Social Psychology: Conformity and Compliance

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

People usually like to believe that their actions and thoughts are mostly their own. But in reality, they are often affected by subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) forms of Social Influence [1]. Social influence is not a bad thing, and can encourage behavior that is beneficial to the individual as well as to society at large [2]. People also assert some influence over others just as they are being influenced by them. Such social influence can be experienced and applied at the social level (called Conformity) or at the personal level (called Compliance) [1].


Conformity occurs through the process of ‘Following Rules’. These include social and group related rules and codes of conduct, including legal ones [1, 2]. For example, people switch off their phones in a theatre or library, wear formal clothes to a wedding, stop at a red light and offer payment for services rendered because these are expected behaviors. People follow such rules because they believe that these rules are meaningful, and that they protect the interests of self as well as others. The notion that everybody benefits when rules are followed is what encourages people to conform [2, 3].

Personal benefit in conforming

  • Being right (Experiencing Informational Influence): People are motivated to be correct in their responses to the world around them. When a large number of people are observed to follow a said rule, people are likely to believe that they would also be ‘right’ in following it. Responses to social situations are rarely obvious, and so people take cues and learn from the behaviors of others in deciding their own [1, 2].
  • Being liked (Experiencing Normative Influence): When someone falls in with the group norms, they are more likely to be liked by others in the group. When an individual values membership to a particular group, they are motivated to be liked by the other members of that group, and thus, they become motivated to conform. Such conformity is learnt when a person receives praise or recognition for following rules, and when they receive some form of punishment for breaking them [1, 2].

Factors that mediate conformity

A number of factors affect the extent to which a person will conform to prescribed rules. One of the most important ones is the Cohesiveness of the group, which is the extent to which the group members like or are attracted to the group, and are motivated to be a part of the group [3, 4]. The more cohesive a group is, the more motivated the members are to conform for fear of being rejected by other group members. The evidence for the effect of cohesiveness on behavior is compelling, and has been found in a wide number of contexts [2].

The second factor that can affect conformity is the size of the group. When we are faced with just one other person, we are more likely to assert a difference in opinion. But as the group size increases to three and four persons, it becomes more and more difficult for an individual to disagree [4]. On the other hand, when a large number of people seem to be unanimous, people are not as strongly influenced, since agreement among a large number of persons is seen as a sign of collusion [2]. So when a small group of four or five friends provides information about what is expected at the next school event, an individual is more likely to take them seriously; but when all members on a movie franchise fan – site are vehement about a change in the story, one does not feel pressured to contribute even if one agrees.

Group norms also affect conformity. Descriptive group norms suggest the most popular behaviors in a situation, while injunctive norms suggest the ideal behaviors in that situation. Typically, people are more likely to follow descriptive norms where they are available; but if an injunctive norm is established or triggered, it is more likely to assert its influence [1,4]. For example, if people visiting a particular location usually chuck thrash in the general direction of the dustbin without ensuring that it actually falls inside; a new entrant is likely to start doing the same thing. But when a notice is pasted that encourages people to deposit thrash inside the dustbin, people are more likely to take the effort.


The process of Agreeing to a request is called Compliance. While conformity involves asking the each individual in the group to agree with the rules or notions proposed, compliance requires one individual to agree with a particular request made of them [5, 6]. There are rarely any direct costs of rejecting requests of compliance (though there may be social costs). For example, when someone asks us to read a pamphlet, contribute to a cause, or pass a book, they are asking for compliance. We may choose to comply, and are free to refuse. But when we do, we may be seen as snobbish, selfish or mean. People do not always comply with every request made of them, but they are more likely to do when one or more of certain criteria are met [1, 3, 6]. Thus, compliance is more likely to occur when:

  • We like the person making the request: People are more likely to respond to requests made by someone they like, or admire as compared to requests made by someone they don’t. People hope that by complying with the requests of such persons, their liking will be reciprocated [5].
  • When they have previously made a commitment: Once an individual has committed to doing something, they are more likely to comply with additional requests as they like to appear consistent [1].
  • Scarcity of a resource: When a particular item is valuable to an individual, they are more likely to comply with a request to procure that item if they are informed that it has become scarce [5].
  • Reciprocation: When an individual has previously received a favor from someone, they are more likely to comply with a request made by that person. This happens because people feel obligated to pay back, and wish to be seen as ‘nice persons’ [5].
  • Social validation:  If complying with a request is viewed as the correct thing to do (like signing a petition to save the tigers); people are more likely to comply, than when they do not believe that the action is a valid response with the situation [5].
  • Response to authority: When the request to comply comes from someone who is (or looks like) an authority figure that one accepts, compliance increases [1].


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Social Influence”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 268 – 301.

[2] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Group Cohesion and Comformity”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 276 – 297.

[3] Kassin, Saul M., Fein, Steven & Markus, Hazel Rose. “Conformity” In Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 251 – 292.

[4] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “Prosocial behaviour: Doing what’s best for others”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 255 – 286.

[5] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “Social Influence and Persuasion”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 223 – 254.

[6] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Social Influence and Persuasion”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 197 – 220.