Freud’s Theory of Conformity

Freud’s Theory of Conformity

Conformity from the Psychodynamic Approach

Conformity occurs when an individual acts in agreement or has matching thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are perceived as normal or correct according to the group that they belong to (Feldman, 2010). Conformity is a powerful force that can create positive or negative outcomes. When one looks at protests which are aimed at civil rights, conformity can be seen as a powerful force for change. Similarly, riots concerning civil rights can also be seen as an extremely negative outcome. The theories behind conformity are varied and one of the earliest explanations of conformity can be found in Sigmund Freud’s “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (Freud, 1922). While Freud’s theory explaining conformity appears sound, later research in prison violence reflects that the complexity of group interaction cannot be derived entirely from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Sigmund Freud's theory of crowd behavior focuses on the idea that conformity is a natural state of mind which is also the earliest form of thought. Freud bases his thinking on the idea that earlier humans depended on group thinking and conformity to provide organization and focus for the group. This pre-civilized human would operate with conformity as the basis of most thinking in order to better the survival of the group. In this prehistoric era, the human super-ego becomes displaced in order to unlock the unconscious mind and allow the ID and EGO to be subordinate to the group or primal horde. Individuals who emerge as the leaders in this groupthink are referred to as the “horde-leader”. As such, the primal horde is inherent in all groups. According to Freud:

Thus the group appears to us as a revival of the primal horde. Just as primitive man virtually survives in every individual, so the primal horde may arise once more out of any random crowd; in so far as men are habitually under the sway of group formation we recognise in it the survival of the primal horde. We must conclude that the psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology; what we have isolated as individual psychology, by neglecting all traces of the group, has only since come into prominence out of the old group psychology, by a gradual process which may still, perhaps, be described as incomplete (Freud, 1922).

Freud believes that the primal horde explains how individuals who do not identify themselves with cruelty or violence can fall prey to these behaviors.

Just as little as people believe in the depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader? They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader’s performance. … It is probably the suspicion of this fictitiousness of their own ‘group psychology’ which makes fascist crowds so merciless and unapproachable. If they would stop to reason for a second, the whole performance would go to pieces, and they would be left to panic (Freud, 1922).

The primal horde seems to explain how individuals are capable of acts of violence and indecency despite not identifying with the thinking of the primal group or leader. For Freud, the primal horde is a compulsion of thinking which can only be resisted through active critical thinking. While this appears to be rational and explains group behavior, upon further examination this theory is not complete. A more robust theory of conformity can be found when examining prison violence.

Prisons are violent places for both staff and inmates and a cursory view of this violence would seem to justify Freud’s primal horde theory. However, the causes of prison violence seem to reflect a more complex psychosocial factor. While Freud’s theory explains how inmates may fall prey to the primal horde it does not explain why guards and prison staff also experience increased violent behavior.

In 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment in order to determine if whether violence and anti-social behaviors result from a minority of prisoners (horde leaders) acting-out, or if the violence was the cause of the prison environment. The Stanford Prison Experiment was intended to show if the prison environment could corrupt normal or well-adjusted people. The participants were students who were chosen based on their backgrounds and personalities which needed to be normal and healthy. During the experiment, participants were divided into two groups; prisoners and guards. The prisoners were housed in a mock prison in the Stanford University Psychology Department and the guards were instructed to maintain the order of the prisoners without the use of physical force. Within the first few days of the experiment, the prisoners began to revolt against the guards. The guards began using every means possible to control the prisoners which were described as “brutal, dehumanizing and sadistic” (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). Due to increasingly violent behavior, the experiment was ended after six days.

What this experiment proved was that despite guards and prisoners having different sets of thinking that both groups were made prone to violence by situational influences of a prison environment (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). This experiment explains why nonviolent offenders enter the prison and become violent due to the situation, but more importantly, it explains how prison staff becomes prone to violence. This would seem to contradict Freud’s primal horde theory because the two groups are not being led by a horde leader but instead are being affected by the environment itself.

Further investigation of conformity which seems to contradict Freud’s view can be found in the Milgram Experiment. Stanley Milgram’s experiment was designed to test the theory that German soldiers performing horrific acts were the result of following orders issued by a superior. Milgram sought to shed light on whether humans would adhere to obeying an authority figure or follow their personal conscience. The experiment was designed in a manner in which participants were instructed to electrocute a person when the person did not answer a question correctly (Goodwin, 2008). The majority of people carried out the responsibility without question. This experiment demonstrated that people are highly likely to follow orders given by an authority figure; even to the point of administering extreme pain (Goodwin, 2008). While one might think that this experiment justifies the horde theory, it is actually counter to it.

The individual participants in the Milgram experiment were not part of a group but were merely the receivers of instructions from an authority figure. This is not a person relinquishing their moral mind to a primal horde, but instead a social function in which a person believes that he or she must obey authority. The Milgram experiment shows that social norms and mores can provide sufficient strength for an individual to commit violence and antisocial behavior when he or she believes it is justified.

Freud’s theory seems to explain mob mentality but fails to explain many other aspects of conformity. There are many instances in which people conform to group thinking without being part of a particular group. In order to fully explain conformity and group behavior, one must look beyond the psychodynamic theory.


Feldman, R. S. (2010). Psychology and your life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Freud, S. (1922). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Retrieved from Bartleby:

Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Haney, C., Banks, W., & Zimbardo, P. (1973). A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4–17.

Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Fri, Jan 01, 2021. Freud’s Theory of Conformity Retrieved from

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