Social Conformity in a Hyper-Social World


May 14, 2010

I watched an episode of Dateline recently called ‘What Were You Thinking?’ that involved several social experiments showing that the human brain is hard wired for social conformity.  And, in a majority of the experiments, the participants went along with some ridiculous and inappropriate requests just because the social situation they were in allowed for it, or they perceived it did.  For example, they showed that if you walk into an elevator and there are three people in the elevator with you, if they all turn to face the back of the elevator, you probably will too.  Time after time, the people unknowingly in the experiment did.  Some looked confused at first, but then, they still conformed.

We see this play out in the workplace and on social media platforms.  Every day, we see people ignoring common sense to their own peril.  Their need to fit in outweighs any concern they have of the “right” thing to do.  They become impulsive and follow the crowd.  Interestingly, the “ideal” group size to conform is 3- 5 people.   However, group size is not as important as the group you conform to.  In a study in the British Journal of Social Psychology, groups in the majority have higher compliance rates than conversion and minority groups have greater conversion than compliance.

Have you seen this too?

The conformity can be positive, neutral, or negative.  Take for example when Ashton Kutcher tried to be the first person on Twitter to reach 1,000,000 followers.  It was a neutral request but people jumped on board like crazy to do a mindless thing.  Did it hurt them?  No.  Did it waste a couple minutes of their life?  Sure.

What do you think?  Are people more likely to conform in person or online?  Does it make a difference?  What are some examples you’ve seen at work or online?   Let’s share ideas in the comments.


  • Very interesting indeed! So, I guess humans are a bit like sheep eh?

    Seriously though, I guess this is why it’s so important for leaders to ‘lead by example’ – in the hope that people will by instinct follow that example and conform?

    Slightly as an aside to conformity, recently, I was looking at ideas on how to change behaviours – looking at how to help encourage embedded conformity to embracing new stuff like social media. There’s some fascinating examples pulled together by The Fun Theory on this and I blogged about it at

    I just think it’s such a great example of how you can change a behaviour/habit by introducing a fun, different way of doing things – and, I guess, if enough people change, others will conform…

  • Consensus is one of the most powerful influence triggers. It is used a lot (4 out of 5 dentists – which is both consensus and authority) or choosy moms choose jiff. Very prevalent in advertising and one of the influence principles that HR could leverage more often. We talked about it quickly at HRevolution in the context of kids telling their moms that “timmy’s mom let’s him” – we learn it at an early age.

    The different in online/offline – I would think online would be a bit less than in real life. When we are physically removed from the people that we are influenced by we have to rely more on our own thinking which would (IMHO) reduce the effect.

    I’m going to point a friend of mine to this post to get his input – he’s a “Certified” influence jedi.

  • You’ll get compliance much more quickly in person than online. There’s a distance online that allows people to feel safe and voice opinions.

    This is more than just social conformity. If the group acts with confidence what they’re doing is true then it will garner compliance from the individual. Most people don’t have the confidence/guts/belief in self/will power to resist other’s influence. Perceived authority of the influencer plays into this as well as the context of the location and events. In other words, poorly dressed teenage kids won’t likely get middle age men to conform as easily as a group of professionals.

  • I think Paul and Matt are correct, social proof isn’t as strong in the absence of face-to-face interaction. It’s still effective but not as strong. Check out this 2 min video from Dr. Robert Cialdini where he talks about brain studies on human interaction vs computers when it comes to feeling the need to conform.

    Having shared that I must tell you that I’ve still seen consensus still work in a powerful way in the absence of people being together. I hosted a teleconference where everyone was in the privacy of their own office. Of the attendees, 45 of 55 people had purchased the book I was using to teach from. Because I was hoping everyone would have bought the book I opened with, “By the way, 45 of 55 of you bought the book and I appreciate that because we’ll all be on the same page, literally.” Then I taught. By the time I got back to my desk some 30 min later 8 of the remaining 10 emailed to ask how much the book was! Remember, they could not see each other nor did anyone know who did, or did not buy the book!

    Social proof is very powerful and I’ll have some examples of successful use by Copyblogger in my upcoming blog post next week.


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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.





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