Although mimicry represents the more subtle side, conformity also occurs in a more active and thoughtful sense, for instance, when we actively look to our friends’ opinions to determine appropriate behavior, when a car salesperson attempts to make a sale, or even when a powerful dictator uses physical aggression to force the people in his country to engage in the behaviors that he desires. In these cases, the influence is obvious. We know we are being influenced and we may attempt—sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so—to counteract the pressure.
Influence sometimes occurs because we believe that other people have valid knowledge about an opinion or issue, and we use that information to help us make good decisions. When we take our winter coat to school because the weatherman says it’s going to be cold, this is because we think that the weatherman has some good information that we can use. Informational conformity is the change in opinions or behavior that occurs when we conform to people whom we believe have accurate information. We base our beliefs on those presented to us by reporters, scientists, doctors, and lawyers because we believe they have more expertise in certain fields than we have. But we also use our friends and colleagues for information; when we choose a prom gown on the basis of our friends’ advice about what looks good on us, we are using informational conformity—we believe that our friends have good judgment about the things that matter to us.
Informational conformity is often the end result of social comparison, the process of comparing our opinions with those of others to gain an accurate appraisal of the validity of an opinion or behavior (Festinger et al., 1950; Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Turner, 1991). Informational conformity leads to real, long-lasting changes in beliefs. The result of informational influence is normally private acceptance: real change in opinions on the part of the individual. We believe that taking the winter coat was the right thing to do and that the prom gown really looks good on us.