Compliance in psychology refers to situations where someone is influenced by others as a result of an explicit or implicit request.
It is most commonly used within social influence theory, which explores how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by others.
Within this theory, we have three key ways in which we can be influenced.
Compliance is the most direct and overt, where we change our behaviors or thoughts based on a request.
But we might also change our thoughts and behaviors through identification (the desire to fit-in) and internalization (being socialized into the group’s thoughts, feelings, and values).
Compliance in Psychology: Definition and Origins
Compliance stems from the social influence theory, defined by Trentz et al. (2018) below:
“[Social influence theory attempts] to explain how individuals’ emotions, opinions, or behaviors are influenced by others” (Trenz et al., 2018, p. 11).
There are several ideas and concepts that are nested under the social influence theory, including that of Kelman (1974) and Deursch And Gerard (1955).
It is Kelman who uses the term ‘compliance’, and whose definition is most widely employed in social psychology.
Kelman (1974) proposed that we can be socially influenced in three key ways:
- Compliance (subjective norm): This occurs when someone is influenced by the group norm with the desire to gain favor or be liked.
- Identification (social identity): This occurs when someone is influenced by the group norm with the desire to fit in and be part of an in-group with which you identify.
- Internalization (group norm): This occurs when someone is influenced by the belief that the collective wisdom of the group helps guide the way to knowledge, truth, or wisdom.
Compliance vs Identification vs Internalization
Compliance refers to situations where we are influenced by a request. We are complying with the group norms, rather than approaching them out of personal desire.
Hwang (2016, p. 467) provides a clear definition:
“Compliance occurs when an individual accepts influence because he or she hopes to achieve a positive reaction from another person or group with a normative commitment.”
In the compliance model, people modify their behavior even if they don’t necessarily agree with the influence. Rather, it’s generally because they want to gain favor or avoid negative consequences.
Zhou (2011) adds that compliance tends to occur when they hear “…the opinions of other people who are important to him/her.”
For example, we act in compliance when we adhere to our company’s dress code. It’s not something we would normally wear, but we do so because we are requested to do so, often explicitly within the company policy.
This compliance avoids a punishment (we don’t want to get fired) and also might curry favor from the boss, seeing us as a good team player.
Identification refers to instances when we change our behaviors as a result of a desire to fit in. Here, we’re still being socially influenced, but not via a request per se.
Hwang (2016) explains that people “adopt behaviors to realize a satisfying and self-defining relationship with another person or group.”
Zhou (2011) explains that this approach is all about cultivating an in-group identity:
“…identification reflects individual identification with a community, such as senses of belongingness and attachment.”
We might, for example, change our behaviors because we see that the people we admire are behaving in a certain way. A young person who becomes very interested in a certain subculture may, for instance, start dressing in the same way as the people in that subculture.
Lastly, internalization occurs when we are socialized into a group, integrating the beliefs, values, or behaviors of that group out of a sense that the group’s collective wisdom might lead us closer to a more authentic or truthful life.
Zhou (2011) describes this by saying:
“Internalization reflects that an individual accepts the influence due to the congruence of his/her values with those of group members.”
In internalization, the individual learns to genuinely believe that the group’s values and beliefs are correct, reflecting a much deeper sense of alignment than identification, explored above. This isn’t just about identity, it’s about values.
As noted by Trenz et al. (2018),
An example of internalization could be a person who enters a religion in adulthood. They watch YouTube videos or talk to friends about the religion and, over time, come to believe that its teachings can lead the way to religious enlightenment.
1. School Uniforms: Schools often have strict dress codes. You are supposed to wear certain uniforms, not because you naturally gravitate towards them, but because it’s a rule set by the educational institution. For instance, a student dons a uniform every day, regardless of personal taste, to abide by the school’s requirements. Failure to comply might result in punishments such as detention or call to parents.
2. Traffic Signals: Traffic rules are a clear-cut case of compliance. You stop at red lights and proceed when the light is green. An example is when you stop your car at a red light, not because you believe in the rule, but because you don’t want a ticket from the traffic officer. This adherence to traffic laws benefits all road users and promotes safety.
3. Office Protocol: Workplaces have certain protocols and procedures. You follow certain steps when completing tasks, not because these steps make sense to you, but because they are part of the company’s procedural mandate. For example, an employee might use complex software to log hours, adhering to company policy, even if he/she finds the software inconvenient. Non-compliance here can lead to negative responses from supervisors or even job loss.
4. Social Distancing: During the COVID-19 pandemic, various health guidelines were established. You follow social distancing, not necessarily because you innately believe in it, but because it’s recommended by the health authorities. For instance, you maintain a distance of 6 feet from others in public spaces during the pandemic to align with the guidelines set by the World Health Organization. Such behavior averts possible penalties and contributes towards mitigating the spread of the virus.
5. Public Transit Rules: Using public transportation also entails obeying certain rules. You conduct yourself in a particular manner when traveling, not because you agree with those behaviors, but as they’re the set rules. For instance, you don’t eat or drink on the bus because it’s prohibited, although you might be hungry or thirsty (Smith, 2018). Compliance in this case prevents fines and keeps the public transit hygienic for everyone.
6. Recycling Rules: In many places, waste disposal and recycling are regulated. You separate biodegradable trash from the rest because it is required by the local governing body. A resident might segregate their waste into recyclables and non-recyclables, following the city’s guidelines, even if the process feels tedious (Nguyen, 2010). Such adherence ensures that the waste is properly managed and increases recycling rates.
7. Waiting in Queues: Waiting patiently in lines to avail services like buying groceries, or banking transactions, is another example. You’d rather skip the line but wait because society deems it an orderly way of availing services. Standing in queues despite the wish to get done quickly is, undeniably, a wonderful instance of compliance.
8. Animal Leash Laws: Most municipalities ask pet owners to leash their pets in public places. You might believe your dog behaves well off-leash, but you leash your pet when you’re out in the park because it’s a rule. When you comply, even if you disagree, it’s an example of compliance.
9. Restaurant Etiquette: Certain manners are associated with dining out. You follow these etiquettes, not because you believe in them, but they’re expected behaviors in restaurants. For example, you wait to be seated at a restaurant even when there are empty tables, following the established process. Compliance here avoids causing a scene and maintains a peaceful dining atmosphere for everyone.
10. Reading Required Books: In literature classes, certain books are mandated for reading. You may have no interest in or may even dislike the chosen book, but you read it because it’s required by your teacher. This adherence to the course curriculum, despite your personal interest, is an example of compliance.
11. National Flag Salute: In many countries, citizens are expected to stand and sometimes salute when the national anthem is played. This isn’t necessarily because they fully understand or agree with the sentiment, but they comply to show respect and avoid social disapproval. During a sporting event, you might momentarily pause your activity and participate in this ritual, even if you would rather not.
12. Library Rules: Libraries around the world implement rules to maintain quiet and order. Despite your desire to talk openly in a library, you find yourself whispering to avoid trouble. So, when you lower your voice and put your phone on silent in a library, it’s an example of compliance with the library’s regulations.
13. Speed Limits: Driving within prescribed speed limits is a clear demonstration of compliance. You may want to drive faster, but the law demands you stay within a certain speed limit. For example, when you keep your speed below or at the speed limit even when the roads are empty, you are complying with traffic rules.
14. Littering Laws: Most cities enforce laws prohibiting littering to keep their environments clean. You may have an inclination to throw trash out of your car window, but instead, you keep it in your vehicle until you find a proper disposal area. Thus, despite your impulse, you comply with these laws.
15. Building Regulations: Constructing a building requires abidance by specific regulations set by local authorities. Even if you’d like to add an extra floor, build a pool, or make other modifications, you stick to the rules to avoid legal problems. Therefore, adhering to these building codes to the detriment of personal preferences is a case of compliance.
16. Employee Attendance: Many workplaces set time-based parameters for employees to adhere. You might prefer to work in non-traditional hours, but you arrive at 9am and leave at 5pm because that’s the company policy. Hence, sticking to this work schedule despite personal preferences is a case of compliance.
17. School Attendance Rules: Many schools have strict attendance policies. Even if a student rather not attend certain classes, they present themselves there as to meet the minimum attendance requirement. This adherence to the attendance rules against the student’s personal preference serves as an illustration of compliance.
18. Homeowner’s Association Rules: When living in certain communities, Homeowner’s Association (HOA) rules are obligatory. Although you may want a pink house, if the community only allows neutral colors, you comply by painting your house beige. This is an example of compliance where personal aesthetic preferences are overridden by community rules.
19. Seatbelt Laws: Safety measures like fastening seatbelts in vehicles have been enforced worldwide. Contrary to personal comfort, you always fasten your seatbelt when driving or riding in a car. Fastening the seatbelt, despite any inconvenience it may pose, is an act of compliance with road safety rules.
20. Building Evacuation Drills: Companies sometimes conduct emergency evacuation training for workplace safety. Even if you find it tedious or think it’s a waste of work time, you participate in this activity because it is a mandated company protocol. Your participation in such drills, despite reluctance, is a clear case of compliance with the rules.
21. Airport Regulations: The stringent rules at airports are designed for security purposes. Even if you find it inconvenient, you may have to remove your shoes, empty your pockets, and allow a security officer to scan your luggage. Alternatively, in some airports, you download and install the prescribed mobile application to traverse their facilities. Adhering to these rules despite discomfort or disagreement is a display of compliance.
22. Parent-Teacher Meetings: Schools often require parents to attend Parent-Teacher Meetings (PTMs). Perhaps you’re busy or would rather not attend, but you show up because it’s an obligation established by the school. You sit through the PTM because of the assumption that it is beneficial for your child’s academic progress, demonstrating compliance.
23. Voting in Elections: In some countries, voting is mandatory for eligible citizens. Regardless of your political interest or viewpoint, you vote because it’s a civic duty enforced by your government. When you cast a vote under compulsory voting laws despite indifference or lack of investment in the political landscape, this is clear compliance behavior.
Conclusion: Pay Attention to Alternative Models
In psychology, we use compliance as a term to describe one of three ways in which we are socially influenced.
But there are other models for understanding social influence – namely, Deursch And Gerard (1955) present two ‘types of social influence: normative social influence and informational social influence. I discuss the differences and similarities between Deursch And Gerard’s (1955) model and Kelman’s (1974) model in my full guide on social influence theory.
Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The journal of abnormal and social psychology, 51(3), 629.
Hwang, Y. (2016). Understanding social influence theory and personal goals in e-learning. Information Development, 32(3), 466-477. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0266666914556688
Kelman, H. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution. 2(1): 51–60. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F002200275800200106
Trenz, M., Huntgeburth, J., and Veit, D. (2018). Uncertainty in Cloud Service Relationships: Uncovering the Differential Effect of Three Social Influence Processes on Potential and Current Users, Information & Management 55(8), pp. 971–983. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.im.2018.05.002
Zhou, T. (2022). Examining online health community users’ sharing behaviour: A social influence perspective. Information Development, 38(4), 599-608.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]