In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Databases
  • Journals
  • Conformity
  • Obedience

Psychology Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience
Leandre R. Fabrigar, Meghan E. Norris, Devin Fowlie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0075


Social influence refers to the ways people influence the beliefs, feelings, and behaviors of others. Each day we are bombarded by countless attempts by others to influence us, and as such, the study of social influence has long been a central topic of inquiry for social psychologists and researchers in many other social sciences (e.g., marketing, organizational behavior, political science). Theorists have typically distinguished between four types of social influence. Compliance is when an individual changes his or her behavior in response to an explicit or implicit request made by another person. Compliance is often referred to as an active form of social influence in that it is usually intentionally initiated by a person. It is also conceptualized as an external form of social influence in that its focus is a change in overt behavior. Although compliance may sometimes occur as a result of changes in people’s internal beliefs and/or feelings, such internal changes are not the primary goal of compliance, nor are they necessarily required for the request to be successful. In contrast, conformity refers to when people adjust their behaviors, attitudes, feelings, and/or beliefs to fit to a group norm. Conformity is generally regarded as a passive form of influence in that members of the group do not necessarily actively attempt to influence others. People merely observe the actions of group members and adjust their behaviors and/or views accordingly. The focus of conformity can be either external (overt behaviors) or internal (beliefs and feelings) in nature. Obedience is a change in behavior as a result of a direct command from an authority figure. Obedience is an active form of influence in that it is usually directly initiated by an authority figure and is typically external in that overt behaviors are generally the focus of commands. The final form of social influence is persuasion, which refers to an active attempt to change another person’s attitudes, beliefs, or feelings, usually via some form of communication. Persuasion is an active form of influence and is internal in its focus in that changes in people’s beliefs and/or feelings are the goal of such influence. Typically, persuasion is treated as a distinct literature from that of the other three forms of social influence and is usually included as a major area of inquiry within the broader attitudes literature. As such, this article will focus primarily on literature related to compliance, conformity, and obedience.

General Overviews and Textbooks

There are a number of sources, appropriate for different audiences, that provide overviews of the literature. These resources provide broad-level insights into social influence processes that would be informative for both academics and nonacademics. Both Milgram 1992 and Harkins, et al. 2017 provide useful, general overviews that are suitable for a range of audiences. Similarly, Cialdini 2001 would be useful for not only students but also those with nonacademic backgrounds who have an interest in social influence. In contrast, Cialdini and Griskevicius 2010 and Cialdini and Trost 1998 are geared more toward graduate students and researchers. Hogg 2010 provides a scholarly overview of social influence literature.

  • Cialdini, R. B. 2001. Influence: Science and practice. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    This book is among the most popular in any area of social psychology. It remains a popular text for classes on social influence but is sufficiently engaging with its effective use of real-world examples that is appealing to readers outside the academic context. This resource covers content including the six principles of influence: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

  • Cialdini, R. B., and V. Griskevicius. 2010. Social influence. In Advanced social psychology: The state of the science. Edited by R. Baumeister and E. Finkel, 385–418. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An academic review of social influence research. In contrast to Cialdini 2001, this book is best suited for a scholarly audience and would be a useful resource for senior undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Cialdini, R. B., and M. R. Trost. 1998. Social influence: Social norms, conformity, and compliance. In The handbook of social psychology. 4th ed. Vol. 2. Edited by D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, and G. Lindzey, 151–192. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This chapter is a comprehensive, scholarly review of psychological research on social influence. It provides a detailed summary of research on norms, conformity, and compliance.

  • Harkins, S. G., K. D. Williams, and J. M. Burger, eds. 2017. The Oxford handbook of social influence. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This handbook provides a generally accessible overview of topics and current research in social influence, including intra- and interpersonal processes, intragroup processes, and applied social influence. This is broadly applicable, but is also suitable for nonacademics or students.

  • Hogg, M. A. 2010. “Influence and leadership.” In The handbook of social psychology. 5th ed. Vol. 2. Edited by S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, and G. Lindzey, 1166–1206. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    This chapter provides a scholarly overview of social influence literature, with a somewhat different emphasis in coverage than that of Cialdini and colleagues. This chapter is best suited for graduate students, scholars, and researchers. It provides distinctions between compliance, conformity, and obedience literature.

  • Milgram, S. 1992. The individual in a social world: Essays and experiments. 2d ed. Edited by J. Sabini and M. Silver. McGraw-Hill Series in Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This series of writings by Stanley Milgram covers a variety of aspects of social influence, among other topics. This writing is suitable for students or professionals, but may be of interest more generally.

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