Distinction Between Conformity and Obedience
At this point a distinction must be made between the terms obedience and conformity.
Conformity, inparticular, has a very broad meaning, but for the purposes of this discussion, I shall limit it to theaction of a subject when he goes along with his peers, people of his own status, who have no specialright to direct his behavior. Obedience will be restricted to the action of the subject who complieswith authority.
Consider a recruit who enters military service. He scrupulously carries out the orders of his superiors. At the same time, he adopts the habits, routines, and language of his peers. The formerrepresents obedience and the latter, conformity.A series of brilliant experiments on conformity has been carried out by S. E. Asch (1951). A group of sixapparent subjects was shown a line of a certain length and asked to say which of three other lines matchedit. All but one of the subjects in the group had been secretly instructed beforehand to select one of the
“wrong” lines on each trial or in a certain percentage of the trials. The naive subject was so placed that he
heard the answers of most of the group before he had to announce his own decision.
Asch found thatunder this form of social pressure a large fraction of subjects went along with the group rather thanaccept the unmistakable evidence of their own eyes.
Asch‟s subjects conf
orm to the group. The subjects in the present experiment obey the experimenter.
Obedience and conformity both refer to the abdication of initiative to an external source.
But theydiffer in the following important ways:1.
Obedience to authority occurs within a hierarchical structure in which the actor feels thatthe person above has the right to prescribe behavior. Conformity regulates the behavior among those of equal status; obedience links one status to another.2.
Conformity is imitation but obedience is not. Conformity leads to homogenization of behavior, as the influenced person comes to adopt the behavior of peers. In obedience, there iscompliance without imitation of the influencing source. A soldier does not simply repeat an order given tohim but carries it out.3
In obedience, the prescription for action is explicit, taking the form of an order orcommand. In conformity, the requirement of going along with the group often remains implicit.
Thus, in Asch’s exper
iment on group pressure, there is no overt requirement made by groupmembers that the subject go along with them. The action is spontaneously adopted by the subject.Indeed, many subjects would resist an explicit demand by group members to conform, for thesituation is defined as one consisting of equals who have no right to order each other about.
. The clearest distinction between obedience and conformity, however, occurs after thefact -- that is, in the manner in which subjects explain their behavior.
Subjects deny conformity and
embrace obedience as the explanation of their actions. Let me clarify this. In Asch’s experiments on
group pressure, subjects typically understate the degree to which their actions were influenced bymembers of the group. They belittle the group effect and try to play up their own autonomy, evenwhen they have yielded to the group on every trial.
They often insist that if they made errors in judgment, these were nonetheless their own errors, attributable to their faulty vision or bad judgment.They minimize the degree to which they have conformed to the group.