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Concepts of compliance


Human beings are social beings and while everyone prefers to think that they are independent, it is true that in society, our actions and behaviors are influenced by others. Social influence occurs in different ways but findings from research reveal that there are broadly 4 major types of social influence that include conformity, compliance, obedience, and persuasion. In every social situation, either one or all of these factors are in play as individuals literally “try to win” us over into their different causes. For example, marketers convince you to purchase a product, groups try to influence your behavior, and politicians inculcate their ideas and convictions. However, what are the differences between conformity, compliance, and obedience?


Compliance is when a person changes their behavior to match that of someone else, explicitly or otherwise. Thus, for compliance to occur, a person adapts their actions to another party’s rules or wishes. For example, a fresh recruit in the army is asked to perform specific tasks wither through persuasion or inspiration. The new soldier, therefore, is not being asked to either agree/disagree but the request is something they must deliver or comply with. A compliant individual, therefore, is one that delivers on a specified task as requested. Compliance is overt, as its results are overt behavioral change, which makes it an active form of social influence. If the soldier had not been in the army for example, they would not do the tasks the commander asks them. With time, compliance can also mean internal changes too, as beliefs and values can change in line with the requests demanded.


Conformity, on the other hand, occurs when the group majority influences an individual’s judgment. Solomon Asch (1950) studied the effects of people’s thoughts and behaviors on others, and results revealed that when faced with group pressure, a majority of people chose to go along with the group. Conformity, therefore, can be defined as the decision to change one’s position and to yield to group pressure, even when we do not agree (internally). Some of the factors that influence an individual’s ability to conform include the size of the majority, the presence of another dissenter, and the nature of the responses (public or private). For example, in group settings, people might be asked to choose a single option and when the majority moves to support A instead of B, the remaining minority often conforms. However, when the minority or dissenter has another supporter, they can reduce the conformity rates since others will see that they were not wrong in their assumptions, which they might have chosen to keep private to avoid reprisal. Compliance, or going along with a request/demand, can be a form of conformity.


Obedience is different from conformity and compliance since it is often backed up by the authority. Obedience, necessarily, is an active form of influence where individuals change their behavior as a response to a direct command or rule. In our lives, various legitimate authorities command our behavior. From home, school, to the government, the society has various authorities that demand our obedience in the delivery of specific tasks in line with general goals. Studies in psychology have revealed that obedience is a trait that can be exhibited in anyone under the right situation/circumstances. For example, followers of certain cults can be looked down upon by outsiders for their gullibility in following “ridiculous commands” that serve their leader’s purposes. However, in society, many are also obedient in following the government and the rules it sets for general conduct. For law-abiding citizens, obeying the leaders and his/her rules is paramount and when violated, there can be severe repercussions.


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