Depth Study - Social Conformity and Non-Conformity

Table of Contents
As with the rest of this subject, this depth study explores concepts which can be upsetting. We’re still working on our own mental health resources page, but in the meantime, you might want to check out this post from HealthDirect (scroll right down to the bottom for the resource links).


  • Conformity is change that happens as a consequence of group expectations and pressure.

  • This can be either real (explicit) or perceived, and usually involves an individual shifting their behaviour to better align with the majority.

  • Conformity comes in 2 variants: informational and normative.

    • Informational conformity results from agreement with the status quo; in other words, you believe/agree with the behaviour of the larger group, and therefore participate in it voluntarily.
    • Normative conformity results from wanting to be percieved as normal; this stems from a fundamental fear of exclusion and rejection, and is the foundation of principles like peer pressure.

    Factors Affecting Conformity

  • Age is a major factor, especially during adolescent and adult years.

    • As a child, fitting into society is less of a concern for the individual.
    • However, teenage years typically involve seeking approval from one’s peers, and therefore results in an increased interest in conforming to the collective behaviour of one’s age group.
    • In a similar manner, employment and being a functional adult requires a significant amount of conformity to societal norms.
  • Culture is also a significant factor, composed of religion, ethnic, national and regional traditions, customs, and expectations.

  • The size of the group also affects conformity. Larger groups tend to have shared moral values and are more difficult to reject (e.g. Australian Culture, religion)


  • Obedience is typically a consequence of normative conformity.
  • It is usually described as an individual’s willingness to change their behaviour on the command of an authority.
  • An individual’s obedience is directly related to the influence of the authority and the respective imbalance of power between them.
  • Typically, social groups will expect obedience to an internal authority, although the levels vary wildly between groups.
    • For example, obedience to the government (through the law) is almost universally expected, while more informal social norms are malleable on an individual basis.
  • The authority may not necessarily be a person: in religious communities, sacred texts are often treated as an authority which should be obeyed.

Factors Affecting Obedience

ProximityAn authority who is visible to you is more likely to be obeyed than one who might not even be a person.
PunishmentAvoiding punishment is something most people try to do.
SettingFormal settings are more likely to expect obedience (i.e. presentations vs classes)
StatusAn easy example of this is rank in the military.
RewardsPotential for progression (such as promotions) is a strong incentive for obedience.
LawsThe backing of the government is often a strong motivator for people to do things.
ReligionPeople who strictly adhere to their belief systems are unlikely to perform actions which contradict their beliefs.

Sources of Influence and Authority

Influence through threat of force to gain complianceThrough charisma, connection and personal affinityThrough access to or control of sensitive dataFrom those selected, appointed to or elected in superior 
positionsPositive/negative rewards offered for certain behavioursThrough detailed knowledge in specific field

Forms of Obedience

Similar to compliance, a person can be reluctant to conform. Acquiescence entails agreeing to something or even giving in. May see change in behaviour but not necessarily in attitude

Evident through peer pressure - May acquiesce to please group members or avoid conflict
Occurs when individuals modify behaviour if they link group to which they belong is right. Most permanent and pervasive response to social influence.
People adopt opinions, behaviours and actions of group and incorporate 
them into own personal way of life and value system
Alignment of values what they want and what society wants are same 
People agree to give in to group pressure as they want to attain qualities of characteristics possessed by certain members
Make decisions or change behaviour in order to maintain positive and 
self-defining relationship


  • De-individuation is the theory that as a member of a group, a person inherently becomes more anonymous and loses their sense of self-awareness.
  • People will experience a lack of restraint, loss of personal identity, and diminished sense of responsibility.
  • This often leads to anti-social and aggressive behaviour.
  • This theory has been heavily criticised since the 1990s, and alternative theories have become increasingly popular in recent decades.

Causes of De-Individuation

  • Being a part of a group is the fundamental driver of de-individuation.
  • The theory states that because people want to fit in with the group, they adopt the behavioural patterns that are common to all members.
  • As such, there are increasingly minute differences between group members, which causes them to only be able to function as a member of the group.
  • The anti-social and aggressive behaviour is a consequence of being removed from the individual’s comfort zone (i.e. the group). This is effectively a reaction to percieved hostility.
  • Additionally, the loss of identity means that the individual expects the backing of the group when committing to a course of action, whether or not this is explicitly provided.

Effects of De-Individuation

  • Rise in aggression and crime (i.e. looting during riots)
  • Heightened emotions
  • Impulsive and irrational behaviour - A 2003 study1 found that 206 of 500 violent attacks in Northern Ireland were carried out by offenders who disguised their identities.
  • Dehumanisation of victims - This is one of the main components of “institutionalised” or “systemic” racism/sexism/homophobia (i.e. “they shouldn’t have been wearing that” or “they shouldn’t choose to be gay”).
  • Lack of personal responsibility - Easiest example is “keyboard warriors” who will happily argue with people online but are completely placid in person.


  • Non-conformity is any deviation from social norms.

  • This typically involved violating the rules or expectations of a group.

  • Society is based on the consensus of the majority, and as a consequence, foundational principles will often be challenged by minority groups.

  • “Social cues” are designed to bring awareness to inappropriate behaviours.

  • Social norms indicate what is considered “appropriate” behaviour by members of a society.

    • These can take the form of legal, moral, or religious norms.
  • Non-conformant behaviour is often described as “deviancy”.

Costs and Benefits of Non-Conformity

Benefits to SocietyCosts to Society
Clarifies social normsIncreases suspicion of non-conformist groups
Serves as a precursor for changeOften perpetuates stereotypes
Increases unity within the groupCauses aggression and tension between and within groups
Challenges the status quo, causing people to re-evaluate their beliefsCan lead to violence
Highlights the need for recognition of minority groups
Benefits to the IndividualCosts for the Individual
Allows the expression of identityErodes trust
Allows the application of civil rightsCan lead to social exclusion and stigmatisation
Enables independence and agencyPotential psychological damage as a result of uncertainty about acceptance
Celebrates the diversity of individualsCensure/disapproval by the wider community
Provides opportunities for participation in decision-makingPotential for radicalisation
Increases diversity of viewpoints

What are attitudes?

  • Positive or negative view of something
  • Involves evaluation of issues
  • Ambivalence also considered an attitude → formed by 
individuals/groups experience for the past in addition to current 

What is agenda setting?

  • Related to media and its ability to manipulate public perception of issues by concentrating on just a few key issues and topic
  • Agenda setting in media is about harnessing power of people to influence public opinion
  • Able to use public opinion to influence public policy
  • Achieved through frequent and prominent coverage of news items, therefore their audiences come to regard issue as important

Consequences of agenda setting

  • Particular groups in society may be unfairly targeted and portrayed in unjustifiably positive/negative light

  • Creates need for social and cultural literacy when approaching media

  • Demonstration or dehumanization of some groups

  • People tend to immediately form opinion about group rather than adopt neutral position and therefore do not engage in comprehensive analysis but rely on manipulated information

    • This is called ‘priming’, and is a tactic used in relation to sensitive political issues 

  • Salience of issues influence observable group behaviours 

  • Strength of public opinion increases as news coverage does 

  • Framing stories takes place at micro and macro levels
necessary tool for relaying complex issues 🡪 journalists present stories that resonate with public and influences perception by using anecdotes and stereotypes 

Influence of Non-Conformity on Social Change

  • Nonconformist groups extremely important in instigating social change
  • Groups draw attention to current inequalities
  • Positive social change takes place when authorities alter practices and 
  • Well-represented nonconformist groups have been solely responsible 
for improving life chances of people at macro, meso and micro levels 

Citations and Useful Sources

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  1. Silke, A. (2003). Deindividuation, anonymity, and violence: Findings from Northern Ireland. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(4), 493–499. ↩︎