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The psychological explanation of conformity.

What is conformity?

The pioneering research on conformity was conducted by Sherif in 1935 (cited in Friedman, Sears, & Smith, 1984). Psychologists such as Asch (1951) and Milgram (1963) subsequently conducted similar experimental studies (see also, Milgram, Bickman, & Berkowitz, 1969). Conformity is the change of actions or attitudes caused by the pressure from some real or notional groups (Myers, 2010).

However, when we analyze the process of conformity and its causes we find that there are at least two limitations of the experiment. First, the group is not a prerequisite for the conformity of individuals. In Sherif's (1935) experiment (cited in Friedman et al., 1984), the majority conformed to the minority when it was conducted by one assistant. In Asch's (1951) study the conforming percentage was 2.8% with one assistant and in Milgram's (1963) research, one assistant stopped 4% of all pedestrians, while 42% of the pedestrians looked on without stopping. Second, conformity is not absolutely irrational herd behavior. In most cases, conformity is a result of rational reflection, although mistakes can be made.



The conforming action can, therefore, be divided into rational conformity and irrational conformity. Rational conformity is behavior guided by thinking, judgment, or reasoning. It occurs as a result of the influences exerted by the object's behavior or attitude and includes abidance, compliance, and obedience. Irrational conformity or herd behavior is the behavior the subject presents when they are guided by intuitionistic and instinctive activities and influenced by the behavior or attitude of the object (Figure 1). Generally speaking, there are a variety of factors that cause conforming behavior, such as individuals, organizations, and policies. Conformity can thus be divided into narrow conformity and generalized conformity (Figure 2).

Narrow conformity means that the individual's actions or attitudes are consistent with those of the majority. It is a special form of generalized conformity, which we will discuss in this paper.


Conformity is defined as a subject's behavior or attitudes following those of the object. The subject is the individual who conforms. The object can be external or internal factors that cause conforming actions, in the form of individuals, groups, organizations, policies, rules and regulations, or the experience and natural instinct of the subject.

The conforming subject as an individual. First, considering an individual as the conforming subject can make the study easy to understand. It can also help researchers grasp micropsychological reactions and the real causes of conformity. Second, it is convenient to design, operate, get statistics from, and analyze the experiment. Furthermore, the psychological condition of conformity of groups can be reflected by analyzing one or more individuals in the group.

The conformity object can be external or internal. The object can be external, such as individuals, groups, organizations, policies, rules, and regulations; or internal, including the experience and genetic instinct of the subject.

The definition of conformity synthesizes all the factors that might cause such behaviors. Firstly, conformity does not literally mean conforming. The quest for the essence of conformity lies in which kind of conformity is caused by groups. Furthermore, majority is only one of the influential factors of conforming, thus varied patterns (Asch, 1951) of conformity are generated.

The internal reasons for conformity. Conformity is defined according to the presentation of external behaviors. But we must also discuss the internal reasons for conformity. Only in this way can we grasp the essence of the problem and the psychological reason. It is extremely significant to our work and life. For instance, if parents use threats of violence to force their children to study, the children will obey their parents in order to evade punishment. This leads to psychological pressure which is not good for children's study or growth. However, if parents cultivate children's learning interests and adopt a step-by-step approach, they will be aware of the significance of learning and their learning interests will be enhanced. Eventually, they will conform to the parents' wishes and work hard. This is beneficial not only in maintaining children's learning motivation but also in facilitating their physical and mental health.


Abidance occurs when the subject is about to learn or do something. The subject acts consistently with the object, whose behavior or attitude is considered to be the guidance of his judgment and reasoning process in an uncertain psychological condition.

The cause. The ambiguous condition and certain behaviors and attitudes of the object are the direct external cause. The emergence of abidance depends on the ambiguous condition or problems faced by the follower. Such ambiguity may be objective (Sherif's experiment; cited in Friedman et al., 1984) or man made (Asch's 1951 experiment). The uncertain condition enhances the subject's trust of the information provided by the object, and thus abidance occurs (Guandong, 1997, 2002).

The purpose. Under conditions of uncertainty or psychological ambiguity, the individual must follow the cues of others. For example, in Sherif's experiment, the participants were told to judge the distance a light spot moved. Although the individual had received some visual information, the situation was still quite uncertain until the individual found a person who seemed to be completely confident about the answer. The individual thought that the person was likely to have more useful information, and were likely to go along with him (Friedman et al., 1984).

Theoretical assumption. The notable characteristic of abidance is that the subject abides to the object. The subject abides by regarding the actions and attitudes of the object as guides for his/her judgment and reasoning and subjectively agrees with the object. Thus, there is internal consistency among the purpose, reason, mental process, and emotional experience of the subject's activity (Guandong, 2004). The internal and external consistency of abidance is called self-identity theory.

Function. The concept and theory of abidance are reliable. They help us to know how individuals, groups, or organizations influence the public, how to make effective policies, rules, and regulations, and how to recognize the existent foundation of religions.


Hogg and Vaughan (2010) state that compliance is an agreeable behavioral response to a request made by another individual. But from the sociocognitive perspective, compliance means that the subject assumes the same actions or attitudes as the object's expectations after summarizing, judging, and deducing his/her action and attitude, even though he/she may not think it is right (Guandong & Lei, 2007). The subject is the compliant individual, while the object refers to individuals, groups, and organizations that the subject conforms to.

The purpose and theoretical assumption. The purpose of meeting the expectations of the object is to exhilarate others. Exhilaration is remarkable in compliance and it is the only standard for judging whether a conforming behavior is the compliance. In daily life, people tend to believe that compliance is a duty children have to their parents as a way of showing respect. Exhilarating others is called exhilaration theory in compliance.

Emotional feeling and thinking processes. When disagreement exists the subject usually shows negative tendencies in emotional feeling. The thinking process of compliance is either active or passive in performance because of the various ways of thinking (Guandong, 2004).

Function. The theory of compliance has theoretical and practical significance for establishing and maintaining good relationships among people.


Traditionally, obedience is the behavior produced by the commands of authority (Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2011). But in our opinion, obedience means that the subject keeps the action and attitude the same as that of the object to seek rewards or avoid punishments after summarizing, judging, and deducing the object (Guandong, Zhitian, & Miao, 2008). The subject is the individual who obeys. The object can be individuals, groups, organizations, policies, rules and regulations, and the internal experience of the subject. The explanation is as follows:

The purpose and theoretical assumption. The subject is subordinate to the object for the purpose of seeking rewards or avoiding punishment. The reason for obedience is the valence (the subjective value) generated directly or indirectly by the object. When the subject believes the valence is positive and the expectancy (the subjective judgment of the possibility that the subject can realize his goals through the object) is strong, obedience will emerge. This is called expectation theory.

The precondition of obedience is the obvious or potential valence of the object for the subject. For example, in Milgram's obedience experiment, he paid $4.50 as the valence in each trial (Milgram, 1963). (1) The occurrence of obedience depends on the subject's expectancy for the realization of the goals. Only if the valence and expectancy are positive, can obedience be inspired.

Emotional feeling and function. Because the obedient situation is often related to payment or subjective and negative emotional feelings, the purpose, reason, thinking process, and emotional feelings of the subject's negative obedient behavior has internal consistency (Guandong, 2004). The obedience research is significant for theories of management.

The Relationship between Abidance, Compliance, and Obedience

Abidance, compliance, and obedience are three different presentations of rational conformity. The common characteristic in the presentations is that the subject's rational behavior is consistent with that of the object under normal conditions. Differences in perceptions of rational conformity result in the various theoretical assumptions, behavioral attributions, psychological characteristics, and definitions of the nature of conformity (see Table 1).

The three presentations are not isolated from each other. Instead, they can be transformed into each other. For instance, a person might show obedience to the traffic rules at the beginning. However, after a traffic accident, he abides by traffic regulations more consciously. The passive obedience to traffic regulations is transformed into conscious abidance.

Herd Behavior

Even though the herd behavior experiment was designed on the basis of the genetic instinct of worms, it is applicable to human beings. Distorted perceptions in Asch's (1951) "lines comparison" experiment were examples of herd behavior.

Herd behavior occurs when the subject accepts the behaviors or attitudes of the object according to his or her intuition and genetic instinct. The subject is influenced by the herd behavior of objects such as individuals, groups, organizations, policies, rules, regulations, and the internal experience or natural instinct of the subject.

The cause and purpose. Herd behavior has a close relationship with experience and genetic instinct. The psychological reason for herd behavior is the stable psychology which originates from the experience and genetic instinct of human beings.

But herd behavior does not mean behavior without purpose. Usually, the purpose is clear. For example, a clerk may follow the orders of his/her superior because he/she can benefit by doing so. In this case, his/her purpose is very clear. Of course, herd behavior can also be purposeless, for example, the instinctive reflex of organisms.

Transformation. Herd behavior can sometimes be transformed from rational conformity. When rational conformity develops and becomes the changeless experience of the subject, it will easily be replaced by herd behavior. Herd behavior can also evolve into rational conformity.

Herd behavior often results in negative effects. In order to overcome it, it is essential to abandon the habit of relying on intuition and relying instead on rational thinking.


Scientific ideology is an important standard for scientific research. Sherif's (1935; cited in Friedman et al., 1984) research on conformity is behaviorism-oriented. Asch's (1951) research was based on the view of group dynamics (Shultz, 1981). Behaviorists abandon the study of consciousness, while Gestalt psychologists focus on perceptive consciousness. As a result, when scientific operating rules are adopted for studying conformity, there will be a lack of comprehensive understanding of the issue. In this paper we integrate behavior theory, humanistic-oriented theory, cognitive theory, and other psychological theories. It is a comprehensive and scientific summary in the nature of its phenomenon, the changes of its presentation, and the reasons for conformity.


Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership, and men (pp. 177-190). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie.

Friedman, J. L., Sears, D. O., & Smith, J. M. (1984). Social psychology [Trans. D. Gao & J. Gao] (pp. 437-457). Heilongjiang: Heilongjiang People's Publishing House.

Guandong, S. (1997). A new view on conformity. Psychological Science, 20, 88-90.

Guandong, S. (2002). More on the realization of conformity. Psychological Science, 25, 202-204.

Guandong, S. (2004). An investigative study of conformity. Psychological Science, 27, 657-661.

Guandong, S., & Lei, Z. (2007). A discussion of the concept of compliance [In Chinese]. Social Science Journal, 6, 37-41.

Guandong, S., Zhitian, Y., & Miao, C. (2008). A psychological study of obedience in psychology. Psychological Science, 31, 249-252.

Hogg, M. A., & Vaughan, G. M. (2010). Essentials of social psychology. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.

Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2011). Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/ Cengage Learning.

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Shultz, D. P. (1981). The history of modern psychology [Trans. L. Yang]. Beijing: People's Education Press.

(1) In Milgram's experiment, abidance may occur since the participants agree with the information provided and want to finish the experiment; compliance may occur since the participants cater to the psychologist; and obedience may occur due to the instinct.


Northeastern University


Shenyang Jianzhu University


Northeastern University

Guandong Song, School of Art and Law, Northeastern University; Qinhai Ma, School of Business Administration, Northeastern University; Fangfei Wu, School of Administration, Shenyang Jianzhu University; Lin Li, School of Information Science and Engineering, Northeastern University.

This research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China under grant 70772096.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Guandong Song, School of Art and Law, Northeastern University, P.O. Box 229, No. 3-11 Wenhua Road, Heping District, Shenyang, Liaoning 110004, People's Republic of China. Email:
Table 1. The Distinctions and Relationships among
Abidance, Compliance, and Obedience

                             Abidance                Compliance

Subject                individual of abidance   individual of

Object                 individuals, groups,     individuals, groups,
                       organizations,           and organizations
                       policies, rules,
                       regulations, as well
                       as the natural instinct
                       or experience of the

Theoretical            self-identify theory of  exhilaration theory of
assumptions            abidance                 compliance

Reason                 the understanding of     the feeling of the
                       the subject              object

Purpose                to understand things     to meet the
                       or take actions          expectations of the
External causes        the ambiguous            the expectation of the
                       situation and the        object
                       certain behavior and
                       attitude of the object

Features of thinking   active                   uncertain

Emotional feelings     positive                 negative tendency

Behavior and attitude  consistent               inconsistent

Presentation of the    consistent               consistent

Character of the       candid behavior or       exhilarating behavior
behavior               attitude                 or attitude

Application fields     commerce,                interpersonal
                       advertisement,           relationships, family
                       education,               relationships, and
                       management,              other social fields
                       propaganda, and other
                       public service fields


Subject                individual of

Object                 individuals, groups,
                       organizations, policies,
                       rules, regulations, as
                       well as the natural
                       instinct or experience
                       of the subject

Theoretical            expectation theory of
assumptions            obedience

Reason                 the need of the subject

Purpose                to seek rewards and
                       avoid punishment

External causes        the requirement of the

Features of thinking   passive

Emotional feelings     negative

Behavior and attitude  inconsistent

Presentation of the    consistent

Character of the       self-regarding
behavior               behavior or attitude

Application fields     politics,
                       business management,
                       and other managing
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Article Details
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Author:Song, Guandong; Ma, Qinhai; Wu, Fangfei; Li, Lin
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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