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Theories of conformity have long stressed the importance of cultural values in shaping people’s responses to group pressure. Asch, for example, believed that his classic demonstrations of conformity—of people’s willingness to ‘‘call White Black’’—raised questions about the values fostered by American society and about its educational practices. Others have argued that the early demonstrations of conformity in the United States, especially those of Asch, reflect the particular climate of the McCarthy era and would not be found in the more tolerant culture of post-cold war society. In line with these arguments, evidence for the cultural roots of conformity has come from two types of comparisons: those across cultures and those within a culture at different periods in its history.
- Comparisons Across Cultures
- Comparisons within a Culture at Different Periods in its History
- Conformity or Harmony?
1. Comparisons Across Cultures
Studies that have compared conformity across cultural groups can be divided into three broad types: comparisons of subsistence economies, comparisons of developed societies, and comparisons of different cultural groups within a society.
1.1. Comparisons of Subsistence Economies
Berry has argued that different modes of subsistence require different human qualities that are reflected in cultural values and socialization practices and that give rise to differences in conformity. It has been found that pastoral and agricultural peoples emphasize obedience and responsibility in their socialization practices because these economies need people who are conscientious and compliant, whereas hunting and fishing economies emphasize independence, self-reliance, and individual achievement because these economies need people who are individualist and assertive. Berry argued that if this is the case, pastoral and agricultural peoples should also be more likely to conform than are hunting and fishing peoples. Consistent with this reasoning, he found greater conformity on a line judgment task among the Temne of Sierra Leone, an agricultural society with strict disciplinarian socialization practices, than among the Eskimo of Baffin Island, a hunting and fishing society whose socialization practices are lenient and encourage individualism. However, his later research in Australia and New Guinea, as well as among North American Indians, obtained weaker support for this theory. He also found that where a subsistence economy had been exposed to Western values, there was less cross-cultural variation in conformity.
1.2. Comparisons of Developed Societies
Comparisons of developed societies have yielded a mixed set of findings. Several studies have reported cross-cultural differences in conformity that are explained by the relative values attached to conformity in the societies concerned. One of the earliest comparisons by Milgram found greater conformity on a perceptual task among Norwegian students than among French students, and this was taken as reflecting the fact that Norway is less tolerant of deviance than is France. Some investigators have replicated the Asch experiment, in which participants judge which of three lines is the same length as another line after hearing the unanimous, but manifestly erroneous, judgment of a group of other participants who are in fact confederates of the experimenter. Replications in Brazil, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Fiji, as well as among the Chinese, found high levels of conformity when compared with the original results, and these findings were interpreted as reflecting the higher value attached to conformity in these societies.
Anticipated differences have not always emerged, however, and further studies of conformity from countries as diverse as Brazil, Lebanon, Zaire, France, Kuwait, Portugal, and Hong Kong all have reported comparable results, leading some authors to remark on the cross-cultural stability of the classic demonstrations of conformity. Studies in Japan, a country that at first sight might be expected to have higher levels of conformity, have also been inconclusive and point to the importance of taking into account the relationship between the individual and the group. When the majority are strangers to the individual, there is some evidence for a lower level of conformity (relative to the United States) among Japanese students, but other evidence suggests a higher level of conformity when the majority are friends of the individual.
1.3. Comparisons of Cultural Groups within a Society
Some investigators have compared cultural groups within a society as a way in which to study the cultural roots of conformity, although this has not proved to be a fruitful line of inquiry. There is some indication that conformity is higher among minority groups than among majority groups. For example, some studies have found higher conformity among Blacks than among Whites in the United States, and another study found higher conformity among Puerto Ricans than among Whites. A study in Britain found higher conformity among West Indians than among Whites. A study in Fiji found greater conformity among Fijian Indians than among native Fijians. However, there is no consistent pattern of results, nor is it clear why such differences have been found.
1.4. Conformity and Individualism– Collectivism
Cross-cultural comparisons have yielded a mixed set of findings. This may be due, in part, to the methodological limitations of many of the studies in that frequently poor control is exercised over differences in sample and method between the cultures that are compared. Also, comparisons typically are made with single samples from each culture, and evidence from other studies carried out in a culture is disregarded. The explanation for cross-cultural differences, when they are found, is usually post hoc, and there has been little attempt to directly assess the values presumed to mediate responses to group influence. To address these concerns, Bond and Smith in 1996 conducted a meta-analysis of 133 Asch-type conformity studies from 17 countries that was able to provide tighter control over extraneous factors and combine all available evidence from various cultures. Moreover, they proposed that cross-cultural differences in conformity would depend on the extent to which a culture subscribed to collectivist values as opposed to individualist values. Individualism–collectivism has emerged as the most important dimension on which cross-cultural differences in values have been described, albeit one that continues to be a central topic of debate. In individualist cultures such as European Americans, individuals are independent of one another and social behavior is largely determined by personal goals rather than collective goals. Where personal goals conflict with collective goals, it is personal goals that tend to be prioritized. In contrast, in collectivist cultures such as East Asian societies, the emphasis is on interdependence and the self is defined in relation to group membership. Social behavior is largely determined by collective rather than personal goals, and collective goals are given priority whenever they are in conflict with personal goals. Conformity to the majority would be more likely in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures given the higher value placed on maintaining harmony in group relations. This was what Bond and Smith found. Using measures of collectivist values derived from three independent cross-national value surveys, they found that studies conducted in collectivist countries tended to report larger conformity effects than did those conducted in individualist countries.
2. Comparisons Within A Culture At Different Periods In Its History
A second line of evidence for the cultural roots of conformity comes from the observation that replications of conformity experiments within a society produce different results at different points in time. Larsen conducted three replications of the Asch experiment and interpreted the different levels of conformity as reflecting sociopolitical changes in American society. The more questioning attitude of students of the Vietnam War era explained the lower level of conformity found in 1974, whereas the decline of student activism explained the rise of conformity levels by In 1988, conformity had declined again somewhat, and this was seen as reflecting the increase in protest activities. Similarly, Perrin and Spencer were unable to replicate the Asch experiment with British students in 1980, and they attributed this to their more questioning attitude compared with Asch’s respondents during the 1950s. They concluded that the Asch experiment was not an enduring social psychological phenomenon but rather one rooted in its historical context. A few years later, another study found some conformity among British students that was attributed to the greater cohesiveness brought about by the Falklands war.
Not all investigators have found it difficult to replicate the Asch experiment, however, and several other recent studies of university students conducted in Britain, Belgium, Holland, and Portugal all have found reasonably high levels of conformity comparable to those found in Asch’s research. Another line of argument, proposed by Lamb and Alsifaki, is that levels of conformity have been steadily on the increase, drawing on the hypothesis that modern industrial societies are characterized by increasing numbers of ‘‘other-directed’’ types who are more easily influenced by peer pressure. This line of inquiry is highly speculative given that there are many potential reasons, apart from changes in the sociopolitical context, why two studies conducted at different points in time would give different results. Nevertheless, Bond and Smith’s meta-analysis of Asch-type conformity studies enabled a synthesis of a number of studies and controlled for differences in study design and method. Using only those studies carried out in the United States, of which there were 97 in total, Bond and Smith found that the level of conformity was related to the time when the study was carried out. Studies carried out more recently have tended to report lower levels of conformity than did earlier studies, perhaps suggesting that there has been a greater value placed on independence in U.S. society during the post-World War II era.
3. Conformity Or Harmony?
The social psychological literature, by and large, portrays conformity in negative terms. The individual is pitted against the group, and to yield to group pressure is an act of submission and a sign of weakness. Individuals are expected to express their own opinions, and those who continue to do so in spite of pressures to do otherwise are admired. Such a view of conformity is rooted in Western individualist values in which self-expression and independence from the group are highly valued. Viewed from the standpoint of collectivist values, however, such behavior may seem selfish and immature. In such societies, individuals should seek to maintain harmony with the group, and open disagreement can be a source of embarrassment. Thus, the same behavior might be viewed as conformity in an individualist culture (and be judged negatively) but be viewed as maintaining harmony in a collectivist culture (and be judged positively).
In 1999, Kim and Markus demonstrated the different values placed on conformity and uniqueness in collectivist and individualist cultures. For example, they found that magazine advertisements in Korea were more likely to have conformity themes, emphasizing respect for collective values and beliefs as well as harmony with group norms, than were those in the United States. In contrast, advertisements in the United States were more likely to have uniqueness themes consisting of freedom, choice, individual uniqueness, and rebelling against collective values and beliefs. These authors also studied preferences for unique or common elements of abstract geometrical figures and found that European Americans preferred unique elements, whereas East Asians preferred common elements. Thus, conformity takes on different meanings depending on the network of values and beliefs that comprise the cultural context within which the behavior occurs, and these differences in meaning in turn will entail that conformity or independence will carry different affective consequences.
The literature on cross-cultural differences in conformity has provided a mixed set of results. This is due, in part, to the difficulty in ensuring comparable methods and samples when conducting cross-cultural research, and conformity studies are in any case difficult to carry out because it is so easy to arouse suspicion among participants. Most studies have used the classic conformity paradigms of Asch or Crutchfield and have used mostly perceptual judgment tasks. The major limitation has been the lack of attention to underlying process or theoretical elaboration of relevant features of the situation. Recent work relating individualism– collectivism to conformity goes some way in redressing this issue and suggests that people in collectivist cultures will conform more. There is also some evidence that conformity in U.S. society has declined since World War II. However, no studies have yet directly assessed how collectivist values relate to conformity. Moreover, the nature of collectivism suggests that the relation of the individual to the group is crucial and that it is not generally true that people in collectivist societies will conform more. In collectivist cultures, individuals will seek to maintain harmony with ingroup members but may be less concerned about maintaining harmony with out-group members. Finally, care must be taken in interpreting behavior within its cultural context. Conformity may reflect a different capacity to resist group pressure or a different determination to avoid embarrassment. Similar behavior may take on different meanings and reflect different processes in different cultural contexts.
- Bond, R., & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch’s (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 111–137.
- Furnham, A. (1984). Studies of cross-cultural conformity: A brief and critical review. Psychologia, 27, 65–72.
- Kim, H., & Markus, H. (1999). Deviance or uniqueness, harmony or conformity? A cultural analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 785–800.
- Mann, L. (1988). Culture and conformity. In M. H. Bond (Ed.), The cross-cultural challenge to social psychology (pp. 184–187). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Smith, P. B., & Bond, M. H. (1998). Social psychology across cultures: Analysis and perspective (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.