Beyond Conformity

Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms, politics or being like-minded. Norms are implicit, specific rules, shared by a group of individuals, that guide their interactions with others.


Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman identified three major types of conformity:

According to Deutsch and Gérard (1955), conformity results from a motivational conflict (between the fear of being socially rejected and the wish to say what we think is correct) that leads to normative influence, and a cognitive conflict (others create doubts in what we think) which leads to informational influence.

Peer Pressure

A explanation of how the peer pressure process works, called “the identity shift effect,” is introduced by social psychologist, Wendy Treynor, who weaves together Festinger's two seminal social-psychological theories (on dissonance, which addresses internal conflict, and social comparison, which addresses external conflict) into a unified whole. According to Treynor's original “identity shift effect” hypothesis, the peer pressure process works in the following way:

“One's state of harmony is disrupted when faced with the threat of external conflict (social rejection) for failing to conform to a group standard. Thus, one conforms to the group standard, but as soon as one does, eliminating this external conflict, internal conflict is introduced (because one has violated one's own standards). To rid oneself of this internal conflict (self-rejection), an “identity shift” is undertaken, where one adopts the group's standards as one's own, thereby eliminating internal conflict (in addition to the formerly eliminated external conflict), returning one to a state of harmony. Although the peer pressure process begins and ends with one in a (conflict-less) state of harmony, as a result of conflict and the conflict resolution process, one leaves with a new identity—a new set of internalized standards.”.

Milieu control

Milieu control is a term popularized by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton to describe tactics that control environment and human communication through the use of social pressure and group language; such tactics may include dogma, protocols, innuendo, slang, and pronunciation, which enables group members to identify other members, or to promote cognitive changes in individuals.

Milieu control involves the control of communication within a group environment, that also may (or may not) result in a significant degree of isolation from surrounding society. Additionally, Milieu control "includes other techniques to restrict members' contact with the outside world and to be able to make critical, rational, judgments about information.". Lifton originally used "milieu control" to describe brainwashing and mind control, but the term has since been applied to other contexts.

Bandwagon effect

A literal "bandwagon" is a wagon that carries a musical ensemble, or band, during the course of a parade, circus, or other entertainment event. The metaphorical use of the term bandwagon in reference to this phenomenon began in 1848. Individuals are highly influenced by the pressure and norms exerted by groups. As an idea or belief increases in popularity, people are more likely to adopt it; when seemingly everyone is doing something, there is an incredible pressure to conform. Individuals' impressions of public opinion or preference can originate from several sources.

The bandwagon effect works through a self-reinforcing mechanism, and can spread quickly and on a large-scale through a positive feedback loop, whereby the more who are affected by it, the more likely other people are to be affected by it too. A new concept that is originally promoted by only a single advocate or a minimal group of advocates can quickly grow and become widely popular, even when sufficient supporting evidence is lacking. What happens is that a new concept gains a small following, which grows until it reaches a critical mass, until for example it begins being covered by mainstream media, at which point a large-scale bandwagon effect begins, which causes more people to support this concept, in increasingly large numbers.


Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Cohesiveness, or the desire for cohesiveness, in a group may produce a tendency among its members to agree at all costs.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (also stylised as 1984) is a dystopian social science fiction novel and cautionary tale written by the English writer George Orwell. It was published on 8 June 1949 by Secker & Warburg as Orwell's ninth and final book completed in his lifetime.

Irving Janis pioneered the initial research on the groupthink theory. He does not cite Whyte, but coined the term again by analogy with "doublethink" and similar terms that were part of the newspeak vocabulary in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. He initially defined groupthink as follows:

“The main principle of groupthink, which I offer in the spirit of Parkinson's Law, is this: "The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups”.

To make groupthink testable, Irving Janis devised eight symptoms indicative of groupthink:

Type I: Overestimations of the group — its power and morality

Type II: Closed-mindedness

Type III: Pressures toward uniformity

A very cohesive group abides with all group norms; but whether or not groupthink arises is dependent on what the group norms are. If the group encourages individual dissent and alternative strategies to problem solving, it is likely that groupthink will be avoided even in a highly cohesive group. This means that high cohesion will lead to groupthink only if one or both of the other antecedents is present, situational context being slightly more likely than structural faults to produce groupthink.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the perception of contradictory information and the mental toll of it. Relevant items of information include a person's actions, feelings, ideas, beliefs, values, and things in the environment. Cognitive dissonance is typically experienced as psychological stress when persons participate in an action that goes against one or more of those things. According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. The discomfort is triggered by the person's belief clashing with new information perceived, wherein the individual tries to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.

Coping with the nuances of contradictory ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. It requires energy and effort to sit with those seemingly opposite things that all seem true. Festinger argued that some people would inevitably resolve the dissonance by blindly believing whatever they wanted to believe. To function in the reality of society, human beings continually adjust the correspondence of their mental attitudes and personal actions; such continual adjustments, between cognition and action, result in one of three relationships with reality:

  1. Consonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions consistent with each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out to dinner and ordering water rather than wine)
  2. Irrelevant relationship: Two cognitions or actions unrelated to each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out and wearing a shirt)
  3. Dissonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions inconsistent with each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out, but then drinking more wine)

The term "magnitude of dissonance" refers to the level of discomfort caused to the person. This can be caused by the relationship between two different internal beliefs, or an action that is incompatible with the beliefs of the person. Two factors determine the degree of psychological dissonance caused by two conflicting cognitions or by two conflicting actions:

  1. The importance of cognitions: the greater the personal value of the elements, the greater the magnitude of the dissonance in the relation. When the value of the importance of the two dissonant items is high, it is difficult to determine which action or thought is correct. Both have had a place of truth, at least subjectively, in the mind of the person. Therefore, when the ideals or actions now clash, it is difficult for the individual to decide which takes priority.
  2. Ratio of cognitions: the proportion of dissonant-to-consonant elements. There is a level of discomfort within each person that is acceptable for living. When a person is within that comfort level, the dissonant factors do not interfere with functioning. However, when dissonant factors are abundant and not enough in line with each other, one goes through a process to regulate and bring the ratio back to an acceptable level. Once a subject chooses to keep one of the dissonant factors, they quickly forget the other to restore peace of mind.

There is always some degree of dissonance within a person as they go about making decisions, due to the changing quantity and quality of knowledge and wisdom that they gain. The magnitude itself is a subjective measurement since the reports are self relayed, and there is no objective way as yet to get a clear measurement of the level of discomfort.

“After performing dissonant behavior (lying) a person might find external, consonant elements. Therefore, a snake oil salesman might find a psychological self-justification (great profit) for promoting medical falsehoods, but, otherwise, might need to change his beliefs about the falsehoods.”.

There are four theoretic paradigms of cognitive dissonance, the mental stress people experienced when exposed to information that is inconsistent with their beliefs, ideals or values: Belief Disconfirmation, Induced Compliance, Free Choice, and Effort Justification, which respectively explain what happens after a person acts inconsistently, relative to their intellectual perspectives; what happens after a person makes decisions and what are the effects upon a person who has expended much effort to achieve a goal.

Moral panic

A moral panic is a widespread feeling of fear, often an irrational one, that some evil person or thing threatens the values, interests, or well-being of a community or society. It is "the process of arousing social concern over an issue", usually perpetuated by moral entrepreneurs and mass media coverage, and exacerbated by politicians and lawmakers. Moral panic can give rise to new laws aimed at controlling the community. Stanley Cohen, who developed the term, states that moral panic happens when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests".

According to Cohen, there are five sequential stages in the construction of a moral panic:

  1. An event, condition, episode, person, or group of persons is perceived and defined as a threat to societal values, safety, and interests.
  2. The nature of these apparent threats are amplified by the mass media, who present the supposed threat through simplistic, symbolic rhetoric. Such portrayals appeal to public prejudices, creating an evil in need of social control (folk devils) and victims (the moral majority).
  3. A sense of social anxiety and concern among the public is aroused through these symbolic representations of the threat.
  4. The gatekeepers of morality – editors, religious leaders, politicians, and other "moral"-thinking people – respond to the threat, with socially-accredited experts pronouncing their diagnoses and solutions to the "threat". This includes new laws or policies.
  5. The condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.

Characterizing the reactions to the mod and rocker conflict, Cohen identified four key agents in moral panics: mass media, moral entrepreneurs, the culture of social control, and the public.

While the issues identified may be real, the claims "exaggerate the seriousness, extent, typicality and/or inevitability of harm". Moral panics are now studied in sociology and criminology, media studies, and cultural studies. According to Cohen, a moral panic occurs when a "condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.". To Cohen, those who start the panic after fearing a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are 'moral entrepreneurs', while those who supposedly threaten social order have been described as 'folk devils'.

Asch's Experiment

In psychology, the Asch conformity experiments or the Asch paradigm were a series of studies directed by Solomon Asch studying if and how individuals yielded to or defied a majority group and the effect of such influences on beliefs and opinions.

Demonstration of the Solomon Asch conformity experiments were a series of psychological experiments conducted by during the 1950s. The experiments revealed the degree to which a person's own opinions are influenced by those of groups (aka peer pressure). Asch found that people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to, or fit in with, the rest of the group.

A research question examined by Asch was whether varying the magnitude of majority "wrongness" affected subject conformity to group norms. To answer this question, the difference between the reference line and three comparison lines was systematically increased to determine if there was a point where the extremity of the majority's error affected subject conformity.

The authors failed to find a point at which subject conformity to the majority was completely eliminated, even when the disparity between lines was increased to 7 inches.

Milgram's Shock Experiment

The Milgram experiment(s) on obedience to authority figures were a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, 40 men in the age range of 20 to 50 from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience.


Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner". These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, with every participant going up to 300 volts, and 65% going up to the full 450 volts. Milgram first described his research in a 1963 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

The experiments began on August 7, 1961 (after the grant proposal was approved in July), in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University, three months after the start of the trial of German NSDAP officer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to explain the psychology of genocide and answer the popular contemporary question: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" The experiment was repeated many times around the globe, with fairly consistent results.