What Is Conformity Bias? | Definition & Examples

Conformity bias is the tendency to change one’s beliefs or behavior to fit in with others. Instead of using their own judgment, individuals often take cues from the group they are with, belong to, or seek to belong to about what is right or appropriate. They then adapt their own behavior accordingly.

Example: Conformity bias 
Your friends are making plans for an upcoming concert that they are very excited about. Last time they went to a concert, they were talking about it for a week afterwards, and you felt left out because you did not go with them. Although you are not really keen on that kind of music, you decide to join them this time so as not to feel left out.

Although conforming to social norms is not bad in and of itself, giving in to peer pressure can cause us to adopt opinions and behaviors that are unethical, illegal, or unfair to those who are not part of the group.

What is conformity bias?

Conformity bias occurs when we voluntarily align our behaviors, beliefs, or attitudes with those of a group. This change happens in response to either real or perceived group pressure: in other words, others can influence us even when they are not physically present. For example, whether we decrease our energy use at home, pay our taxes, or give to charities often depends on our perception of what others are doing.

Conformity, or the tendency to agree with the majority position, is a type of social influence. Social influence is a broad term used to describe the different ways others influence our behavior. The tendency to conform can be observed both in small groups and in society as a whole and may result both from subtle unconscious influences or overt social pressure.

There are two main reasons why people conform:

  • Informational conformity occurs when we conform in order to be perceived as acting in the correct way. We look to the group for information and guidance, especially when we are unsure of how to behave in a given situation. For example, when a teacher asks a question in class, we have the tendency to go along with what most of our classmates deem to be the correct answer.
  • Normative conformity occurs when we conform in order to align ourselves with the group. This usually occurs because we want others to accept or like us. Even when we disagree, we still go along with the group simply because we don’t want to be social outcasts. A teenager who drinks alcohol because they want to fit in with their peers yields to this type of conformity.

What are the different types of conformity bias?

There are different types of conformity bias depending on the nature of our agreement (private vs. public), the duration of conformity, and the reason why we conform.

  • Compliance happens when we publicly comply with the group’s opinions or norms but privately disagree. Compliance is motivated by the need for approval and the fear of being rejected. It is the weakest type of conformity because, if given the opportunity to get away with it, people will no longer comply.
  • Identification occurs when individuals adopt the behavior of someone they admire, such as a respected colleague, family member, or celebrity. Identification is motivated by the attractiveness of the source, who serves as a role model or leader of the group. Although this is a deeper type of conformism than compliance, people usually stop conforming when they leave the group or stop identifying with the person they admired.
  • Internalization is the true acceptance of group norms. Here, people conform with the group both privately and publicly because the behavior or attitude they are adopting is consistent with their own values. Internalization is the deepest level of conformity and lasts the longest. Phenomena like ingroup bias and outgroup bias are related to internalization.
  • Ingratiation is similar to other types of conformity. However, the difference is that the individual follows group norms in order to achieve a certain goal. For example, an employee might appear more hard working or friendlier than they really are because they have their eye on a promotion.

Conformity bias examples

Conformity bias can help explain fashion fads among specific consumer groups.

Example: Conformity bias and clothing brands
In one study, researchers examined the motivation behind the frenzied buying wave of culturally associated brands (brands that reflect the cultural background of a particular country) in Korea.

Brands like Canada Goose and the North Face became essential items that were mass consumed. This trend seemed irrational, as these brands were priced as luxury brands in Korea, creating an economic burden for some consumers. However, if someone did not have one, they could even be discriminated against by others.

After surveying Korean consumers, the researchers concluded that the preference for these brands was not simply due to the product characteristics or the culture these brands reflected. It was driven by an intense “fear of missing out” (FOMO). The willingness to belong to the mainstream group (or the fear of being excluded from the mainstream group) played a crucial role in the consumption of these highly popular brands. In other words, conformity bias spurred demand for these brands.

Conformity bias threatens the validity of the results collected from focus groups because participants often feel the need to reach consensus.

Example: Conformity bias and focus groups
Group dynamics play a significant role in the methodology behind focus groups. Ideally, group members react and build on the statements of other participants when expressing their opinions. However, as in real life, participants influence each other with their behavior or statements.

For example, some participants will express their opinion first, influencing the responses of the others. The last respondent may also conform to the previous response, as it’s often easier and less embarrassing to just agree with the majority or the most vocal person in the group. Due to this, poorly designed focus groups lead to inconsistent and biased results.

Conformity bias can be controlled for in focus groups by:

  • Creating an atmosphere that inspires trust
  • Avoiding sensitive questions such as health conditions or financial status (these are better discussed in individual interviews)
  • Ensuring participants get to speak in a varying order
  • Encouraging debate and different opinions

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions

What is a real-life example of conformity bias?

A real-life example of conformity bias is how people conform to others in the workplace. Suppose you go to your first day at work dressed casually and notice that your colleagues wear more formal clothes. Although no one asks you to do so, you may feel the need to change the way you dress to avoid standing out.

Why is conformity bias a problem?

Conformity bias is a problem because it can cause us to stop thinking for ourselves. This means that we no longer exercise our own judgment or rely on our own values to decide how to act. Taken to its extreme, conformity bias can lead to a “herd mentality,” or the tendency to follow the direction of a group without question. This can cause us to suppress our true opinions, espouse dangerous beliefs, or engage in illegal acts.

What is the difference between groupthink and conformity bias?

Conformity bias and groupthink are very similar concepts, but they denote different phenomena.

  • Conformity bias is a broader term, and refers to people’s tendency to consciously or unconsciously change their behavior or opinion to fit in with others in a group.
  • On the other hand, groupthink refers specifically to a dysfunctional decision-making process where critical thinking and diversity are sacrificed because of a desire to maintain group cohesiveness at all costs. The result is premature consensus and a tendency to look down on those who don’t agree.

Conformity is one potential cause of groupthink. However, it can also arise due to the belief that dissent is impossible.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2024, April 10). What Is Conformity Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-bias/conformity-bias/

Sources

Heinzen, T., & Goodfriend, W. (2018). Social Psychology. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.

Kang, I., Cui, H., & Son, J. (2019). Conformity Consumption Behavior and FoMO. Sustainability, 11(17), 4734. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11174734

Padalia, D. (2014). Conformity Bias: A Fact or an Experimental Artifact? Psychological Studies, 59(3), 223–230. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12646-014-0272-8

Stallen, M., & Sanfey, A. G. (2015). The neuroscience of social conformity: implications for fundamental and applied research. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2015.00337

Is this article helpful?
Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.