Conformity and Peer Pressure

One type of compliance is conformity. Conformity is best explained in relation to peer pressure, especially when large groups of people hold the same opinions and beliefs. It's not uncommon to feel uncomfortable in a situation where your opinions and beliefs are not the same as others in the group. As a child, you know smoking is bad for your health, and if your parents caught you, you'd be in trouble, but when you're standing in that circle with all of your friends and everyone is taking a drag to see what it's like, it's all too tempting to give in to the pressure. You may argue that smoking causes all kinds of diseases, but your friends will argue back that one little drag won't do anything. Do you conform, or do you hold your own? Everyone else thinks its okay, so it must be. Besides, if you don't conform, your friends might think you're a coward, right?

One of the best-known experiments on the powerful effects of conformity was conducted in the 1950s by a social psychologist named Solomon Asch (1907–1996). Participants were shown a line and then asked to select the line that was the same length out of three other lines. When they were in a group where the other “participants” (who were actually in on the true nature of the experiment) claimed that an obviously longer line was the correct match to the original line, nearly 75 percent of participants agreed with the rest of the group.

The next time you are faced with a situation in which you are feeling peer pressure, think first of your own responsibility for your actions. If you get it out of your head that you can blame peer pressure for bad behavior and there's no one to blame but yourself, you are more likely not to fall prey to peer pressure.

This way of thinking can be applied to almost any group situation — even as adults. Consider the group of jurors who are given the difficult task of deciding someone's fate — innocent or guilty. If eleven jurors decide on a guilty verdict and the twelfth juror disagrees, how long before he conforms to their verdict, if he ever does? It's possible that he might conform simply because he doesn't think they'll ever see his point since the odds are so stacked against him.

In both the smoking and the jury example, the individual has to re-evaluate information he's already formed an opinion about. Part of growing up is learning how to distinguish between what you believe, what others want you to believe, and how willing you are to understand another point of view. But it doesn't get any easier as adults. With all the information available to you at any given moment, by way of the media and the Internet, you're forced to constantly reassess copious amounts of information in order to form strong, well-rounded choices, beliefs, and opinions. And while “majority rules” in most instances, it's a tough road to follow when you find yourself disagreeing with popular opinion.

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