Conformity refers to the process of matching one’s actions or beliefs with the behavior and norms of those around us. Research into the nature of this phenomenon was popularized by prominent social psychologists in the early to mid-20th century such as Muzafer Sherif and Solomon Asch. Today, there exists a well-established literature base regarding the different types of conformity that individuals display, the conditions under which conformity is (and is not) likely to occur, and the various desirable and undesirable consequences of conforming behavior.
Types of Conformity
Two interrelated types of conformity are described in the literature, which differ according to their underlying cause. On the one hand, informational conformity occurs when we are uncertain about the most appropriate behavior in a given situation, and we conform to those around us in order to bring about correct courses of action. Imagine, for instance, the uninitiated exerciser who observes more experienced individuals using the weights machine in the gym, before trying to mirror their technique when the time comes to use the equipment oneself. In the case of informational conformity, individuals most often look to put their trust in those who are viewed as highly credible, and tend to genuinely believe that they are adopting the most effective strategy. In sport, informational conformity has been documented in relation to performance appraisals, whereby gymnastics judges have been shown to display more consistent scoring patterns when they have been made aware of one another’s previous ratings (even despite knowing their subsequent scores will not be revealed). On the other hand, normative (or instrumental) conformity is underpinned by a desire to integrate with others and occurs when we acquiesce in order to be liked or accepted. In this case, individuals may not have genuine faith that their chosen behavior or belief is correct, but they conform nonetheless as a display of public compliance. For example, new players on a sports team may feel it is in their best interest to join in when their new teammates are complaining about their coach, despite having no personal grievances against the coach.
Although informational and normative conformity typically occur when one conforms to the will of the many, this is not always the case. In some instances, it is possible that the direction of influence may be reversed, and that the majority (the group) may conform to the opinions and behaviors of a single individual. This notion of minority influence dictates that when a high-status person makes a particularly compelling case for a course of action, that person may successfully shape the behavior of teammates. In sport for instance, it is easy to imagine how a group of rookies might willingly conform to the behavior of someone who occupies a position of authority on the team, such as a captain or senior player.
Individual and Situational Influences
From an individual standpoint, there is less pressure on high-status individuals to conform within the group. For example, members of a sports team might implicitly accept that although their flamboyant star player consistently performs well in competition, that player is not expected to practice as hard as the rest of the group through the week. There is also evidence that conformity to group norms increases when individuals hold strong perceptions of team cohesion or unity, and that gender may interact with task characteristics to shape conformity behavior. Specifically, females have been shown to conform more than males when performing “masculine” tasks, whereas males tend to display greater conformity on “feminine” tasks. In terms of situational and societal influences, people from collectivist (relative to individualist) cultures appear to be more likely to conform to others’ behavior, and it has been recognized that conformity is more likely as task difficulty increases. It has also been shown that individuals display a greater tendency to conform when the size of the unanimous majority (to which they are conforming) is large. Finally, priming research has demonstrated that the subconscious activation of affiliation goals and conformity-related concepts may also be responsible for promoting conformity. For example, simply viewing conforming (e.g., a picture of an accountant) versus nonconforming (e.g., a picture of a skinhead punk) images has been shown to impact conformity-related behavior.
Potential Benefits and Pitfalls
Conformity behavior is driven by a need for certainty and inclusion in one’s social interactions. By adopting both the correct (informational conformity) and desired (normative conformity) behavior, individuals not only bring their actions in line with the other members of their group, they also satisfy their need for belongingness and collective identity, as well as experience improved self-esteem. In addition, they may also foster more positive social relationships by eliciting favorable responses toward themselves from the other group members.
That said, researchers have also documented what may be viewed as adaptive outcomes associated with nonconformity (a heightened perception of uniqueness and personal identity), and conformity behavior is not without its potential drawbacks. The concept of groupthink, which has been studied extensively in organizational and political contexts (though less so in sport), provides an interesting illustration of the dangers associated with conformity behavior. Groupthink occurs when a team’s desire for conformity interferes with the necessary processing of alternative ideas, viewpoints, and decision-making options, and several famous historical and contemporary events have been described as prototypical examples of this phenomenon: decisions associated with the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the escalation of the current global financial crisis. Groupthink is most prevalent within highly cohesive networks that do not possess norms encouraging free speech, dissent, expressiveness, and sharing of opinions. This concept is typically characterized by, among other things, overestimations of the group’s capabilities (“We’re a much better team than these guys.”), closed-mindedness (“They’ll never play as well against us as they did last week.”), illusions of unanimity and invulnerability (“We’re all agreed, there’s nothing to fear from this opponent.”), and indeed a pressure to conform (“Everyone else is fine, what are you worrying about?”)