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Conformity Bias

Conformity bias describes our tendency to take cues for proper behavior 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?

German Police Battalion 101

German Police Battalion 101

During the Holocaust, ordinary Germans became willing killers even though they could have opted out from murdering their Jewish neighbors.


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

The latest resource from Ethics Unwrapped is a book, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice. This accessible book is amply footnoted with behavioral ethics studies and associated research. It also includes suggestions at the end of each chapter for related Ethics Unwrapped videos and case studies. Some instructors use this resource to educate themselves, while others use it in lieu of (or in addition to) a textbook.

Cara Biasucci also recently wrote a chapter on integrating Ethics Unwrapped in higher education, which can be found in the latest edition of Teaching Ethics: Instructional Models, Methods and Modalities for University Studies. The chapter includes examples of how Ethics Unwrapped is used at various universities.

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

An article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduce key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. Published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, it can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

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

Another article by Robert Prentice, discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, was published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It can 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.””


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.