Less Is More: The Level of Choice Affects Conformity

Article excerpt

How often do we unwittingly find ourselves doing the same thing everyone else does? The impact of other people's presence on our behavior is well-documented, and derives from two motivations: forming an accurate interpretation of reality and behaving correctly, and obtaining social approval from others (Cialdini & Trost, 1998; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). Conformity is a specific category of social influence in which an individual changes his or her behavior to align with the behavior of other people (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). People may conform to the responses of group members even when the response may be undesired or incorrect (Asch, 1955; 1956; Sherif, 1935). Numerous situational factors contribute to the likelihood of conformity (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).

One situational variable that creates ambiguity that has been overlooked as a contributor to conformity is quantity of response choice. A comparison across conformity studies shows varying levels of choice options, but none have manipulated choice quantity as the variable of interest in conformity. Given what is currently known about social cognitive variables such as cognitive load (i.e., Gilbert, Pelham, & Krull, 1988) and the way people deal with choice (i.e., Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), it seems reasonable to question what effect varying amounts of choice might have on conformity.

What happens in the case where people encounter multiple options for which no clear choice is apparent? Research on the ways in which people choose from among a variety of options suggests that a larger number of options makes for a more difficult choice and presents a conflict for the chooser (Tversky & Shafir, 1992). Choosing from among several options comes at the cost of missing out on one or more of the options not chosen. In cases where the correct choice is clear, there is no conflict. However, when the correct choice is not clear, the chooser experiences a conflict to be resolved, and may adjust their focus of attention more closely to the choices at hand or to other available information that might help resolve their dilemma. From what we know about normative influence, the others' responses provide information that may help the chooser, and thus, will likely have an impact.

What is unclear, however, is whether people are more influenced by others in situations in which more rather than fewer choice options exist or vice versa. To explore this issue, we compared people's responses to normative influence in an Asch-type paradigm modified to create an ambiguous situation in which greater or fewer choice options existed from which to choose. It could be expected that people might conform more when there are more options from which to choose simply because others' answer choices help to narrow down the possibilities. On the other hand, people might be expected to conform less when there are more options. Dissention from the group's responses would likely be more obvious with fewer choices, possibly making conformity to the group more likely. However, dissention from the group would be less obvious when there are more choice options, making independence from the group more feasible. Further, when there are a large number of possible answers, people may perceive that they have just as good a chance of getting the right answer as anyone else and go with their own answer and venture away from the group's responses. Thus, the purpose of the current studies was to determine whether a larger or smaller number of choices would impact the tendency to conform to others' responses.

STUDY 1

This study was designed to detect if stimulus choice plays a role in conformity and, if so, to what degree. Conformity rates were measured in two choice conditions: small choice condition (SC) and large choice condition (LC). In order to isolate the variable of interest, the study consisted of stimuli that were ambiguous in nature. …