Comparison of Consumer Behavior Conformity and Independence Between Blacks and Whites: an Exploratory Study


J. Taylor Sims (1971) ,"Comparison of Consumer Behavior Conformity and Independence Between Blacks and Whites: an Exploratory Study", in SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. David M. Gardner, College Park, MD : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 76-81.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 76-81


J. Taylor Sims, University of South Carolina

[This experiment was conducted as an individual research project in the College of Business, University of South Carolina. Special acknowledgement is due to officials of Benedict College, Columbia, S. C., who so graciously provided facilities and students to assist in the analysis of blacks.]

[J. Taylor Sims received a Ph.D. in Marketing from the University of Illinois. He is a former Vice-President and Account Supervisor for the Market Research Corporation of America, Chicago, Illinois.]

Several replications of the Conformity Studies of Asch (Asch, 1951) and the Social Judgement experiments of Sherif (Myers, 1966) have been made with similar results (Bourne, 1957; Brehm, 1965; Festinger, 1954; Howard, 1963; Venkatesan, 1966; Venkatesan, 1968). This study, with certain variations, follows the basic procedure of these earlier reports in an examination of possible conformity similarities and differences between blacks and whites. In an environment where conformity is a major force in consumer decision making an analysis of the degree of conformity between different ethnic groups should lend further insight. For example, if it could be established that one ethnic group is more susceptible to group influence than the other, and the nature of this influence is determinable, the information obtained should prove valuable in market segmentation analysis and the establishment of promotional strategy.


The objective of this study, therefore, was to gain further insight into the degree of susceptibility a particular consumer has to group pressure. More specifically, answers were sought to the following questions: (1) In general, does conformity vary significantly between blacks and whites; and (2) does conformity vary significantly within each ethnic group in terms of the degree of group pressure applied? The basic hypotheses were as follows:

1. In a consumer decision-making situation where no objective standards are present, individuals who are exposed to an emphatic group norm will tend to conform to that norm.

2. In a consumer decision-making situation where no objective standards are present, individuals who are exposed to an unemphatic group norm will show a tendency toward independence.

3. Blacks will tend to conform to a significantly greater extent than whites.


A controlled laboratory experiment was conducted to test the above hypotheses. A laboratory situation was devised in which the consumer decision-making process approximated an actual purchase situation. The purchase situation reflected as nearly as possible each of the ethnic groups' familiarity in terms of the product selected for evaluation.

Two hundred seventy college juniors and seniors, evenly divided between blacks and whites, were the subjects for the experiment. These students were drawn randomly from among students in advanced business courses at the University of South Carolina and Benedict College. The study was run during the 197071 Fall and Spring semesters.

The subjects were required to compare four identical suits labeled A,B,C,D and to rank order them in terms of best to worst quality. The style, color, and size of the suits were the same and all means of identification were removed. A Latin Square design was used to vary the position of the suits so that each suit could be displayed in each position with equal frequency. The suits were displayed on a metal clothing rack, and were hung side by side.

The subjects were told that each suit was from a different manufacturer; that the quality of each suit was different; that earlier studies had shown that retail clothing buyers had been able to select the highest quality suits in most cases; and that the present study was being conducted to determine if consumers could also distinguish between the quality of the suits.

Three experimental conditions were used in the experiment. The first condition was a Control Condition. In the second condition group pressure was applied emphatically. In the third condition group pressure was applied unemphatically. Conditions II and III were labeled Conformity Condition and Independence Condition respectively.

The subjects, under each condition, were allowed two minutes to physically examine the suits to assist them in arriving at a decision. The suits were placed in such a manner that the subjects were seated with their backs to them. This was done in order that no one could have access to the suits until they were asked to get up from their seat and examine them for the allotted two minutes.

In the Control Condition, four subjects were seated and read aloud the instructions by the experimenter. After examining the suits, each subject returned to his seat and was told to indicate his rankings on a form provided for this purpose. Thus, the four suits were evaluated individually in the Control Condition without any group influence.

Conditions II and III involved face-to-face evaluations by a group consisting of four individuals--three confederates of the experimenter, and one subject. The confederates were asked to rank suit B as the best followed by suits D,A,C, in that order. Seating arrangements were prearranged so that, when asked to do so, the confederates were always the first to respond followed by the naive subject. The instructions asked each participant to examine the suits, return to his seat and remain silent, and wait for further instructions. After all subjects had returned to their seats the experimenter asked each person to relate his decision.

In the Conformity Condition each confederate ranked suit B as best in an authoritative manner along with a positive reason for his decision. The ranking of the other three suits was made with less conviction. This forced the subject to confront a majority opinion on all suits with particular emphasis on suit B.

In the Independence Condition the procedure was the same as in the Conformity Condition. However, the response pattern of the confederates was changed to an unemphatic position. Whereas in the Conformity Condition the confederates had ranked suit B first with definite reasons for its superior quality, the confederates in the Independence Condition gave very weak and undecisive reasons for their rankings. As in the Conformity Condition group pressure was aimed at influencing individual choice.

The measure of yielding in the experiment was defined as the proportion of first rankings for suit B. Non-yielding was defined as the proportion of first rankings for the other three suits. Responses were not recorded during the public announcements of rankings to avoid any possible conditioning effect.

Finally, post-experimental interviews and debriefings were delayed until after the entire experiment was completed. This procedure was necessary because of the large number of subjects involved and the time that elapsed between the beginning and end of the studs.

Research Design

The design of the study was completely randomized using a randomized block design. Race and manipulation of group pressure were the blocked variables. The selection of suit B was the dependent variable.



Forty-five subjects were in each of the six cells. Confederates came from among students who were not otherwise involved in the experiment to insure confidentiality. They were rotated in a regular manner to offset any potential conditioning effects on the subjects through boredom and other factors. A pre-test of the model under actual experimental conditions was conducted on students not associated in any way with the actual subjects.

Analysis of Results

The distribution of ranks obtained for the three conditions are shown in Tables 2,3, and 4. In order to meet the assumptions of analysis of variance certain manipulations of the ranked data were necessary. Since the distributions of most ranks depart from the normal distribution required by the analysis of variance the Fisher and Yates transformation for ranked data was performed (Fisher and Yates, 1948). This transformation normalizes the distribution of ranked data and assigns each rank a score which can be used in the analysis of variance. By rescoring the rank ratings of 1,2,3,4 as 1.03, 0.30, -0.30, and -1.03, respectively, a data series normally distributed about its mean was obtained. These normalized preferences for the various treatment effects, as they relate to the selection of suit B, are summarized in Table 5.









The variation of rank scores were divided into the components of choice between treatments and interaction of race. The results of analysis of variance indicated a significant variation in ranking between treatments at the .01 level of significance (F=10.74), and interaction of race at the .05 level of significance (F-4.08).

Thus, the null hypothesis for the conformity condition was rejected lending support to Hypothesis 1. It may be concluded that group pressure was effective and that a tendency existed to conform to the group norm.

Hypothesis 2 was not supported; however, a Tukey test revealed the difference in net rankings between the control and independence conditions to be significant at the .01 level. This can be explained by the fact that the black's selection of suit B as the first rank in the independence condition was not unlike their response in the conformity condition. Thus, the blacks continued to conform in the weak independence condition. The whites, however, did respond independently.

Hypothesis 3 was supported. As previously indicated, the results of analysis of variance showed a significant variation in terms of interaction of race at the .05 level of significance.


This study is exploratory in nature and can only be generalized in terms of the population comprising it. However, the information obtained supports previous studies on reference group conformity and the information on blacks seems particularly revealing. The tendency of the blacks to accept social influence in both emphatic and unemphatic reinforcement conditions implies a tendency to accept information from peers on the style and quality of clothing products. Studies dealing with other types of products would, of course, add to knowledge regarding their general tendency to conform. Where no objective standards are present the tendency among blacks to conform to the group norm under all conditions of influence should provide insight to advertisers in the promotion of their products.

Future studies may wish to consider influential variables other than race. For example, cultural influences on personality development and the quality of education between blacks and whites could be considered. Studies involving other ethnic groups may also be revealing.


S. E. Asch, "Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgements," in Harold Goutzkow, ed., Groups Leadership and Men, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Carnegie Press, 1951.

E. S. Bourne, "Group Influence in Marketing and Public Relations," in Rensis Likert and S. P. Hayes, Jr., eds., Some Applications of Behavioral Research, New York: UNESCO, 1957.

J. W. Brehm, "A Theory of Psychological Reactance," Unpublished paper, Duke University, Durham, N. C., 1965.

Leon Festinger, "Theory of Social Comparison Processes," in Human Relations, VII (May, 1954), 117-140.

R. A. Fisher, and F. Yates, Statistical Tables for Biological, Agricultural and Medical Workers, Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, Ltd.. 1948.

J. A. Howard, Marketing: Executive and Buyer Behavior, New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Marie Jahoda, "Conformity and Independence: A Psychological Analysis," Human Relations, XII (May. 1959). 99-199

H. C. Kelman, "Process of Opinion Change," Public Opinion Quarterly, 25 (Spring, 1961), 57-78.

Jerome L. Myers, Fundamentals of Experimental Design, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1966.

Mazafar Sherif, The Psychology of Social Norms, New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

M. Venkatesan, "Experimental Study of Consumer Behavior Conformity and Independence," Journal of Marketing Research, 3 (November, 1966), 384-387.

M. Venkatesan, "Personality and Persuasibility in Consumer Decision Making," Journal of Advertising Research, 8 (1968), 39-45.



J. Taylor Sims, University of South Carolina


SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1971

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