Public compliance vs private acceptance in conformity [full version]

Regarding conformity, the major division between two types of social influence process and outcome is the informational/cognitive process leading to private acceptance and the normative/social process leading to public compliance (Manstead & Hewstone 1996:564; Kurt & McGlynn, 2001). Conformity itself can be defined as ‘a change in behaviour or belief as a result of real or imagined pressure toward a group norm’ (Allen, 1965; Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969; cited in Smith & Mackie, 2000). In order to discuss what characterises it, first public compliance will be examined as a characteristic of conformity and will then private acceptance will be analysed in the same respect. Minority/majority influence, Turner’s (1982, 1984, 1985) Self-Categorisation Theory, and Festinger’s (1954) Social Comparison Theory will all be used to inform the clear conclusion that whether conformity is characterised by either public compliance, private acceptance or both is situationally variant.

Public Compliance is the superficial, public and often transitory change in behaviour and expressed attitudes in response to requests, coercion or group pressure (Hogg & Vaughan, 2008) and is most often the result of Normative Social Influence, which is the influence to conform with the positive expectations of others to gain social approval and/or avoid disapproval (Manstead & Hewstone, 1996; Deutsch & Gerrard, 1955, cited in Kurt & McGlynn, 2001; Hogg & Vaughan, 2008). This is otherwise known as effect dependence (Jones & Gerard, 1967, cited in Levine 1989). Normative Social Influence and public compliance were first demonstrated in Asch’s (1951, 1956) experiments, ostensibly about the judgement of line length, but also can be seen in a study by Festinger et al (1950) into his Social Comparison Theory. In the Westgate study, a surveying of the residents in two randomly filled housing developments, Festinger found that group members’ attitudes paralleled the spontaneously emerging personal networks… group standards developed that defined members’ opinions… each group exerted strong influences on its members to conform to its standards (cited in Forsyth, 2000).

Public compliance as a characteristic of conformity can also be seen in the behaviour of newcomers to an existing group, “…newcomers are more conforming than old-timers: They are less innovative, avoid disagreements with old-timers and try to adopt the group’s perspective whenever possible” (Bell & Price, 1975; Heiss & Nash, 1967; Insko et al., 1980, 1982; Merei, 1949; Nash & Wolfe, 1957; Putallaz & Gottman, 1981; Rose & Felton, 1955; Snyder, 1958; Walker, 1973; cited in Moreland & Levine (1982: 153).  Outside the study of psychology, public compliance can be seen in, for example, Iranian culture, where women’s wearing of concealing clothing is enforced and therefore publicly complied to, but this social norm is not proportionately privately accepted (Molavi, 2002). People may publicly conform to avoid ridicule, rejection, imprisonment or, as with Iran, worse. Although public compliance due to both small and large group pressure does occur prolifically, private acceptance, say Smith & Mackie (2000) is more widespread and powerful.

Private acceptance is a personal attitude change which may or may not be expressed in words or deeds publicly (Manstead & Hewstone, 1996) and is a common result of Informational Social Influence which is the cognitive influence to accept information from others as evidence about reality due to being in an ambiguous or crisis situation or in the presence of an expert (Deutsch & Gerrard, 1955, cited in Kurt & McGlynn, 2001; Manstead & Hewstone, 1996; Hogg & Vaughan, 2008) This is otherwise known as information dependence (Jones & Gerard, 1967, cited in Levine 1989). One of the earliest examples of this type of conformity was shown in Sherif’s (1936) autokinetic effect experiment, although, significant to the current discussion, private acceptance was also reported in the post-experimentation reports of participants in the Asch (1951, 1956) experiments (Smith & Mackie 2000).

Moscovici‘s (1976) genetic model proposes to specify which type of conformity is elicited in different situations. According to Moscovici (cited in Levine, 1989), majorities are more likely to produce compliance (manifest change that reduces social conflict) than actual conversion (latent, private change of belief) and minorities are more likely to produce conversion than compliance. This is because majorities induce a social comparison process of the implications of the majority-minority disagreement and the minority often exhibits compliance. However, because they do not engage in active information processing about the issue in question, the minority is unlikely to undergo any latent (private) change  (Levine, 1989). Minorities, by contrast, induce a validation process, whereby the majority focuses on active information processing about the issue and this often leads to private change towards the minority’s position. However, to avoid the social conflict of being viewed as deviant, the majority is unlikely to publicly comply with the minority position (Levine, 1989).

Conversely, according to Smith & Mackie (2000), we sometimes privately conform irrespective of intention because we view other people as valid and valued sources of information about the world. They cite a study conducted by Kassin & Kiechel (1996) in which students, told the study was into reflex speed, had to type letters on a computer. Students were forbidden to hit the ALT key because this ‘would make the computer crash’. Sixty seconds into the task, the computer malfunctioned and the experimenter demanded to know if the ALT key had been hit, turning to a confederate for confirmation, which was given 50% of the time. When pressed to sign a confession, 69% of participants complied. Further analysis showed that 28% of participants also privately accepted that they had hit the forbidden key. This shows that both public compliance and private acceptance can be elicited as a direct result of the same socially pressured instance.

Turner & Oakes’ (1986) work with Self-Categorization Theory furthers this point, going on to suggest that the distinction between informational [private] and normative [public] influence is erroneous and that they are mutually dependent elements of the same process.

What is perceived as evidence about reality (as having informational value) is a function of the shared in-group norm…. In-group norms are assumed to be subjectively prescriptive (productive of the feeling that one ought to see/think/act in a certain way) because they provide information that particular responses are objectively valid and appropriate. The informational [private] value/validity of a response and the degree to which it is in-group normative/consensual [public] are hypothesized to be subjectively equivalent. (p.254)

Turner & Oakes’ (1986) also note the temporal dimension to private acceptance. They do not see it as an automatic, blind process that takes place without cognitive activity. Individuals will sometimes go along with the in-group assuming it must be correct before they have had time to work out exactly how or why, presuming that this is only a matter of time. An example of this is the Kassin & Kiechel (1996) study (cited by Smith & Mackie, 2000)

It can be argued that conformity is characterised more by public compliance than by private acceptance in the sense that public compliance is an externally visible expression/display of conformity, however, the above statement argues public compliance as opposed to and therefore excluding private acceptance. The literature indicates that the two are not mutually exclusive, indeed they can sometimes be interdependent and therefore it is erroneous to state that conformity is characterised by one rather than the other. More precisely, conformity may be characterised by public compliance, private acceptance or both (whether private acceptance is concurrent with public compliance or delayed) depending on the situation.

© 2009 Geo S. Willis


Hogg, M. & Vaughan, G (2008) Social Psychology, (5th ed.), Pearson, Prentice Hall. Available from: [Accessed 07 November 2009].

Kurt, G. & McGlynn, R. (2001) Beyond Compliance and Acceptance: Influence Outcomes as a Function of Norm Plausibility and Processing Mode, Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, vol. 5 (no. 2) pp136-149.

Levine, J. (1989) Chapter 7: Opinion Deviance In: Paulus, P. (ed.) Psychology of Group Influence (2nd ed.) London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mackie, D. M. and Wright, C. L. (2002) Social Influence in an Intergroup Context In: Brown, R. & Gaertner, S.  (eds). Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Intergroup Processes, Blackwell Publishing, Blackwell Reference Online. Available from: [Accessed 04 November 2009].

Manstead, S. & Hewstone, M (1996) Social Influence In: Manstead, S. & Hewstone, M (eds.) The Blackwell encyclopaedia of social psychology, Blackwell reference. Available from: [Accessed 07 November 2009].

Molavi, A. (2002) The Soul of Iran, New York: Norton.

Moreland, R. L., & Levine, J. M., (1989) Chapter 6: ‘Newcomers and Oldtimers in small groups’ In: Paulus, P. (ed.) Psychology of Group Influence (2nd ed.) London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Smith, E. & Mackie, D (2000) Social Psychology. Psychology Press. Available from: [Accessed 07 November 2009].

Forsyth, D. (2000) Social Comparison and Influence in Groups, In: Suls J. & Wheeler, L. eds. Handbook of Social Comparison: Theory and Research, Springer.

Turner, J. & Oakes, P. (1986) Chapter 8: Self-Categorization Theory and Social Influence In: Paulus, P. (ed.) Psychology of Group Influence (2nd ed.) London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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