Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience

by Scott Constable, Zachary Shuler,
Lucretia Klaber, & Mick Rakauskas

      Two aspects that are important in group behavior are conformity and compliance.  Both conformity and compliance are prevalent in all types of groups, but first is important to point out the differences between these two types of behavior. Conformity within a group entails members changing their attitudes and beliefs in order to match those of others within the group.  Those that conform tend to be obedient and compliant.  In order to conform, the group member must attribute someone as having the legitimacy and credibility to lead or influence the group's behavior.  Without this "leader", conformity toward the group's goals will be less prevalent.  If a member of the group fails to conform to the groups needs, he/she would lose credibility with the rest of the group.

    The concept of compliance is similar to conformity, yet slightly different.  For compliance to occur within groups, one must adapt his/her actions to another's wishes or rules.  A person that conforms must have a disposition that allows him/her to yield to others.  Requests for and acts of compliance occur in everyone's lives.  Simply asking someone to perform a task is a request for compliance.  The most effective method to gain compliance is through rational persuasion and inspiration.  Although this person is asking another to perform a task, he/she is not asking the person to agree or disagree with the task in question.  The person requesting the performance of the task is not necessarily attempting to change the other's beliefs, but simply needs or wants the task to be performed.  This notion is what sets conformity and compliance apart.  The central aspect of conformity is that the person being influenced by the group change his/her attitudes and/or beliefs while the main point of compliance is the achievement of some specified task.

    Research on the topic of conformity began in 1951, when Solomon Asch performed a series of renowned studies.  In his studies, Asch used groups of seven to nine people who were told they were participating in a study on visual perception.  These subjects were asked to match the length of a standard line to three comparison lines.  One would think that this would be a relatively easy exercise, but Asch's groups only contained one real subject.  The rest of the group was made up of confederates who were instructed to unanimously give incorrect responses in some trials.  The results of this experiment found that the control group made errors only five percent of the time.  Those exposed to the incorrect responses conformed to these answers 33% of the time, with 75% of these subjects conforming at least once.  This shows how easily it is to make a person conform in a group situation. [Photo from the Lycos Image Gallery in accordance with Lycos policy.]

     The Michigan Militia Corps is a group in the state of Michigan, which is self-described as an unorganized militia.  The militia has a number of requirements with which it members must comply.  Among these requirements are abiding by MMC rules and regulations, agreeing to a background check, and completing a one year probationary period.  Also, the MMC requires that their members regularly attend meetings and engage in various types of military training.  Although this is the case, all members do not go through the same training as some are not willing and able.  Another reason for this is that all members do not serve the same roles within the organization.  But should a member opt not to comply with these rules and regulations, he or she would lose credibility within the group and risk expulsion.  The notion of compliance is essential within military type operations and training.  It is essential for soldiers to carry out their commanding officer's orders quickly and efficiently.  A soldier is not asked to agree with the orders in question but is simply asked to comply without question.  If this was not the case in a military group, the objectives of the group might not be carried out as quickly, or at all.  This hesitation could also put the lives of the group and other in jeopardy.  [Photo from the Lycos Image Gallery in accordance with Lycos policy.]

Obedience and Cults

     Obedience is the act of following orders without question because they come from a legitimate authority. There are many legitimate authorities in a person's life from their parents to teachers at school and even spiritual leaders. Most of these authority figures that have been named are given their authority by society. We are just told to follow what they tell you to do. In other words we are obedient to these people. Every person at some time in their life has followed a superior without questioning why they are doing what they are doing. For example we never question why we take tests in school. We just take them because we are told to do so. We never question a lot of the rules that people say in are best interest because they are usually told to us by someone that is in a position higher than we are at.

     There have been two very important psychological experiments that deal with the issue of obedience. The first was done right after World War 2 to try to find out why the Nazis may have exterminated all of the Jews. It was done by Stanley Milgram. The experiment involved two people one a confederate would play the part of a student trying to remember different words that they had heard the other person who was the subject played the role of a teacher and gave him the test. He was told to shock the "student" everytime he missed a word. Milgram thought that most people wouldn't shock another human being and especially not all the way up to deadly levels of electricity. As the "teachers" were told to increase the dosage as they got more answers wrong. He found out that most people would shock their fellow man in this experiment and would be obedient to all the demands made by the instructor since he was the one in a position of authority.

     The other important study was the one known as the prisoner experiment. This one was performed by Zimbardo and involved taking at random college students to pretend to be either guards or prisoners in a fake jail. The previous experiment had a person the experimenter who was easily seen as a authority figure. Here thought both sets of students started out equally but once some became guards and others became prisoners. The "guards" to the "prisoners" became true authority figures so that there were obedient to them just as if they were real guards. The students got into their roles so much that a two week experiment had to be stopped after only a few days.

     From these experiments you can see that obedience is a trait that can be seen in everybody under the right circumstances or situations. The question now is how do cults use this trait to make people more committed to their group. Since it seems that the majority of people like to follow others it seems reasonable that cults give people a direction and focus that might not otherwise be there. They may see their leader as a messiah type figure. They may feel that he can lead them to salvation. Since it has been ingrained into them by society that authority figures are to be obeyed it is easy for the leader who is usually charismatic to make his followers obey without question. [image drawn by Mick Rakauskas]

     One cult that we looked at was the Brethren (a.k.a. Garbage Eaters). This cult has a charismatic leader and around 200 members all over the US. It like other cults hides behind the guise of being religious group. The leader Jim Roberts says that to follow his way is the only way into heaven all others that don't follow his way of thinking will be destroyed in hell. When you join you must change your name which leads you to help to forget your former identity and brings you closer to the group. The leader has complete control over the group from where you live to even who you marry. One way that he is shown to be a legitimate authority figure is by interpreting the scriptures for his followers. He does pervert the interpretations to suit his own needs. He also isn't afraid to excommunicate someone from the group if he feels that they aren't being helpful to the group. This could be used as a way to say that God has chosen only a select few for salvation and all others must perish thus making the members feel special.  [photo from Rick Ross' Bethren Page]

Persuasion & Scientology

Compliance, Conformity, & Obedience in Cults and Militant Groups

Group Decision Making in Environmental Groups

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This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring 1999 at Miami University.  All graphics are from the public domain, used with permission or under fair use guidelines, or were created by the authors.  Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).  Last revised: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 00:27:22. This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 May 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman