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ORIGINAL PAPER
Conformity in Groups: The Effects of Others’ Views on Expressed Attitudes and Attitude Change
Lindsey C. Levitan1 • Brad Verhulst2
Published online: 15 August 2015
? Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015
Abstract
when participants were faced with a unanimous (versus non-unanimous) group. The
group experience continued to influence participants’ views when they were again
asked their views in private. A second experiment varied whether participants heard
views from live confederates or via computer, demonstrating that these effects could
not be attributed only to issue-relevant information provided by or inferred from
group members, and that attitude change persisted long after participants had left the
laboratory. In summary, when people are asked their attitudes publicly, they adjust
their responses to conform to those around them, and this attitude change persists
privately, even weeks later. Accordingly, such purely social processes of attitude
change may be every bit as important as more traditional cognitive informational
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s11109-015-9312-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
& Lindsey C. Levitan [email protected]
1 Psychology Department, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV 25443, USA
2 Virginia Commonwealth University, 800 E. Leigh Street, PO Box 980126, Richmond,
VA 23298-0126, USA
123
Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315
DOI 10.1007/s11109-015-9312-x

http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11109-015-9312-x
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http://crossmark.crossref.org/dialog/?doi=10.1007/s11109-015-9312-x&domain=pdf

processes in understanding where people’s political attitudes come from, and how
they may be changed.
Keywords Social influence ? Political attitudes ? Group processes
Those who surround us have a profound influence on how we understand the world
in general, and politics in particular. Ideally, this influence happens through
thoughtful exchanges of views and careful consideration, leading people to hold
carefully constructed attitudes, make logical and informed decisions, and generally
behave consistently with their underlying preferences (Fishkin 1991; Putnam 2000).
Unfortunately, this is not always the case (Converse 1964). How, otherwise, can we
account for the existence of political attitudes and movements that persist despite
objective disproof of their beliefs? For example, ‘‘Birthers’’ insist that President
Obama was not born in the US, despite various birth records, reports of those who
were there, and even testimony of the Republican governor of the state in which he
was born (Henig 2008; Malcolm 2008; PPP poll 2012). It therefore behooves us to
look beyond pure logic and information, to more thoroughly consider the social
roots of attitudes and judgments.
Research has taken two major directions in understanding why views are not a
function of information alone. The first, motivated skepticism (Kunda 1990;
Redlawsk 2002; Taber and Lodge 2006; see also Redlawsk and Lau 2013),
establishes our tendency to arrive at desired (but not necessarily accurate)
conclusions through phenomena like disconfirmation bias (Taber and Lodge
2006). Though ubiquitous, motivated skepticism has limits, and can generally not be
stretched to explain disregard for overwhelming information (Kunda 1990;
Redlawsk, et al. 2010). Additional, complementary explanations are required. A
second direction of research therefore examines features of our social environment
that can alter attitudes (Huddy 2004; Smith et al. 1956; Huckfeldt et al. 2004a) and
can cause people to prioritize fitting in over correctness (see Baumeister and Leary
1995). Such social research provides some precedents for expressing erroneous
judgments in the face of complete objective disproof, albeit with politically
irrelevant stimuli (e.g. Asch 1951).
While those with whom we have social ties undoubtedly serve as sources of
useful information and arguments, they also generate social pressure, and act as
reference points for determining what is appropriate and correct. The result is often
conformity, or attitude change towards the group as a result of social information
rather than political information. 1 In order to fully understand public opinion and
the attitudes citizens hold, we must look beyond overt persuasion and information
1 Although researchers use the term ‘‘conformity’’ in various ways, it generally indicates a continuum
such that individuals may be more conforming or nonconforming (see Willis 1963; Nail and MacDonald
2007). ‘‘Movement toward an influence source is the most prominent operational definition of conformity
in the literature…’’ (Nail and MacDonald 2007, p. 195). Thus, we use ‘‘conformity’’ to mean a shift in expressed attitudes to be closer to (but not necessarily identical to) the views of others. This is especially
appropriate for views in groups, in that individuals in groups rarely hold identical views, making being
identical to a group operationally unclear.
278 Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315
123

exchange to examine social goals and influences that arise from simply knowing
what others’ attitudes are, without any justification of those attitudes.
Several particularly deleterious effects make it essential to incorporate such
social influence processes into our understanding of political attitudes. First, public
conformity of one individual may spiral to others and lead to pluralistic ignorance in
which the views of the majority are misperceived (Noelle-Neumann 1974; Prentice
and Miller 1993; Todorov and Mandisodza 2004). As the appearance of unanimity
grows, a corresponding intolerance for dissenting opinions develops (Mutz 2002b;
Mutz and Mondak 2006) increasing social pressure for attitudinal homogeneity.
Those who perceive (however inaccurately) that their views are supported by those
around them will subsequently hold those attitudes more strongly (Visser and
Mirabile 2004; Levitan and Visser 2009) and become more likely act on those
attitudes through voting and other forms of political participation (Mutz 2002a, but
see Huckfeldt et al. 2004b). Most dauntingly, public conformity may lead to private
acceptance of expressed views, without due thought. The potential negative
implications of this attitude change based upon blind conformity need little
explanation. The democratic ideal is that people base their attitudes and votes on
careful consideration of available information (e.g. Fishkin 1991), not simply on
what attitudes are most popular.
The current studies demonstrate that attitude change through social pressure can
arise simply from knowing what other people’s attitudes are, especially proximate
others. Hearing justifications of these attitudes is not a necessary precondition for
attitude change. We adopt the term ‘‘argument’’ to indicate such information about
an issue other than the view of others, in keeping with the persuasion literature (see
Shavitt and Brock, 1994, especially chapter 6). The current studies examine the
extent to which brief interactions, in which few or no persuasive arguments change
hands, can elicit public conformity and even generate enduring attitude change. We
also examine features of the situation that can heighten this effortless social
influence.
Social Influence
Our attitudes and behavior can be powerfully and often unwittingly shaped by the
people around us (Hardin and Higgins 1996). Researchers have studied this premise
from many perspectives involving different levels of analysis, mechanisms, and
domains. Researchers have examined impersonal influence of mass media (e.g.
Mutz 1998) and elites, as well as persuasion more generally (Zaller 1992), or have
taken approaches focused more on social dynamics and relationships between
individuals.
Social dynamics can unduly influence judgment and decision-making at the level
of small group interactions because concurrence-seeking and concerns about group
cohesion help generate negative phenomena like groupthink (Janis 1982; Tetlock
et al. 1992). Similarly, small group dynamics can generate extreme views through
group polarization (Myers and Lamm 1976). Experiments with small groups have
been helpful not only in clarifying small group dynamics, but also in isolating
Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315 279
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specific variables to test their causal impact, demonstrating that characteristics such
as expertise (Petty and Cacioppo 1986), gender (Eagly 1983), and status (Eagly
1983) can cause some individuals to be more influential than others.
At a more abstract level, research has examined the role of social identity in
attitudes, judgments, and behaviors. Initial research demonstrated that people
sometimes change their judgments (e.g. about distribution of resources, perceptions
of others) merely due to being randomly assigned to group X or Y, both small
groups of strangers (Tajfel and Turner 1986). These beginnings developed into a
broad literature on the impact of various socially ascribed identities (race, gender,
religion, etc.) on how we view the political landscape (see Huddy 2004).
The current research, like the literature on small groups, focuses on the influence
of those around us, specifically people with whom we interact directly. Importantly,
it also emphasizes the role of social situations, rather than exchange of arguments,
in generating attitude change.
Personal Social Contact
Of late, social network research has made important strides in understanding how
direct contact with close others and political discussants can influence attitudes and
behavior (Huckfeldt et al. 2004a; Mutz 2006; Sinclair 2012; see Klofstad et al. 2013
on conceptualization and measurement). Our networks socialize us politically
(Settle et al., 2011). We borrow information and expertise from them, which in turn
influence our views (Ryan 2011) and our behavior (McClurg 2006). Disagreement
with those around us can destabilize our views, generating attitude change
(Huckfeldt and Sprague 2000; Levitan and Visser 2009), and reducing our
likelihood of acting on those attitudes (Mutz 2002a, but see Huckfeldt et al. 2004b).
Various mechanisms are involved in this influence of close others. Structural
equivalence theory emphasizes the role of information exchange with similar others,
especially discussion which leads to a mutual understanding of costs and benefits
(Burt 1987, pp. 1290–1291). Indeed, individuals embedded in attitudinally
heterogeneous networks are more aware of opposing arguments (Huckfeldt et al.
2004b; Mutz 2002b). This argument-based influence has often been the focus of
research (e.g. Ahn et al. 2010; Huckfeldt and Sprague 1987), but influence is not
limited to argument-driven persuasion. Differences of opinion in one’s network also
impact how we think about our views, influencing attitude accessibility (Huckfeldt
and Sprague 2000), information seeking (Levitan and Wronski 2014), and how
deeply we consider opposing information (Levitan and Visser 2008). This is
partially because others serve as reference points for determining what attitudes and
behaviors are correct and socially appropriate (Sherif 1936; Festinger 1954; Kelley
1952).
While those with whom we have social ties undoubtedly serve as sources of
concrete arguments, social comparison theory proposes that others’ views are
themselves used as information (Festinger 1954). This ‘‘informational influence’’
occurs when people use the views of others as heuristic cues or reference points to
280 Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315
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determine if their own views are likely to be correct (Deutsch and Gerard 1955).
Despite the term ‘‘informational influence,’’ no arguments need to be exchanged –
mere exposure to someone else’s opinion is enough to assess the accuracy of one’s
own opinion, like students gauging whether their answer to a math question is
correct by asking what others got. People intuitively believe that if more people
share their view, then that view is more likely to be correct (Cialdini 1995).
Conversely, learning that others hold discrepant attitudes, even without learning
why, erodes confidence in that attitude (Visser and Mirabile 2004).
Informational influence is not the only means of influence without argumenta-
tion, however. Although people are motivated to be accurate and correct, they also
have other motivations, including social motives (see for example Katz 1960; Taber
and Lodge 2006). Humans are deeply social creatures, with an intense need to
belong, which motivates people to affiliate with others, and to seek their positive
regard (Baumeister and Leary 1995). People feel uncomfortable and ambivalent
when their views are inconsistent with those of people they like (Priester and Petty
2001), and they are highly motivated to avoid this discomfort often through attitude
change (Heider 1946). Such motivation to fit in is so powerful that mere postal
mailings emphasizing group norms can influence people to vote (Gerber et al. 2008;
Panagopoulos 2010; see also Cialdini et al. 1991). Indeed, some attitudes exist
primarily to serve a ‘‘social adjustment’’ function (Smith et al. 1956; see also
‘‘value-expressive’’ function: Katz 1960), although any attitude might be affected by
group norms.
‘‘Normative influence’’ (Deutsch and Gerard 1955; Kelley 1952) follows along
these lines, occurring when people we interact with serve as standards delineating
what is appropriate and acceptable to the group, regardless of what is factually
correct. The attitudes of others imply group norms, signaling what sorts of attitudes
are proper and expected. People conform to these group norms to avoid social
sanctions (Schachter 1951; Ulbig and Funk 1999), to remain in good standing with
current social partners, or to join desirable new groups (Kelley 1952).
Consistent with the expectation that people will alter their views and behavior to
fit in, one of the most remarkable findings of conformity research is that people
sometimes express clearly incorrect judgments if those around them unanimously
agree (Asch 1951; 1956; Deutsch and Gerard 1955). In Asch’s classic studies,
participants were easily able to determine the relative lengths of printed lines when
alone, but gave the wrong answer a stunning 37 % of the time in the presence of
other ‘‘participants’’ who had just unanimously voiced a wrong answer (Asch 1956).
A less touted, but also remarkable aspect of this research is that strangers had this
influence. This suggests that, although research naturally focuses on close others,
perhaps strangers and those with whom we have weak ties (who are more likely to
disagree with us, Mutz and Martin 2001) have an underappreciated impact on our
views.
While information exchange clearly affects attitudes, subtle features of the social
context also have an impact. The underlying mechanisms of both normative and
informational social influence rely on the knowledge of what others’ views are,
without the necessity of any concrete arguments being exchanged. As such, the
Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315 281
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attitudes of others provide a social yardstick by which to evaluate both the
correctness and appropriateness of one’s own preferences.
Conformity with Political Attitudes?
Political attitudes are quite different than the stimuli used in much of the conformity
literature, allowing some to suggest that political attitudes may not be susceptible to
such striking levels conformity as in classic conformity studies. This makes it
especially important to empirically establish people’s susceptibility to political
conformity.
Much of our knowledge of conformity is based on unimportant perceptual tasks
(e.g. judging the lengths of lines), whereas political attitudes are quite important and
self-relevant (Katz 1960). As attitude importance increases, people are more likely
to act in accordance with that attitude, and are therefore less susceptible to attitude
change (Boninger et al. 1995), and so people may be more willing to risk social
conflict by posing a dissenting opinion. People may also be more willing to resist
conforming politically because of the relative subjectivity of political issues. To
disagree politically may be uncomfortable, but to disagree on objective matters risks
‘‘appearing incompetent, foolish, or even mad,’’ because one can be proven wrong
(Ross et al. 1976, p. 149). The subjectivity of political views therefore reduces the
social cost of non-conformity (see Ross et al. 1976).
Thus, there are valid reasons to doubt that the conformity so compellingly
established in other domains will generalize to politics. Still, when there is no
objective evidence, people are particularly reliant on social information to gauge the
correctness of their attitudes and judgments (Festinger 1954; Kelley 1952; Deutsch
and Gerard 1955), making it necessary and enlightening to test whether the purely
social effects that psychologists tout are truly present with regard to political views.
Lasting Attitude Change?
Even temporary conformity in the face of disagreement has dramatic implications
for the democratic process, but the possibility that it may presage lasting attitude
change makes it critically important. Social information, even in brief interactions,
can exert an influence on people’s perceptions even months later (Sherif 1936).
Consequently, the attitudes that people possess may not only be a function of their
initial attitude, but also of past social encounters.
Previous research on conformity and normative influence has often neglected the
possibility of lasting changes (after all, one does not expect persistent inability to
judge length of lines after a group interaction), but with political attitudes this
perseverance is a real possibility. Beyond any direct impact of social influence, the
mere act of expressing an attitude (or not) can solidify it (or weaken it). Publicly
stated attitudes are more resistant to subsequent persuasion than views that remain
unexpressed (Roese and Olson 1994). More critically, the simple act of expressing a
counter-attitudinal view can shift one’s private attitude to be more similar to the
282 Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315
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expressed view, generating persistent attitude change (Bem 1972; Festinger 1957;
Cooper 2007). Thus, we expect that conformity may produce some lasting private
attitude change, as well as public conformity.
Factors Influencing Political Conformity and Subsequent Attitude Change
In addition to hypothesizing about social influence, we anticipate that several factors
will affect people’s susceptibility to this influence. The range of views voiced by
others is one such variable. The narrower the range of expressed attitudes, the more
clearly the group norm is established. This makes deviation from that norm more
evident, and normative influence more powerful. The more people agree amongst
themselves, the less tolerant they are of disagreement (Laumann 1973; Mutz and
Mondak 2006), and the more likely they are to apply pressure to deviants and
ultimately ostracize them (Schachter 1951). When a group is unanimous, people
therefore feel increased pressure to conform (Asch 1951). Even one other dissenter
can make it easier to resist conforming (Nemeth and Chiles 1988). Reciprocally,
when group members express a range of views, it becomes unclear whether or not a
group norm exists and what that norm might be, even if the discordant group has the
same ideological central tendency as the unanimous group. Dissention from the
norm becomes less noticeable, more difficult to punish, and more acceptable.
Hence, unanimity of others is expected to increase conformity.
The degree of difference between an individual’s views and those of group
members is also of interest. When an individual’s views grow more distant from the
group’s mean view, the distinction between the group norm and the individual’s
view becomes more apparent. Clear deviants are the subject of greater social
pressure, whereas minor deviations from the group’s attitudinal norm may go
unnoticed by group members, thereby failing to elicit attempts at social influence
(Schachter 1951). If individuals’ attitudes are close enough to the group to seem
similar to those of others, this diffuses the social influence, reducing its impact (see
Latane 1981). Additionally, assimilation effects may cause individuals who hold
similar views to those around them to see little or no difference between their views
and those of others (Hovland et al. 1949; see also Mussweiler 2003), and therefore
feel no pressure to change to views with which they already ‘‘agree’’. Ultimately,
the more an individual is exposed to disagreement by close others (or perhaps even
strangers) the more likely they are to change those views (Huckfeldt and Sprague
2000; Visser and Mirabile 2004). Therefore, the distance of the ego from the group
is also expected to relate to conformity.
These same contextual variables are also expected to influence the degree of
continued attitude change. Attitudes expressed in the group might be mere public
conformity for the sake of getting along, but social motives for public agreement
often influence private attitudes expressed outside of the group context, as well (see
Wood 2000; Kelman 1958, 1989). Additionally, expressing views to others is
known to encourage persistent attitude change through both self-perception and
cognitive dissonance. Either individuals take the fact that they have expressed a
Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315 283
123

view to indicate that they hold that view (Bem 1972), or they are uncomfortable
with having expressed views at odds with their own, and so find ways to change
their views (Festinger 1957, Cooper 2007). In either case, we anticipate that the
likelihood of lasting attitude change should be greatest among those who initially
conformed. As such, those factors that influence initial conformity should also
influence likelihood of persistent change. We therefore expect that likelihood of
persistent attitude change should increase when groups exhibit unity and when the
ego is farther from the group mean both because these factors should affect
normative and informational influence, and also because these factors first
influenced expression of views within the group.
The Current Studies
The current studies (Stony Brook University IRB #82695) assess the degree to
which people conform to the attitudes expressed by others without the necessity of
exchanging persuasive arguments, and whether lasting attitude change results from
this process. The above discussion points to two primary and several supplementary
hypotheses.
Primary H1 Individuals in the presence of others will express attitudes more in line with the attitudes of those others than their initial attitudes had been.
Primary H2 Rather than reverting to their initial private attitudes after leaving the group context, individuals will exhibit persistent attitude change.
2
Supplementary H3a Likelihood of immediate public conformity will be greater when others are unanimous.
Supplementary H3b Likelihood of persistent attitude change will be greater when others are unanimous.
Supplementary H4a Likelihood of immediate public conformity will be greater when the individual’s attitude is more different from the group.
Supplementary H4b Likelihood of persistent attitude change will be greater when the individual’s attitude is more different from the group.
Supplementary H5a Likelihood of immediate public conformity will be due, at least in part, to normative influence.
3
Supplementary H5b Likelihood of persistent attitude change will be due, at least in part, to normative influence (see Footnote 3).
2 Note that we do not hypothesize that later private attitudes will be exactly the same as attitudes
expressed in the group, only that they will be more like those of the group than initial private attitudes had
been. 3 Informational influence may, of course, also play a role, and will be held constant in tests of normative
influence.
284 Polit Behav (2016) 38:277–315
123

Two laboratory experiments were conducted during 2008 and 2009: a prelim-
inary experiment and a second, expanded experiment. Study 1 examines the social
pressures within a group and subsequent attitude change, as well as social and
personality factors that enhance change. Study 2 demonstrates that the social
pressures identified in study 1 were the result of not only informational influence,
but also normative influence. Findings indicate that the physical presence of group
members enhances the level of conformity considerably, indicating that participants
changed their attitudes not just because the attitudes of others are useful
information, but also because individuals feel especially motivated to hold attitudes
that are similar to those with whom they interact. The second study also examines
the longevity of these social influence effects over days and weeks, rather than
minutes. 4
Study 1 Introduction and Method
In order to understand the role of merely knowing others’ attitudes in encouraging
conformity and attitude change, we examined the reactions of participants to small
groups of others (confederates) with varying attitudes. We experimentally
manipulated both the unanimity of confederates and the average attitude of the
confederates. The latter manipulation allowed us to vary the attitudinal distance
between the participant and confederates without compromising the internal validity
of the experiment. Both of these experimental manipulations were conducted in a
within-subjects design to allow efficient causal inferences. The within-subjects
design allows greater power and efficiency in our design. 5
After providing consent, participants reported their attitudes about various issues
privately, via computer. They then heard the attitudes of a small group of
confederates, and were asked to state their own views verbally in the presence of the
confederates in order to establish whether merely knowing the views of strangers
could alter their views. Participants then reported their attitudes again privately, via
computer, to establish whether persistent attitude change was occurring, rather than
simply public agreement. Participants were then thanked and debriefed.
4 The results of both studies are presented in order to demonstrate a basic finding and an extension, and to
demonstrate the reliability and robustness of these results, in accordance with the recommendations of
King (1995). 5 For those who are less familiar, the within-subjects design is an experimental design in which a
participant experiences more than one experimental condition (see, e.g., Keppel and Wickens (2004) for
further discussion). Counterbalancing is employed for maximum internal validity. It enables causal
conclusions, and is particularly valued in fields like medicine and psychology because each participant
serves as their own control group, enabling greater power and efficiency than a between-subjects design.
Within-subjects designs are especially well suited to circumstances when: (1) individual differences are
expected to be large enough to obscure treatment effects by generating large within-group variability, or
(2) trials are quite brief (as in our study), making it more efficient to have a participant take part in
several different trials, rather than having multiple participants take part in only one brief trial apiece. In
this study, there is an additional benefit: if participants were assigned to only one con

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