Conformity and ObedienceBy Jerry M. Burger
Santa Clara University
We often change our attitudes and behaviors to match the attitudes and behaviors of the people around us. One reason for this conformity is a concern about what other people think of us. This process was demonstrated in a classic study in which college students deliberately gave wrong answers to a simple visual judgment task rather than go against the group. Another reason we conform to the norm is because other people often have information we do not, and relying on norms can be a reasonable strategy when we are uncertain about how we are supposed to act. Unfortunately, we frequently misperceive how the typical person acts, which can contribute to problems such as the excessive binge drinking often seen in college students. Obeying orders from an authority figure can sometimes lead to disturbing behavior. This danger was illustrated in a famous study in which participants were instructed to administer painful electric shocks to another person in what they believed to be a learning experiment. Despite vehement protests from the person receiving the shocks, most participants continued the procedure when instructed to do so by the experimenter. The findings raise questions about the power of blind obedience in deplorable situations such as atrocities and genocide. They also raise concerns about the ethical treatment of participants in psychology experiments.
- Become aware of how widespread conformity is in our lives and some of the ways each of us changes our attitudes and behavior to match the norm.
- Understand the two primary reasons why people often conform to perceived norms.
- Appreciate how obedience to authority has been examined in laboratory studies and some of the implications of the findings from these investigations.
- Consider some of the remaining issues and sources of controversy surrounding Milgram’s obedience studies.
When he was a teenager, my son often enjoyed looking at photographs of me and my wife taken when we were in high school. He laughed at the hairstyles, the clothing, and the kind of glasses people wore “back then.” And when he was through with his ridiculing, we would point out that no one is immune to fashions and fads and that someday his children will probably be equally amused by his high school photographs and the trends he found so normal at the time.
Everyday observation confirms that we often adopt the actions and attitudes of the people around us. Trends in clothing, music, foods, and entertainment are obvious. But our views on political issues, religious questions, and lifestyles also reflect to some degree the attitudes of the people we interact with. Similarly, decisions about behaviors such as smoking and drinking are influenced by whether the people we spend time with engage in these activities. Psychologists refer to this widespread tendency to act and think like the people around us as conformity.
What causes all this conformity? To start, humans may possess an inherent tendency to imitate the actions of others. Although we usually are not aware of it, we often mimic the gestures, body posture, language, talking speed, and many other behaviors of the people we interact with. Researchers find that this mimicking increases the connection between people and allows our interactions to flow more smoothly (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999).
Beyond this automatic tendency to imitate others, psychologists have identified two primary reasons for conformity. The first of these is normative influence. When normative influence is operating, people go along with the crowd because they are concerned about what others think of them. We don’t want to look out of step or become the target of criticism just because we like different kinds of music or dress differently than everyone else. Fitting in also brings rewards such as camaraderie and compliments.
How powerful is normative influence? Consider a classic study conducted many years ago by Solomon Asch (1956). The participants were male college students who were asked to engage in a seemingly simple task. An experimenter standing several feet away held up a card that depicted one line on the left side and three lines on the right side. The participant’s job was to say aloud which of the three lines on the right was the same length as the line on the left. Sixteen cards were presented one at a time, and the correct answer on each was so obvious as to make the task a little boring. Except for one thing. The participant was not alone. In fact, there were six other people in the room who also gave their answers to the line-judgment task aloud. Moreover, although they pretended to be fellow participants, these other individuals were, in fact, confederates working with the experimenter. The real participant was seated so that he always gave his answer after hearing what five other “participants” said. Everything went smoothly until the third trial, when inexplicably the first “participant” gave an obviously incorrect answer. The mistake might have been amusing, except the second participant gave the same answer. As did the third, the fourth, and the fifth participant. Suddenly the real participant was in a difficult situation. His eyes told him one thing, but five out of five people apparently saw something else.
It’s one thing to wear your hair a certain way or like certain foods because everyone around you does. But, would participants intentionally give a wrong answer just to conform with the other participants? The confederates uniformly gave incorrect answers on 12 of the 16 trials, and 76 percent of the participants went along with the norm at least once and also gave the wrong answer. In total, they conformed with the group on one-third of the 12 test trials. Although we might be impressed that the majority of the time participants answered honestly, most psychologists find it remarkable that so many college students caved in to the pressure of the group rather than do the job they had volunteered to do. In almost all cases, the participants knew they were giving an incorrect answer, but their concern for what these other people might be thinking about them overpowered their desire to do the right thing.
Variations of Asch’s procedures have been conducted numerous times (Bond, 2005; Bond & Smith, 1996). We now know that the findings are easily replicated, that there is an increase in conformity with more confederates (up to about five), that teenagers are more prone to conforming than are adults, and that people conform significantly less often when they believe the confederates will not hear their responses (Berndt, 1979; Bond, 2005; Crutchfield, 1955; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). This last finding is consistent with the notion that participants change their answers because they are concerned about what others think of them. Finally, although we see the effect in virtually every culture that has been studied, more conformity is found in collectivist countries such as Japan and China than in individualistic countries such as the United States (Bond & Smith, 1996). Compared with individualistic cultures, people who live in collectivist cultures place a higher value on the goals of the group than on individual preferences. They also are more motivated to maintain harmony in their interpersonal relations.
The other reason we sometimes go along with the crowd is that people are often a source of information. Psychologists refer to this process as informational influence. Most of us, most of the time, are motivated to do the right thing. If society deems that we put litter in a proper container, speak softly in libraries, and tip our waiter, then that’s what most of us will do. But sometimes it’s not clear what society expects of us. In these situations, we often rely on descriptive norms (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990). That is, we act the way most people—or most people like us—act. This is not an unreasonable strategy. Other people often have information that we do not, especially when we find ourselves in new situations. If you have ever been part of a conversation that went something like this,
“Do you think we should?”
“Sure. Everyone else is doing it.”,
you have experienced the power of informational influence.
However, it’s not always easy to obtain good descriptive norm information, which means we sometimes rely on a flawed notion of the norm when deciding how we should behave. A good example of how misperceived norms can lead to problems is found in research on binge drinking among college students. Excessive drinking is a serious problem on many campuses (Mita, 2009). There are many reasons why students binge drink, but one of the most important is their perception of the descriptive norm. How much students drink is highly correlated with how much they believe the average student drinks (Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Larimer, 2007). Unfortunately, students aren’t very good at making this assessment. They notice the boisterous heavy drinker at the party but fail to consider all the students not attending the party. As a result, students typically overestimate the descriptive norm for college student drinking (Borsari & Carey, 2003; Perkins, Haines, & Rice, 2005). Most students believe they consume significantly less alcohol than the norm, a miscalculation that creates a dangerous push toward more and more excessive alcohol consumption. On the positive side, providing students with accurate information about drinking norms has been found to reduce overindulgent drinking (Burger, LaSalvia, Hendricks, Mehdipour, & Neudeck, 2011; Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Walter, 2009).
Researchers have demonstrated the power of descriptive norms in a number of areas. Homeowners reduced the amount of energy they used when they learned that they were consuming more energy than their neighbors (Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007). Undergraduates selected the healthy food option when led to believe that other students had made this choice (Burger et al., 2010). Hotel guests were more likely to reuse their towels when a hanger in the bathroom told them that this is what most guests did (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). And more people began using the stairs instead of the elevator when informed that the vast majority of people took the stairs to go up one or two floors (Burger & Shelton, 2011).
Although we may be influenced by the people around us more than we recognize, whether we conform to the norm is up to us. But sometimes decisions about how to act are not so easy. Sometimes we are directed by a more powerful person to do things we may not want to do. Researchers who study obedience are interested in how people react when given an order or command from someone in a position of authority. In many situations, obedience is a good thing. We are taught at an early age to obey parents, teachers, and police officers. It’s also important to follow instructions from judges, firefighters, and lifeguards. And a military would fail to function if soldiers stopped obeying orders from superiors. But, there is also a dark side to obedience. In the name of “following orders” or “just doing my job,” people can violate ethical principles and break laws. More disturbingly, obedience often is at the heart of some of the worst of human behavior—massacres, atrocities, and even genocide.
It was this unsettling side of obedience that led to some of the most famous and most controversial research in the history of psychology. Milgram (1963, 1965, 1974) wanted to know why so many otherwise decent German citizens went along with the brutality of the Nazi leaders during the Holocaust. “These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person,” Milgram (1963, p. 371) wrote, “but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders.”
To understand this obedience, Milgram conducted a series of laboratory investigations. In all but one variation of the basic procedure, participants were men recruited from the community surrounding Yale University, where the research was carried out. These citizens signed up for what they believed to be an experiment on learning and memory. In particular, they were told the research concerned the effects of punishment on learning. Three people were involved in each session. One was the participant. Another was the experimenter. The third was a confederate who pretended to be another participant.
The experimenter explained that the study consisted of a memory test and that one of the men would be the teacher and the other the learner. Through a rigged drawing, the real participant was always assigned the teacher’s role and the confederate was always the learner. The teacher watched as the learner was strapped into a chair and had electrodes attached to his wrist. The teacher then moved to the room next door where he was seated in front of a large metal box the experimenter identified as a “shock generator.” The front of the box displayed gauges and lights and, most noteworthy, a series of 30 levers across the bottom. Each lever was labeled with a voltage figure, starting with 15 volts and moving up in 15-volt increments to 450 volts. Labels also indicated the strength of the shocks, starting with “Slight Shock” and moving up to “Danger: Severe Shock” toward the end. The last two levers were simply labeled “XXX” in red.
Through a microphone, the teacher administered a memory test to the learner in the next room. The learner responded to the multiple-choice items by pressing one of four buttons that were barely within reach of his strapped-down hand. If the teacher saw the correct answer light up on his side of the wall, he simply moved on to the next item. But if the learner got the item wrong, the teacher pressed one of the shock levers and, thereby, delivered the learner’s punishment. The teacher was instructed to start with the 15-volt lever and move up to the next highest shock for each successive wrong answer.
In reality, the learner received no shocks. But he did make a lot of mistakes on the test, which forced the teacher to administer what he believed to be increasingly strong shocks. The purpose of the study was to see how far the teacher would go before refusing to continue. The teacher’s first hint that something was amiss came after pressing the 75-volt lever and hearing through the wall the learner say “Ugh!” The learner’s reactions became stronger and louder with each lever press. At 150 volts, the learner yelled out, “Experimenter! That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please. My heart’s starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out.”
The experimenter’s role was to encourage the participant to continue. If at any time the teacher asked to end the session, the experimenter responded with phrases such as, “The experiment requires that you continue,” and “You have no other choice, you must go on.” The experimenter ended the session only after the teacher stated four successive times that he did not want to continue. All the while, the learner’s protests became more intense with each shock. After 300 volts, the learner refused to answer any more questions, which led the experimenter to say that no answer should be considered a wrong answer. After 330 volts, despite vehement protests from the learner following previous shocks, the teacher heard only silence, suggesting that the learner was now physically unable to respond. If the teacher reached 450 volts—the end of the generator—the experimenter told him to continue pressing the 450 volt lever for each wrong answer. It was only after the teacher pressed the 450-volt lever three times that the experimenter announced that the study was over.
If you had been a participant in this research, what would you have done? Virtually everyone says he or she would have stopped early in the process. And most people predict that very few if any participants would keep pressing all the way to 450 volts. Yet in the basic procedure described here, 65 percent of the participants continued to administer shocks to the very end of the session. These were not brutal, sadistic men. They were ordinary citizens who nonetheless followed the experimenter’s instructions to administer what they believed to be excruciating if not dangerous electric shocks to an innocent person. The disturbing implication from the findings is that, under the right circumstances, each of us may be capable of acting in some very uncharacteristic and perhaps some very unsettling ways.
Milgram conducted many variations of this basic procedure to explore some of the factors that affect obedience. He found that obedience rates decreased when the learner was in the same room as the experimenter and declined even further when the teacher had to physically touch the learner to administer the punishment. Participants also were less willing to continue the procedure after seeing other teachers refuse to press the shock levers, and they were significantly less obedient when the instructions to continue came from a person they believed to be another participant rather than from the experimenter. Finally, Milgram found that women participants followed the experimenter’s instructions at exactly the same rate the men had.
Milgram’s obedience research has been the subject of much controversy and discussion. Psychologists continue to debate the extent to which Milgram’s studies tell us something about atrocities in general and about the behavior of German citizens during the Holocaust in particular (Miller, 2004). Certainly, there are important features of that time and place that cannot be recreated in a laboratory, such as a pervasive climate of prejudice and dehumanization. Another issue concerns the relevance of the findings. Some people have argued that today we are more aware of the dangers of blind obedience than we were when the research was conducted back in the 1960s. However, findings from partial and modified replications of Milgram’s procedures conducted in recent years suggest that people respond to the situation today much like they did a half a century ago (Burger, 2009).
Another point of controversy concerns the ethical treatment of research participants. Researchers have an obligation to look out for the welfare of their participants. Yet, there is little doubt that many of Milgram’s participants experienced intense levels of stress as they went through the procedure. In his defense, Milgram was not unconcerned about the effects of the experience on his participants. And in follow-up questionnaires, the vast majority of his participants said they were pleased they had been part of the research and thought similar experiments should be conducted in the future. Nonetheless, in part because of Milgram’s studies, guidelines and procedures were developed to protect research participants from these kinds of experiences. Although Milgram’s intriguing findings left us with many unanswered questions, conducting a full replication of his experiment remains out of bounds by today’s standards.
Finally, it is also worth noting that although a number of factors appear to lead to obedience, there are also those who would not obey. In one conceptual replication of the Milgram studies, conducted with a small sample in Italy, the researchers explored the moment that approximately two-thirds of the sample refused to cooperate (Bocchiaro & Zimbardo, 2010). The investigators identified compassion, ethics, and recognition of the situation as problematic as major influences on refusal. Thus, just as there are pressures to obey there are also instances in which people can stand up to authority.
Social psychologists are fond of saying that we are all influenced by the people around us more than we recognize. Of course, each person is unique, and ultimately each of us makes choices about how we will and will not act. But decades of research on conformity and obedience make it clear that we live in a social world and that—for better or worse—much of what we do is a reflection of the people we encounter.
- Student Video: Christine N. Winston and Hemali Maher's 'The Milgram Experiment' gives an excellent 3-minute overview of one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology. It was one of the winning entries in the 2015 Noba Student Video Award.
- Video: An example of information influence in a field setting
- Video: Scenes from a recent partial replication of Milgram’s obedience studies
- Video: Scenes from a recent replication of Asch’s conformity experiment
- Web: Website devoted to scholarship and research related to Milgram’s obedience studies
- In what ways do you see normative influence operating among you and your peers? How difficult would it be to go against the norm? What would it take for you to not do something just because all your friends were doing it?
- What are some examples of how informational influence helps us do the right thing? How can we use descriptive norm information to change problem behaviors?
- Is conformity more likely or less likely to occur when interacting with other people through social media as compared to face-to-face encounters?
- When is obedience to authority a good thing and when is it bad? What can be done to prevent people from obeying commands to engage in truly deplorable behavior such as atrocities and massacres?
- In what ways do Milgram’s experimental procedures fall outside the guidelines for research with human participants? Are there ways to conduct relevant research on obedience to authority without violating these guidelines?
- Changing one’s attitude or behavior to match a perceived social norm.
- Descriptive norm
- The perception of what most people do in a given situation.
- Informational influence
- Conformity that results from a concern to act in a socially approved manner as determined by how others act.
- Normative influence
- Conformity that results from a concern for what other people think of us.
- Responding to an order or command from a person in a position of authority.
- Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70 (9, Whole No. 416).
- Berndt, T. J. (1979). Developmental changes in conformity to peers and parents. Developmental Psychology, 15, 608–616.
- Bocchiaro, P., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2010). Defying unjust authority: An exploratory study. Current Psychology, 29(2), 155-170.
- Bond, R. (2005). Group size and conformity. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 8, 331–354.
- 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.
- Borsari, B., & Carey, K. B. (2003). Descriptive and injunctive norms in college drinking: A meta-analytic integration. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 64, 331–341.
- Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64, 1–11.
- Burger, J. M., & Shelton, M. (2011). Changing everyday health behaviors through descriptive norm manipulations. Social Influence, 6, 69–77.
- Burger, J. M., Bell, H., Harvey, K., Johnson, J., Stewart, C., Dorian, K., & Swedroe, M. (2010). Nutritious or delicious? The effect of descriptive norm information on food choice. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 228–242.
- Burger, J. M., LaSalvia, C. T., Hendricks, L. A., Mehdipour, T., & Neudeck, E. M. (2011). Partying before the party gets started: The effects of descriptive norms on pre-gaming behavior. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 33, 220–227.
- Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893–910.
- Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1015–1026.
- Crutchfield, R. S. (1955). Conformity and character. American Psychologist, 10, 191–198.
- Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629–636.
- Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint:Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472–482.
- Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
- Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57–76.
- Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371.
- Miller, A. G. (2004). What can the Milgram obedience experiments tell us about the Holocaust? Generalizing from the social psychology laboratory. In A. G. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil (pp. 193–239). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Mita, M. (2009). College binge drinking still on the rise. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 302, 836–837.
- Neighbors, C., Lee, C. M., Lewis, M. A., Fossos, N., & Larimer, M. E. (2007). Are social norms the best predictor of outcomes among heavy-drinking college students? Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 68, 556–565.
- Neighbors, C., Lee, C. M., Lewis, M. A., Fossos, N., & Walter, T. (2009). Internet-based personalized feedback to reduce 21st-birthday drinking: A randomized controlled trial of an even-specific prevention intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77, 51–63.
- Perkins, H. W., Haines, M. P., & Rice, R. (2005). Misperceiving the college drinking norm and related problems: A nationwide study of exposure to prevention information, perceived norms, and student alcohol misuse. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 66, 470–478.
- Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18, 429–434.
- Jerry M. BurgerJerry M. Burger is a Professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University. His primary research interests are in the area of social influence, especially processes related to obedience, compliance and social norms. His books include Desire for control: Personality, social and clinical perspectives, Returning home: Reconnecting with our childhood and Personality, a textbook now in its ninth edition.