Conformity and Rebellion: Understanding Social Influence in Groups

Conformity and Rebellion: Understanding Social Influence in Groups

Conformity and Rebellion

Have you ever questioned the idea of social influence and how it can impact someone’s behaviour? Or are you curious about what causes people to feel like they must conform to be part of a group? For decades, people have studied the power of social influence, social dynamics, and how individuals will change their actions to meet the demands of a group. Social influence falls under the umbrella of social psychology. It is the scientific study of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and how they can be influenced by other people. Whether you’re just curious about the psychology behind social influence and conformity, or you’re studying for a degree like the Master of Social Work qualification—our article will cover the different forms of conformity and social influence.

What is Social Influence?

Social influence is a broad term, referring to how an individual will adjust their ideals and actions to fit in with a social group or organisation. It comes in many forms, for example, peer pressure, leadership, sales, and marketing. Harvard psychologist, Herbert Kelman, identified three main types of social influence: compliance, identification, and internalisation. Kelman described these as the three main processes for ‘attitude change’ in his paper published in 1958 in the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

People encounter different forms of social influence daily. A common example of social influence is an individual in a group laughing because everyone else, even if they don’t understand the joke—so they can fit in.

When learning about social influence, the concept goes hand in hand with the idea of conformity and its opposite—rebellion. Social influence is the capacity an individual or group might have to impact the thoughts and feelings of others, whilst conformity is the action following this, where an individual will change their behaviour or beliefs according to the influence.

Public Conformity and Private Acceptance

Before exploring the different types of social influence and conformity, it’s important to understand the difference between public conformity and private acceptance. Public conformity is when you change your outward behaviour, but not necessarily your attitude or opinion towards a situation. Whereas, private acceptance would be an individual changing their personal beliefs (and not necessarily changing their behaviour) due to social influences.


If an individual is compliant, they are conforming or responding positively to a request made by others. While this is a behavioural change, therefore being public conformity, it isn’t always necessarily indicative of private acceptance. People are still able to be compliant due to social influences whilst still not agreeing with the beliefs or due to social pressures. A good example of this could be peer pressure. An individual might be against consuming alcohol, but due to wanting to withhold their personal beliefs or pressure from friends—be compliant.


If an individual is conforming based on identification, it is based on social roles. A great example of this is the Stanford Prison Experiment. This is where someone will conform and change their behaviour to suit the other members of the group they are in, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll change their personal beliefs. For example, an employee might regularly go out for after-shift drinks with their coworkers a few times a week. They might not be a huge drinker normally in private, but they still go out a few times a week to gain the approval and positive opinion of their coworkers.


Internalisation is the process of changing your behaviour or personal beliefs to be like someone else. This could be a friend you like or a romantic partner. Someone who is going through internalisation might change their opinion on movies or shift their taste in music to match the person they are interested in. The aforementioned processes aren’t the only types of conformity, just the main three listed out originally by Kelman. There are many other types and subtypes of conformity, for example, obedience, normative conformity, and informational conformity.

Human behaviour is also complex, with our understanding growing and changing every year. There is no set rule or reason as to why someone might conform in a situation and someone else might not—however, it can come down to a few factors, including group size, cultural differences, and even individual differences.

Understanding Rebellion

If conforming is the act of matching beliefs, behaviours, and thoughts, then rebellion is the opposite—pushing against a set of ideals and attitudes. There is a multitude of reasons why someone would choose to rebel against social influence instead of conforming under pressure.

This could be because the individual’s beliefs go against the ideals laid out by the influence, or they want to differentiate themselves from that group. In some circumstances, rebelling can also be because the individual feels the need to belong. For example, you might rebel with a select few friends against a larger social influence, like the wider friendship circle, to create a sense of belonging.

When someone actively refuses to conform, whether it is compliance, identification, or internalisation—this can be seen as an act of rebellion, whether it’s discrete or public. If you’re interested in learning more about social influence and psychology, we recommend reading Bibb Latané’s social impact theory. It was developed in 1981 and furthers the understanding laid out by Kelman in 1958. This theory proposes how three factors can affect how someone reacts to a social influence and the likelihood of conformity. Robert Cialdini’s weapons of influence theory is also an interesting read. It suggests six ways that can contribute to a person’s inclination to be persuaded, and how. He covers these six factors in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” published in 1984.

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