Conformity Bias

Conformity bias refers to our tendency to take cues for proper behavior in most contexts from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment.

Discussion Questions

1. Can you think of a time when you did something just because everyone else was doing it—even when it didn’t feel quite right to you? Do you regret it now?

2. It was recently observed that “cheating is contagious.” Does that sound true to you? Why or why not? If it is true, why might this be the case?

3. Loyalty is generally considered a good quality. When a group to which you owe loyalty seems to be making a decision that seems unethical to you, how should you go about trying to balance your loyalty to the group against your own ethical integrity? Have you had an experience like that? If so, how did you resolve it?

4. Can you explain how “groupthink” works? Can you think of a time when you have been subject to groupthink?

5. In the Harry Potter books, Albus Dumbledore told Harry: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Do you have advice for people regarding how they can muster such bravery? Any personal experience to share?

6. How can an organization that wants its employees to make decisions in accordance with their own moral compass encourage them to do so?

Case Studies

German Police Battalion 101

During the Holocaust, more than a third of Nazi Germany’s Jewish victims never boarded deportation trains and did not die in gas chambers. Jewish men, women, and children were murdered near their homes in surrounding fields and forests by German police forces and their local helpers. Historians estimate that these so-called mobile killing units shot almost 2 million people during World War II. After the war, when some of the shooters and their commanders were put on trial, they claimed that they had to follow orders. Decades later, however, historians studying the interrogation files of one of these police battalions made a startling discovery. Not only did many ordinary Germans participate in the mass murder of Jews, they did so voluntarily.

In his book on one group of reserve policemen from the German city Hamburg, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, historian Christopher Browning shows that while the men were expected to follow orders when it came to killing civilians, they could have refused to do so. In July 1942, before their induction into the mass shooting of civilians in the small Polish town of Józefów, their commander gave battalion members a choice. If any of the men were “not up to the task,” they would be assigned to do “other duties,” such as guarding or transportation. When given the opportunity to opt out, only a very small number of men did. Even though this option remained in the months that followed, the majority of reserve policemen chose to kill—to do the “dirty work” even if just for a short time before being relieved of duty—rather than separate themselves from their unit by refusing to murder civilians.

Most of these ordinary, middle-aged German men became willing, although not enthusiastic, killers. A small minority consistently excused themselves from the task at hand. Those that killed, Browning argues, did so because of “the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out… [The] act of stepping out…meant leaving one’s comrades and admitting that one was ‘too weak’ or ‘cowardly’.”

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think ordinary men would become willing killers? What was the role of conformity bias in the situation described above? Explain.

2. Although conformity bias refers to our own tendency to take behavioral cues from the actions of others around us, in what ways do you think conformity was actively encouraged by the political climate or police forces leading the volunteers? Explain.

3. In hindsight, it is clear to see the wrongdoing of the actions of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101. But given the number of men who willingly killed their Jewish neighbors, the decision to opt out may have been more complicated than simply being “not up to the task.” Beyond conformity bias, what other cognitive biases or situational pressures may have contributed to these men’s decision to kill? Explain. How do you think the men could have made different choices?

4. Do you think this dynamic is specific to a militarized culture? Why or why not? In what other contexts do you think conformity bias could play a significant role in shaping people’s behavior? Explain.

5. Can you think of examples in other parts of the world or historical periods in which conformity bias may have played a similar role in causing harm on a wide scale? Explain.

6. This case study illustrates an extreme example of the negative effects of conformity bias. On a more routine basis in your own life, in what situations do you think you might encounter conformity bias? Explain. Do you think our tendency to conform could ever produce positive effects? Why or why not?


Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as conformity bias. Conformity bias refers to our tendency to take cues for proper behavior in most contexts from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment. Conformity bias may occur when we face peer pressure or are trying to fit into particular professional or social environments.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Obedience to Authority and Role Morality. To learn a method to voice oneself when facing conformity bias, watch the GVV video series, especially GVV Pillar 6: Voice.

The case study on this page, “Reserve Police Battalion 101,” takes a look at the dangers of conformity bias in the context of the Holocaust, in which many ordinary German men aided willingly aided Nazi officers in murdering millions of Jews. For a related case study that explores the dangers of obedience to authority facing a Nazi officer, see “Stangl & the Holocaust.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: conformity bias, obedience to authority, and role morality.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

Asch, Solomon E. 2004. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” In Readings about The Social Animal (9th Edition), edited by Joshua Aronson and Elliot Aronson, 17-26. New York: Worth Publishers.

Browning, Lynnley. 2005. “How an Accounting Firm Went From Resistance to Resignation.” New York Times, August 28.

Esser, James K. and Joanne S. Lindoerfer. 1989. “Groupthink and the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident: Toward a Quantitative Case Analysis.” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 2 (3): 167-177.

Janis, Irving L. 1982. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (2nd Edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rowling, J.K. 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic.

The latest teaching resource from Ethics Unwrapped is an article, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice, that describes the basics of behavioral ethics, introduces the videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples, and includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. It was published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

An article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“Parents seldom accept as an excuse their child’s plea of “Hey, everyone else is doing it!” However, psychological studies demonstrate that those same parents, and everyone else, tend to take their cues for proper behavior in most social contexts from the actions of others. This pressure is called the conformity bias.

Psychologist Solomon Asch found that when he asked subjects to tell which of three lines is the same length as a fourth, no one had difficulty doing it unless they were placed in a group with Asch’s confederates who gave obviously wrong answers. Under those conditions, almost all of the subjects found it very painful to give the obviously correct answer in contradiction to the strangers’ wrong answers. In fact, most participants gave an obviously incorrect answer at least once during the study.

This bias to conform is much greater, of course, when the others in the group are not strangers but are co-employees or friends, or when the correct answer is not right there in black and white as it was in the Asch Study but is instead a subjective question like an ethical issue.

The impairment of individual decision-making known as “groupthink” – where people deciding in groups often make more extreme decisions than any individual member initially supports – can exacerbate the conformity bias. It can be reasonably argued that loyalty and groupthink helped Morton Thiokol employees to remain silent about known O-ring dangers that caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

An employee at the accounting firm KPMG challenged the ethics of tax shelters that the firm was selling. He received a simple e-mail that said: “You are either on the team or you are off the team.”

Well everyone wants to be on the team. We all realize loyalty is generally an important virtue. But it causes a pressure to conform and this pressure to conform, has been argued, helped cause Ford employees to sell the Ford Pinto despite awareness of its gas tank dangers, and helped A.H. Robins employees to continue to sell the Dalkon Shield contraceptive IUD despite knowing its ghastly medical consequences.

Psychological and organizational pressures can cause even people with good intentions to lie or otherwise act unethically. Good character, unfortunately, is not always sufficient. As Albus Dumbledore told Harry Potter, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.””