Key Study: Conformity Across Cultures (Berry, 1967)

Travis Dixon Social and Cultural Psychology, Studies and Theories Leave a Comment

Berry's classic study compared two cultures in order to understand how economics, parenting and cultural values can influence behaviour.
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Conformity is one of the most popular topics in psychology. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the most studied. The origins of conformity studies go back to Solomon Asch’s famous “line length” experiments. Almost as old is Berry’s now classic study that asked the question: why do different cultures have different rates of conformity? 

Berry’s 1967 study adapted Asch’s famous line-length experimental design.

Conformity is the act of behaving in a way that is consistent with the group, or more precisely, it’s adjusting one’s behaviour so as to be consistent with social norms. In other words, it’s when you do what everyone else is doing. Asch famously studied this in America in the 1950s. Since then, hundreds of studies have been published on conformity. Many of these studies ask questions about the different factors that might influence conformity: age, race, culture, clothing, IQ, etc.

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Berry’s (1967) study was one of the first to compare cultures and try to explain why some cultures have higher conformity rates than others. The study was based on Barry et al.’s (1959) study of the differences in parenting practices of high food accumulation cultures (e.g. farming and agriculture) and low food accumulation cultures (e.g. hunting and fishing). Barry concluded that hunting and fishing cultures (e.g. Eskimo’s) are more individualistic and independent, whereas farming and pastoral cultures (e.g. Temne who relied mainly on rice) are more compliant and conservative. Berry (not Barry, it’s confusing I know) went further and asked the question if these different parenting and socialization strategies affect actual behaviour. He chose conformity.

These two cultures were chosen because of their distinct differences in cultural values and enculturation practices.

Independence and Conformity in Subsistence Level Societies (Berry, 1967)

Participants were given the above sheet and told: “Here is a sheet with nine lines on it. One line
is here at the top, and there are eight lines of
different lengths beneath it. I would like you to
tell me which one of these eight lines is the same
length as this one at the top.”

Previous studies showed that the Eskimo’s encouraged independence and individualism, whereas the Temne were very strict and insisted upon compliance and following strict cultural norms of behaviour. So these two cultures were chosen because “…the Temne and Eskimo peoples … represent high and low food-accumulating subsistence societies who also possess contrasting systems of socialization practices which are in keeping with the Barry et al. (1959) findings.”

Methods:

  • Two different groups were studied from each culture: one group that were still living in the very traditional way of life and a second group that were living in a city in a more modern, “Westernized,” way of life.
  • A third culture (Scottish) was chosen for comparison. (6 groups in total).
  • The Asch line paradigm was the inspiration for this experiment, but the methods were changed slightly. Participants actually wrote their answers on a piece of paper.
  • They were shown a large sheet of paper with one line at the top and 8 lines beneath (see Fig 1.).
  • In the critical trials, the researcher would say, “Here is another sheet with nine lines on it, one here at the top, and eight beneath it. This time I am going to give you a hint. Most Temne (or Eskimo, or Scottish, depending on the group being tested) people say this line [experimenter pointed to number 6] is equal in length to the one at the top. Which one do you say? (Italics added). The researcher did not give the correct answer, but instead gave a wrong one).
  • Conformity was the measured by the distance between the participant’s answer and the correct one (further distance = higher conformity).

Temne people (Mayolo/Pt Loko) showed higher levels of conformity compared with Eskimo (Pond Inlet/Frobisher) and Scots (Inverkeilor/Edinburgh). Traditional societies had higher levels of conformity in all three groups.

Results:

  • The Temne had higher levels of conformity to group norms than the other two cultures.
  • The traditional Temne people had slightly higher conformity rates than the modernized group.
  • In all three groups, traditional cultures had higher rates of conformity than modernized ones (but these were not statistically significant between groups).

Conclusions and Applications:

  • Different cultures have different rates of conformity to group norms. This can be explained by the values that are encouraged through socialization, enculturation and parenting practices of those cultures.
  • The values encouraged in a particular culture are influenced by their economic systems. In economies where initiative and independence are values (e.g. hunting, fishing, low food accumulation), then kids will be raised to be individualistic and independent so they can be successful. In communities that have economic systems that rely on co-operation (e.g. rice growing), values associated with compliance, conformity and collectivism will be encouraged.

This study can be applied in the IB Psychology course to enculturation, cultural norms, cultural origins and influences of behaviour. It works well with Barry et al. (1959) for all of these topics: Barry shows the origin of the values, and Berry shows how they influence behaviour.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • Barry et al.’s and Berry’s studies were conducted over 50 years ago. Do they have temporal validity? In other words, would we expect these same results today? Can you think of how cultures and societies might have changed over the past 50 years to doubt the validity of these results?
  • Conformity in this study is judged by participant’s guesses of line lengths. There are no consequences for getting a wrong answer. How might this affect our ability to use this study to explain real-life examples of conformity?

References

  • Berry, JW. ‘Independence and conformity in subsistence level societies.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1967, Vol. 7. No 4, 415-418.

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