice options, into two categories: smaller choice set and larger choice set.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of four choice conditions: small choice condition (SC), counterbalanced small choice condition (CS), large choice condition (LC), and a counterbalanced large choice condition (CL). The SC and LC served as the focal point for examining the effects of stimulus choice, while the purpose of the CS and CL was merely to investigate a possible fatigue effect.

The SC and LC were the exact presentations from study 1. The CS was the counterbalance of SC, meaning that three choice options were presented initially followed by 10 choice options. The CL was the counterbalance of the LC, meaning that 17 choice options were presented initially followed by 10 choice options. Also similar to study 1, conformity was measured as the number of times participants' responses were identical to the confederates' responses on critical trials. Each choice condition consisted of five critical trials.

Procedure. The procedure resembled the same steps taken in study 1, but differed by having only one research assistant. The reason the procedure was similar to Study 1 was to replicate the study with interest in the choice quantity variable. The reason that only one research assistant was used was because we thought there were no added benefits of using more than one researcher other than having an extra observer.


A main effect was found between the conditions, F(1, 111) = 4.30, p = 0.04, partial [eta.sup.2] = 0.04. The small choice conditions revealed greater conformity (M = 2.48, SD = 1.27) than the substantial choice conditions (M = 1.97, SD = 1.60). More importantly, a two-way interaction effect occurred between the conditions factor and the conformity rates, F(1, 111) = 9.84, p = 0.002, partial [eta.sup.2] = 0.08. The interaction revealed that there was greater conformity in the presence of three choice options (M = 2.84, SD = 1.60) than 10 choice options in the small choice condition (M = 2.12, SD = 1.35), 10 choice options in the substantial choice condition (M = 1.97, SD = 1.59), and 17 choice options (M = 1.98, SD = 1.61). Thus, participants conformed more with the group when three choice options were present than when 10 or 17 choice options were present. Table 1 displays means and percentages of conformity rates based on choice option presentation.

There was not a statistically significant difference based on the order in which the choice options were presented F(1, 111) = 0.001, p = 0.97, partial [eta.sup.2] = 0.00. The conformity rates were similar between each choice condition and its counterbalanced match. Hence, conformity rates did not differ due to a fatigue or exposure effect and counterbalancing did not interact with the other variables.

The post-questionnaire consisted of 12 questions on a 7 point Likert-type rating scale (1 = strongly disagreeing; 7 = strongly agreeing). Some additional questions were added in this study to inquire about participant awareness of social influence or suspicion. A majority of the individuals agreed that they understood the tasks involved in the study (M = 5.67, SD = 1.67) and felt that they were given enough time to view each map (M = 5.71, SD = 1.39). On average, participants somewhat disagreed that others used their responses (M = 2.40, SD = 1.61) and somewhat disagreed that they used others' responses (M = 3.03, SD = 1.82).

Discussion The findings from the current study provide additional evidence that individuals conform more frequently when fewer choice options are available than when many choice options are available. Specifically, three-choice options bring about greater conformity than 10 or 17 choice options. This effect appears to have been a function of the choice options and not fatigue or exposure. The results also revealed that when 10 or 17 choice options are available, people conform at similar rates.


Although past research on conformity has addressed many variables, the variable of choice quantity has not been directly examined. The focus of the current studies was to shed light on the effect of choice on social influence by manipulating the number of options available to participants. When few choices were available there was greater conformity than when a larger number of options were present.

The findings suggest two plausible explanations: (a) cultural salience and (b) ambiguity of preference. The first explanation involves cultural identity and choice. Iyengar (2010) claimed, "Our cultural backgrounds influence not only who we marry but how we make choices in nearly every area of our lives" (p. 45). It is thought that in the current studies the presence of choice options activated an aspect of cultural identity within social influence situations.

Cultural identities influence perceptions of choices, in which independent self-construals are more attentive to choices compared to interdependent self-construals (Pohlmann, Carranza, Hannover, & Iyengar, 2007). Independent cultures compared to collectivist cultures often claim a preference for more choices and less conformity than fewer choices (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000; Kim & Markus, 1999). Individualistic cultures tend to value independence, uniqueness, and individuality, whereas collectivist cultures tend to value interdependence and group harmony (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). When cultural identities are most salient, there is a greater probability that behavioral choices will match with the cultural values (Stryker & Burke, 2000). Further, cultural identity salience has the power to affect decisions that people make (Russell & Valenzuela, 2007). Thus, it is believed that a larger choice set activated an independent self-construal or increased values of independence, leading to lower rates of conformity.

The second explanation for the observed effect comes from the notion of ambiguity of preference (Ariely & Lavav, 2000). Ambiguity of preference was suggested to be a moderating factor for group-variety strategies sought with information-gathering goal-balancing. Ariely and Lavav found that individuals may intentionally choose an option that does not match other group members' selections or their initially considered selection. The researchers suggested that as ambiguity increases, information is likely to gain importance and information gathering would be emphasized. Informational influence has been shown to be the result of ambiguous situations (Sherif, 1936). A large choice set often increases ambiguity and places a greater strain on cognitive resources (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). As the number of choices increases conformity rates may be lower compared to when fewer choice options are present due to individual-group goals resulting in group-variety. Thus, when many choices are present individuals may seek choice options outside of the group members' selection due to information gathering.

When fewer choices were available, group-uniformity may have been prompted due to self-presentation (Ariely & Lavav, 2000). Though fewer choices are not always preferred by individualistic cultures, a smaller set is often less of a strain on cognitive resources (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). The less taxing three choice options may have provided greater opportunity for participants to be influenced by the self-presentation or normative influence, resulting in greater conformity.

Together, the studies represent an initial exploration of the role of the choice variable in conformity. Several avenues exist for future research on the issue of conformity and choice. For example, investigation of cultural saliency as a factor influencing perceptions within social influence situations may add to cultural and decision-making research. Also, exploring if a choice threshold exists may yield a better understanding for the choice and conformity paradigms. Similar to the group-size effect, a choice threshold may exist, in which an increase in choices no longer produces a significant decrease in conformity. Related to the current findings, conformity rates were not statistically significant between 10 and 17-choice options. These findings at least suggest that a choice threshold may exist after which conformity rates cease to change.

The role of choice in social influence has broad implications for a variety of situations that confront us as we navigate life. In light of recent reports on widespread obesity and consequent health problems, the connection between choice and social influence may be particularly important. Herman, Roth, and Polivy (2003) reviewed literature on the effects of other people on food consumption and provided conclusive support for the idea that the presence of other people affects what we eat. Further, Vartainian, Herman, and Wansink (2008) demonstrate that there are a variety of external factors, including other people, that affect food consumption. Thus, the question of social influence when available food options vary seems especially timely.

Another area for future research on the role of choice in social influence is that of person identification tasks in situations such as police lineups and discussions between eyewitnesses that often take place after witnessing an event. The challenges eyewitnesses face when attempting to identify a perpetrator from a police line-up are well documented (i.e., Ghetti, Schaaf, Qin, & Goodman, 2004; Wells, 1993; Wright & Davies, 1999). Conformity is one of the factors that can affect person identification and eyewitness memories. Specifically, eyewitness recollections conform to that of other eyewitnesses when they are confident in their reports about what they saw portrayed in a simulated crime scene (Wright, Self, & Justice, 2000).

While it may occasionally be easy to identify the actual perpetrator in a line-up, identification often presents a more challenging decision-making task. The current studies suggest that the number of options from which to choose affects the decision made. Given that the number of individuals in a line-up differs across jurisdictions, an interesting question to be answered is "What effect does quantity in line-ups have on eyewitness identification?" Additionally, when eyewitnesses are questioned in the presence of one another, as may occur at a crime scene, is there a potential for the number of options to impact the level of eyewitness conformity?

The role of choice in social influence may also carry implications for everyday functions as well. In making decisions about which movies to watch from online streaming servers or about which books to buy, people are often informed that according to what other people bought or watched you should make this decision. Social influence occurs abundantly in these situations where choice is present. Further, the amount of stimulus options may fluctuate depending on the situation. While driving you could virtually engage in numerous behaviors, which may or may not be what other people are doing. A driver might slow down, speed up, change lanes, or exit a highway. On the other hand, there are many situational contexts in which we are provided with a limited choice set. Discussing political candidates at a social gathering offers a limited set of choices by endorsing candidate A, B, or C. Awareness of how choice set and social influence may affect our decision-making may lead to making more informed choices and being satisfied with those decisions. So keep in mind, when in Rome do as the Romans do, unless more options are available.


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Drew A. Curtis

Texas Woman's University

Donna M. Desforges

Sam Houston State University

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Donna Desforges, Dept. of Psychology & Philosophy, Sam Houston State U., Box 2447, Huntsville, TX 77340. Email:

TABLE 1 Means and Percentages of Conformity Rates

Choice Options (Condition)     M (SD)      Percentage of Conformity

3 (small)                    2.84 (1.60)             57%
10 (small)                   2.12 (1.35)             42%
10 (large)                   1.97 (1.59)             39%
17 (large)                   1.98 (1.61)             39%


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Author:Curtis, Drew A.; Desforges, Donna M.
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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