The Comparison And Contrast Of Social Influences: Compliance, Conformity And Obedience

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In everyday life the actions of people are influenced by their environment and those around them. It is common for individuals to alter their actions in order to fit in with societal norms as it is looked down upon to be different, or in an out-group (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014). The changing of one’s actions and activities to meet said group norms can be classified as either compliance, conformity or obedience. Each having their own particular response to types of communication, such as requests or laws (Xie et al., 2016). The three levels of social influence having both similarities and differences, which will be outlined within the essay. With use of comparison and contrasts – moreover with the additional reference of relevant theories, concepts and research, each social influence level will be explained and then compared against each other. Overall this will illustrate what each level entails and real-life examples of it.


The first level is compliance, being the most common in everyday life and simplistic of the three social influences. It occurs when behaviour is in response to a request, either direct or indirect and is based off of following or agreeance (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014). For example, if someone were to ask for the salt at the dinner table and someone else hands it to them, they would be complying with the request that was made. Individuals are motivated by their need to get their reward and to do so in the most effective and simplistic way possible – which in the case of compliance it is what they have requested (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).

Compliance works by a certain group of individuals following an unwritten set of rules in order to be included by said group, rather than laws of society (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). Furthermore, individuals are fully aware of the request and the requirement to respond in a certain way (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). The result that is gained from compliance is a short-term adaptation to the setting, typically maintaining the status quo in order to keep the situation at a state of equilibrium or norm (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011).

The door-in-the-face technique is an approach that reflects how the magnitude request can influence whether someone will comply with it or not. To begin with, the person will ask a grand request which will be rejected, then following it up with a lesser request. In turn this increases the chances of compliance with the lesser request (Millar, 2010). This works by the comparison of the two, the lesser request seeming to be easier to comply with and accomplish when compared to such a large request such as the first. The target of the request is then to feel as if the other has lowered the request in order to accommodate the other and has been perceived to be more effective than asking for the smaller request straight away (Rodafinos, Vucevic & Sideridis, 2010). Examples of the door-in-the-face can include asking for a large sum of money, such as $100, and when that is refused asking for a lesser amount such as $10 instead. Additionally, the technique is easy enough to be implemented into retail and workplace scenarios. Research has found that in the workplace, employees tend to be more compliant to requests due to monetary benefits that influence them to follow such requests. Advertising campaigns also incorporate compliance by playing on established norms (Karakostasa & Zizzo, 2016).

In summary, compliance is the most simplistic of the three social influences, being practical and one that provides short-term results to situations that require the upholding of established social norms (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). The implementation of the door-in-the-face technique aids in the compliance occurring and can be used successfully in a multitude of situations such as borrowing money or workplace tasks (Millar, 2010).


A step above compliance is that of conformity. Conformity is the voluntary change of behaviour to align with those of others, typically to match the majority (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014). The act of conforming is seen to be contagious as it is undesirable to stand out from the prominent in-group (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). People tend to conform to the roles they are believed to have, relying on perceived ideas rather than clear instructions (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014). In order for individuals in a group to conform, there must be an authority figure whom influences the others, pressure being a requirement for conformity (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). Conforming to match the norms of the group can also be seen as an emotional buffer, protecting an individual from experiencing negative emotions such as isolation or rejection (Yu & Sun, 2013). An example of conformity that is seen constantly is that of people following the latest fashion trends in order to fit in with the majority.

Research has found that social norms are one of the most influential factors when it comes to the conformity of individuals, often adjusting their own behaviour in order to fit the supposed norm. The study conducted by Aarts and Dijksterhuis (2003) can be referenced as an example. The experiment found that environments can affect one’s behaviour due to normative behaviour established by social norms and strong associations with the environment. In the case of Aarts and Dijksterhuis (2003)’s study the environment was libraries and the behaviour was being silent when within the building. Another example of conformity is an individual disagreeing with the majority’s mentality however when asked their thoughts will agree with the majority, wanting to avoid negative responses.

The process of conformity includes two variations; informational influence and normative influence (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). Informational influence occurs when the individual themselves lacks knowledge, in turn looks to the group for guidance, or compares their own behaviour with that of the group’s. This results in internalisation, the individual accepting the views of the group they looked to, altering their own existing behaviours (Mallinson & Hatemi, 2018). A hypothetical example would include travelling to a foreign planet and accepting a request to being shown around by the aliens that inhabit the planet. In this scenario the aliens are considered the majority and the human is seeking knowledge and guidance. Alternatively, normative influence is the conformity of the group’s behaviour to gain acceptance and fit in, avoiding disapproval. An example of this form of conformity is peer pressure. When both of said processes have been influential in the conformity of behaviours, it is known as dual-process dependency (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011).

Certain factors have been found to influence whether the rates of conformity within a group increase or decrease. This includes; the size of the group, the difficulty of the task the group is faced with, the social status of the group, and when individuals are not in the presence of the group (Levitan & Verhulst, 2015). Factors that increase conformity are larger sized groups, difficult tasks that require the group to consult with each other to solve and the group’s social status. Alternatively, conformity decreases when individuals are away from the rest of the group, being due to them only conforming to fit in with the group and caring about how they are seen by the rest of the group (Levitan & Verhulst, 2015). These factors were found during the 1951 experiment on group conformity, conducted by Solomon Asch (Mallinson & Hatemi, 2018).

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When compared to compliance, conformity illustrates increased stakes and social influence on groups. Conformity involves altering one’s behaviours, and sometimes morals, in order to better fit in with the majority – which results in avoidance of negative emotions and social isolation from what is considered the in-group (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014). Conforming to the majority can also be due to lack of knowledge and in turn seeking it out, causing a change in existing thoughts and behaviours (Mallinson & Hatemi, 2018). Environments and social norms also influence the need to conform during certain situations (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2003). The consequences that result from not conforming are more than those received from noncompliance. Nonconformity can result in an individual being in the minority, or out-group being a long term consequence, whilst noncompliance can result in short-term negative emotions between just those involved in the situation (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011).


Finally, the third concept of social influence is obedience. Unlike the other two mentioned, obedience is behaving in a certain way due to a higher power ordering you to do so without question – being considered a more extreme version of compliance (Gibson, 2018). Examples of those who hold higher power include teachers, bosses and parents to list a few that are relevant in everyday society.

Obedience is a learnt behaviour that develops over time, individuals having different responses to those who hold authority due to past experiences. It stems from either fear or respect, sometimes both (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). Those who hold authoritative powers have had those powers given to them by society due to their social standing or occupation (Drummond-Smith, 2017). Failure to obey the orders of those individuals results in a social punishment, as the expectation is stated clearly for the individual to follow (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011; Xie et al., 2016). Obeying laws, following established social norms in society and religious beliefs are all instances that occur due to obedience.

Certain conditions need to be met in order to increase the effectiveness of obedience, that involves; proximity and legitimacy of authoritative body, the proximity of the victim and the degree of social support for obedience or disobedience (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014). These conditions can be clearly observed in Stanley Milgram’s 1963 experiment. The study involved testing how far an individual would go in order to obey the commands of an authority figure, and how much it would take for them to finally refuse those orders (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014). The results of that study found that 65% of the participants did not refuse the orders of the person in charge at any point during the experiment (Griggs, 2016; Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). This is an example of blind obedience, as individuals will not question the orders of those in positions authority (Drummond-Smith, 2017).

Obedience stands out from the other two influences, having strong consequences for disobedience. Those who hold authoritative power are held to a higher social standard and the rules and laws in which those within the society are meant to follow are clearly defined and learnt throughout life (Gibson, 2018). Religious beliefs align with the behaviours exhibited in group conformity, where it is at an individual level and lacks serious consequences if not followed exactly. However like obedience the rules are clearly defined and the consequences for the individual are perceived as severe by that individual for example heaven or hell after death (Myers, Abell & Sani, 2014).

The Comparison Summary

To further expand on the before mentioned influences, this section will provide comparisons of both the main similarities and differences of the three. The similarities include; their influence to change behaviour and being needed to promote social cohesion. While the differences are; the power behind the request, the level of complexity, the consequences and their roles in society.

Firstly, the similarities. With these concepts being social influences, their main goal is to create a change in behaviour – either long-term or simply short-term. They are an adaptative technique that evolves alongside societal norms (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). Furthermore, these influences create a form of social cohesion throughout the whole of the society. This is due to all within said society having an understanding of what is required of them and what each influence stands for (Coultas & Leeuwen, 2015).

Secondly, the differences. As previously mentioned, each influence has a different level of power behind it and it’s required response (Vaughan & Hogg, 2011). While compliance occurs without a second thought, obedience is a learnt behaviour and adaptive. This also reflects how there are different levels of complexity and why the consequences for each differs. Finally, their roles in society. Whilst still applying to the previous difference, compliance tends to occur for one-off situations, being a smaller sum of the whole, however, obedience maintains social order and hierarchy in society authority (Drummond-Smith, 2017).


Overall, the concepts of compliance, conformity and obedience are increasingly more complex versions of one another, the three working in levels. They are influenced by differing scenarios that an individual would be in, each coming with a different consequence if not followed. They all heavily rely on established social norms that allow them to be differentiated from one another, each being applied to different situations. Despite having similarities and differences, the three are more similar than they are different – the differences being smaller scale than the similarities. Numerous studies and theories work to further explain how and why these social influences work in the way that they do, including door-in-the-face technique and Milgram’s 1963 obedience experiment. To conclude, compliance, conformity and obedience have similarities and differences that set them apart from each other whilst still being quite similar overall.

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