4.3.2 Pressure to Conform to Group Behaviour

People who want to be accepted by others feel a pressure to conform to group behaviour, which is more intense in small groups

A person can use moral authority or persuasion to try to exert influence, as described above (4.3.1), but much can be achieved without a word being spoken.  We observe the reactions of others and adjust our behaviour in order to please them, or to avoid displeasing them – as noted by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions, because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule.  The general rule, on the contrary, is formed, by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of.” (Part III, Chap. IV., para. 8)

In other words, people tend to conform to the expectations of others around them.  Conformity is defined by Britannica as “the process whereby people change their beliefs, attitudes, actions, or perceptions to more closely match those held by groups to which they belong or want to belong or by groups whose approval they desire.”  

The influence of other people, whether spoken or unspoken, is stronger if the relationship is closer – as can be illustrated graphically:

There is comfort and safety in belonging to a group.  The pressure to conform to group behaviour is stronger in small groups, as illustrated in the diagram.  And the value of belonging increases accordingly.  Supportive behaviour might not be expected from strangers, but hostility would not be expected either. 

If two people meet each other by chance, and if they are both behaving as expected by that society, there would normally be no problems with the encounter.  Strangers are entitled to expect socially acceptable behaviour from each other, but it would be unrealistic to suppose that they exert any other influence.  Some criteria for socially acceptable behaviour are suggested later in this chapter (4.4.2), exceeding the basic standard enforced by the law.

There are big differences in the level of pressure to conform, and the value of conforming, in different kinds of group – as described in the following sub-sections:

●  Dependence on family support, both economic and emotional, is very powerful (  Marriage is an important and contested transition point.

●  People’s sense of identity partly depends on their membership of larger social groups or communities, which can exert considerable influence on them (

●  People need to be able to get along with each other in wider society, so there is some pressure to conform to public opinion (  Anxiety about status increases that pressure.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/432a.htm.