Consequences of Conformity, Compliance & Obedience

Understanding human behavior is a complicated venture. Additionally, behavior can be impacted by social roles because social roles bring a degree of expectation to human interaction (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 768). These roles and expectations can result in conformity, obedience and/or compliance. This paper explores the question: how has research on conformity, compliance, and obedience informed us about these factors in real-world situations. The paper tackles each phenomenon separately, showing the effects of each respective behavior and their consequences. The conclusion expands on the importance of understanding such behavior and its real-world consequences.


Compliance can either be explicit or an implicit request. One way this can be achieved is by manipulating individuals feelings (Ciladin & Goldstein, 2004, p. 592). As Whatley et al. (1999) demonstrated in their experiment feelings of shame and fear could result in public compliance while the feeling of guilt and pity can equate to private compliance (as cited in Ciladin & Goldstein, p. 593).

Additionally, there are several techniques that can lead to compliance in the real world. One is thats-not-all technique. The target is presented with an initial request, which is followed by a deal that sweetens the initial request, complying to which can result in additional benefits for the target (Ciladin & Goldstein, p. 594).

Another is the foot-in-the-door technique. This is when a salesperson gets an individual to agree to a small request and once this agreement has been made, the salesperson introduces a larger request (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 787). Lastly, lowball technique relies on a commitment from the target and then, hidden costs are revealed and by that point, the target is already committed (Weiten & McCann, p. 787).

The last two sales techniques rely on individuals self-concept. People have a strong need to enhance their self-concepts by behaving consistently with their actions, commitments, and beliefs (Ciladin & Goldstein, 2004 p. 602). However, individuals whose cultures place less emphasis on self-concept positivity and related maintenance may be less susceptible to tactics that exploit these motivations (Ciladin & Goldstein, p. 605).


Conformity could be seen as the act of changing one’s behavior to match another (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 606). There can be an informational conformity motivation where the individual desires to form an accurate interpretation of reality. Also, normative conformity motivations where the goal of obtaining social approval from others is the reason for conforming (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 606).

Another view on conformity is the dynamic social impact theory. The likelihood of conformity increases if the group is less diverse and when there is a correlation of attitudes within the group members (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 608). The similarity of thinking can result in an individual conforming to poor thought patterns (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 608). Hence, why an accountable and salient environment can result in individuals who make independent decisions (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 607).

However, there are moments when conformity could be required, for example, when there is a need to follow rules and regulations (Smith & Bell, 1994, p. 192). Traditionally, such conformity is thought to be a result of warnings and punishments (Smith & Bell, p. 192). However, the harvesting experiment produced contradictory evidence (Smith & Bell, p. 192). Two experiments were tested, in which excessive harvesting was to be met with punishment (Smith & Bell, pp. 193-193). The results showed social information and conformity to implicit group norms played a larger factor in whether or not the individual followed the rules than did the threat of punishment (Smith & Bell, p. 196-197).

Additionally, as Martin & Hewstone (2001) demonstrated, if the individual had a strong attitude against the incoming message, they were less likely to conform to outside pressure. While, if the attitude was moderate in strength, it increased the chances of conformity (as cited in Ciladian & Goldstein, 2004, p. 607).

Conformity behavior also suffers if the individuals’ self-concept is strong (Ciladian & Goldstein, p. 611). Tying with the notion of self-concept, Walker & Andrade (1996), demonstrated a possible reason why conformity decreases as age is lowered could be due to the lack of concern young children have for peer approval (Walker & Andrade, 1996, p. 369). Also, it was noted that increasing an individuals confidence and intelligence could result in lowering conformity (Walker & Andrade, p. 368).

Additionally, collectivist countries, more so than individualistic countries, were more inclined to conform to groups (Ciladian & Goldstein, 2004, p. 610).


Obedience could be seen as the result of authority derived from one’s position in a hierarchy (Ciladian & Goldstein, 2004, p. 595). One of the most famous experiments on obedience is the Milgram experiment. Milgram demonstrated how easily a civilian can be persuaded to give lethal electric shocks to a random person (Slater., et al, 2006, p 1.). However, ethical issues have been a barrier to studying obedience (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 772).

The advancement in technology has opened up different avenues to study obedience. Slater., et al (2006) took advantage of this trend by replicating Milgram’s paradigm in a virtual world (Slater., et al, 2006, p. 1). Participants sent “shocks” to a virtual individual every time there was a wrong answer, this virtual individual protested as the “shocks” grew in intensity (Slater., et al, p. 6). The participant’s heart rate and perspiration were measured during the task and as the intensity grew, so did stress indicators in the participant (Slater., et al, p. 7). However, not once did the participant stop even though it was made clear that there would be no punishment for stopping. So, as the participant showed clear signs of distress, he or she continued the experiment. This could point towards obedience to authority (Slater., et al, p. 9). This potentially opens avenues for studying obedience without violating ethical guidelines (Slater., et al, p. 9).

The importance of studying obedience cannot be overstated for one of the consequences of organization obedience in the past has been the murder of innocent people during the Holocaust (Weiten & McCann, 2013, p. 595).


The effects of conformity, compliance, and obedience come with real-world consequences. Salesmen often use techniques that are meant to gain compliance from their targets. Individuals give into explicit or implicit needs to conform in order to get along with others or to gain some kind of advantage. Additionally, obedience without limit can result in horrible tragedies, the kind that was seen in the twentieth century.

Whether it be group factors, individual self-concepts, self-esteem issues, environmental makeup or some emotional cause that leads people to behave in such a manner, it is of importance to understand each phenomenon. Without knowledge, there is a chance a person can be manipulated. This can entail simple matters as purchasing a product that the individual did not want, to changing how an individual thinks, to following orders that lead to horrific consequences.





Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-622. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015

Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Barker, C., … Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PLoS ONE, 1(1), 1-10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000039

Smith, J. M., & Bell, P. A. (1994). Conformity as a determinant of behavior in a resource dilemma. The Journal of Social Psychology, 134(2), 191-200. doi 10.1080/00224545.1994.9711382

Walker, M. B., & Andrade, M. G. (1996). Conformity in the Asch task as a function of age. The Journal of Social Psychology, 136(3), 367-373. doi:10.1080/00224545.1996.9714014

Weiten, W., & McCann, D. (2013). Psychology: Themes and variations (3rd Canadian ed.). Toronto, ON: Thomson Nelson.

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