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how we conform

Confirmity can be seen in many everyday situations, it is the tedency to chance what we do (behaviour) or think & say (attitudes) in response to the influence of others or social pressure, this pressure can be real/ imagined.

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Sherif (1935) Autokinetic Effect Experiment

Aim: Sherif (1935) conducted an experiment with the aim of demonstrating that people conform to group norms when they are put in an ambiguous (i.e. unclear) situation.

Method: Sherif used a lab experiment to study conformity.  He used the autokinetic effect – this is where a small spot of light (projected onto a screen) in a dark room will appear to move, even though it is still (i.e. it is a visual illusion).

It was discovered that when participants were individually tested their estimates on how far the light moved varied considerably (e.g. from 20cm to 80cm).  The participants were then tested in groups of three. Sherif manipulated the composition of the group by putting together two people whose estimate of the light movement when alone was very similar, and one person whose estimate was very different. Each person in the group had to say aloud how far they thought the light had moved.

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Results:  Sherif found that over numerous estimates (trials) of the movement of light, the group converged to a common estimate.  As the figure below shows: the person whose estimate of movement was greatly different to the other two in the group conformed to the view of the other two.

Sherif said that this showed that people would always tend to conform.  Rather than make individual judgments they tend to come to a group agreement.

Conclusion: The results show that when in an ambiguous situation (such as the autokinetic effect), a person will look to others (who know more / better) for guidance (i.e. adopt the group norm).  They want to do the right thing but may lack the appropriate information. Observing others can provide this information.  This is known as informational conformity.

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In later studies carried out by Rohrer et al 1954 using Sherif's methid, it was found that group norms formed in this experiment persisted, so that when p's were re-rested up to 1 year after, they continued to use the group answer rather than reverting to their own individual views. This shows the power of the group to influence behaviour even when the groups no longer exists!

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are there diff types of conformity?

Kelman (1958) distinguished between three different types of conformity: Compliance, Internalization and identification.

  • Compliance- is the most superficial type. here the person conforms publiciy (out loud) with the views/ behaviours expressed by others in the group but continues privately to disagree, also used to describe the process of going along with requests of another person while disagreeing with them
  • Identification- a deeper type, takes place when the individual is exposed to the views of others & changes their view publicly & privately to fit in with them. in order to this, the person identifies with the group & feels a sense of group membership. the person identifies to be like the person/ group they admire. the change of belief/ behaviour may be tem
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  • Internalisation- deepest form, when the views of the group are internalised, they are taken on at a deep & permanent levelm & they become part of the person's own way of viewing the world/ their cognitive system. People can internalise the views of a larger group (majority influence) or small group (minorty). internalisation is also known as conversion

all the above reflect the amount of change that has taken place to a person's views or actions- some affecting a person's beliefs more deeply. these also relfect the reasons or motives for the change

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compliance- Asch 1951

Aim: Solomon Asch (1951) conducted an experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.

Procedure: Asch used a lab experiment to study conformity, whereby 123 male students from Swarthmore College in the USA participated in a ‘vision test’.  Using the line judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with four to six confederates.  The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the line task.  The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven participants were also real participants like themselves.  Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious.  The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last.  In some trials, the seven confederates gave the wrong answer.  There were 18 trials in total and the confederates gave the wrong answer on 12 trails (called the critical trials).  Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view.


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asch (1951) line study of conformity (

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Results: Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view.  On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials.  Over the 12 critical trials about 75% of participants conformed at least once and 25% of participant never conformed.

Conclusion: Why did the participants conform so readily?  When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar".  A few of them said that they really did believe the group's answers were correct.

Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence).

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All participants were male students who all belonged to the same age group (biased sample).  The task (judging line lengths) was artificial (low in ecological validity) as it is unlikely to happen in everyday life. Therefore, it is not similar to a real life situation demonstrating conformity.


Finally, there are ethical issues:participants were not protected from psychological stress which may occur if they disagreed with the majority.  Asch deceived the student volunteers claiming they were taking part in a 'vision' test; the real purpose was to see how the 'naive' participant would react to the behavior of the confederates.

The Asch (1951) study has also been called a child of its time (as conformity was the social norm in 1950’s America). The era of individualism, ‘doing your own thing’, did not take hold until the 1960s.

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Asch's research demonstrates the importance of compliance. in this experiment 3/4 of the p's conformed with other outwardly, but most inwardly disagreed. people are most likely to comply when the view & approval of the group are important to them

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Importance of time

One critiscm made of Asch's work was that it was carried out in America in the 1950's when conformity was HIGH.

Research always take place within a social, historical, cultural context - within a specific time, place not in a 'social vacuum'

Perrrin & Spencer 1981 argued that Asch's research reflected the social & historical aspects, so did the study 25 years later, comparing different groups of young men. in 1 cond 33 males students were used and in another 20 male students on probation were used (probation is given as an alternative sentence to prison for youngsters). In this cond, the confederates used were probation officers who supervised youngsters & did the sentence. P&S also studied 16 young unemployed west indian men, with mean age of 19. they found striking diffs in conformity to Asch's original study.

  • in male students not on probation, conformity was almost non-existent with only 1/396 trials showing conformity therefore in 1981 less than 1950.
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An early experiment into minority influence was carried out by Serge Moscovici 1969, a french psychologist. Groups of 6 people were brought together, with 4 real (naive) p's & 2 confederates. They were shown a series of 36 slides of diff shades of blue & asked to name aloud the colour of the slide. In 1 condition (the consistent cond) the confederates called all 36 slides green. Under this cond just over 8% of the real p's moved to the minority position & called the slides green. In the 2nd (inconsistent) cond, the confederates called 24/36 of slides green & the move to the minority position was around 1.35%. this study strongly suggests that minorities should be consistent in order to exert an influence.

Experiments of this nature have been criticised for lacking ecological validity as the task is unlike a real task & p's are aware they are being studied. for this reason, more recent research has considered the processes of minority influence in relation to those taking part in jury service. Juries consist of 12 randomly selected adults who must make a group decision regarding the innocence or guilt of a defendant. Due to the ethical difficulties in studying real-life juries, psychologists including Tanford & Penrod 1986 and Clark 1999 have chosen to use mock juries constructed for the purpose of research

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clark 1998/9

Based on the film ‘12 Angry Men’. A single juror believes the defendant is innocent of murder and sets out to convince the rest of the jury that of his innocence.

Participants asked to play the role of jurors and make up their minds about the guilt or innocence of the young man.

Clark wanted to test 2 different predictions in these studies:

  1. That the minority could influence the majority through changes in behaviour. (See in people changing their own behaviour can have a powerful effect on the individual’s own beliefs.
  2. That the minority can exert its influence through the information presented and the persuasive nature of their arguments.


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Study 1

220 psychology students, 129 women, 91 men. Participants given a 4 page booklet with a summary of the plot of ‘12 Angry Men’ which contained evidence FOR the defendant’s guilt.

  1. He purchased a rare knife from a local store
  2. He had been seen by 2 eyewitnesses - an old man who had heard him say ‘I’m going to kill you’ and a woman in the apartment opposite who identified the defendant as the murderer.

Clark varied whether or not he gave the students information on the defence and counter arguments.

He found that a minority juror only led people to change their minds when they could provide counter evidence. If they didn’t provide evidence then people did not move from the majority position.

Supports claim that information given by the minority is important

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Study 2

Clark concentrated on the impact of behaviour, or people changing to the minority position.

Participants given a 3 page summary of the jury’s discussion in the film. This contained the main counter arguments presented by the minority juror. These were:

  1. That the minority juror had been able to produce in court an identical ‘rare’ knife he had bought from a local junk shop.
  2. The old man could not have seen or heard the murderer as his old age and disabilities meant it took him too long to the window in the apartment.
  3. That the old woman could not have seen the defendant as she had very bad eyesight and was not wearing glasses.
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Clark presented different scenarios to the students in which he showed varying numbers of people changing their behaviour to adopt the ‘not guilty’ position from 1 to 6. He found that participants here influenced by the number of people changing to the ‘not guilty’ position.

Clark argued that after 4 people had changed their mind a ceiling of influence was reached meaning that more defectors do not provide more influence.

The findings of this study support Clark’s view that minorities can influence people to change their views through changing their own behaviour.

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  • Shows how research into social influence has changed over the years. Used a more realistic setting compared to the lab studies of Asch and Moscovici. Higher ecological validity.
  • The costs of making a wrong decision in this study were not the same as in a real life – it is questionable how far the results can be generalised to real life jury service.
  • Participants were not deceived and as a result gave their fully informed consent to participate in the research.  – This research is much more ethically acceptable than pervious research which involved stress and deception.
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Idenification- Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment

Aim: To investigate how readily people would conform to the roles of guard and prisoner in a role-playing exercise that simulated prison life.

Zimbardo (1973) was interested in finding out whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or had more to do with the prison environment.

Procedure: Zimbardo used a lab experiment to study conformity.

To study the roles people play in prison situations, Zimbardo converted a basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison. He advertised for students to play the roles of prisoners and guards for a fortnight. 21 male college students (chosen from 75 volunteers) were screened for psychological normality and paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment.

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To study the roles people play in prison situations, Zimbardo converted a basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison. He advertised for students to play the roles of prisoners and guards for a fortnight. 21 male college students (chosen from 75 volunteers) were screened for psychological normality and paid $15 per day to take part in the experiment.

Participants were randomly assigned to either the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison environment. The prison simulation was kept as “real life” as possible. Prisoners were arrested at their own homes, without warning, and taken to the local police station.

Guards were also issued a khaki uniform, together with whistles, handcuffs and dark glasses, to make eye contact with prisoners impossible. No physical violence was permitted. Zimbardo observed the behavior of the prisoners and guards.

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Here they were treated like every other criminal.  They were fingerprinted, photographed and ‘booked’.  Then they were blindfolded and driven to the psychology department of Stanford University, where Zimbardo had had the basement set out as a prison, with barred doors and windows, bare walls and small cells.  Here the deindividuation process began.

When the prisoners arrived at the prison they were stripped naked, deloused, had all their personal possessions removed and locked away, and were given prison clothes and bedding. They were issued a uniform, and referred to by their number only. Their clothes comprised a smock with their number written on it, but no underclothes. They also had a tight nylon cap, and a chain around one ankle.

There were 3 guards to the 9 prisoners, taking shifts of eight hours each (the other guards remained on call)

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Findings: Within a very short time both guards and prisoners were settling into their new roles, the guards adopting theirs quickly and easily.

Within hours of beginning the experiment some guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal and sadistic manner, apparently enjoying it. Other guards joined in, and other prisoners were also tormented.

 The prisoners were taunted with insults and petty orders, they were given pointless and boring tasks to accomplish, and they were generally dehumanized.

The prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behavior too.  They talked about prison issues a great deal of the time. They ‘told tales’ on each other to the guards. They started taking the prison rules very seriously, as though they were there for the prisoners’ benefit and infringement would spell disaster for all of them. Some even began siding with the guards against prisoners who did not conform to the rules.

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Over the next few days the relationships between the guards and the prisoners changed, with a change in one leading to a change in the other.  Remember that the guards were firmly in control and the prisoners were totally dependent on them.

As the prisoners became more dependent, the guards became more derisive towards them. They held the prisoners in contempt and let the prisoners know it. As the guards’ contempt for them grew, the prisoners became more submissive.

As the prisoners became more submissive, the guards became more aggressive and assertive. They demanded ever greater obedience from the prisoners. The prisoners were dependent on the guards for everything so tried to find ways to please the guards, such as telling tales on fellow prisoners.

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One prisoner had to be released after 36 hours because of uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying and anger. His thinking became disorganized and he appeared to be entering the early stages of a deep depression. Within the next few days three others also had to leave after showing signs of emotional disorder that could have had lasting consequences. (These were people who had been pronounced stable and normal a short while before.)

Zimbardo (1973) had intended that the experiment should run for a fortnight, but on the sixth day he closed it down. There was real danger that someone might be physically or mentally damaged if it was allowed to run on. After some time for the researchers to gather their data the subjects were called back for a follow-up, debriefing session.

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Conclusion: People will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards. The “prison” environment was an important factor in creating the guards’ brutal behavior (none of the participants who acted as guards showed sadistic tendencies before the study). Therefore, the roles that people play can shape their behavior and attitudes.

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After the prison experiment was terminated Zimbardo interviewed the participants. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Most of the participants said they had felt involved and committed. The research had felt "real" to them. One guard said, "I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle and I kept thinking I had to watch out for them in case they tried something." Another guard said "Acting authoritatively can be fun. Power can be a great pleasure." And another: "... during the inspection I went to Cell Two to mess up a bed which a prisoner had just made and he grabbed me, screaming that he had just made it and that he was not going to let me mess it up. He grabbed me by the throat and although he was laughing I was pretty scared. I lashed out with my stick and hit him on the chin although not very hard, and when I freed myself I became angry."’

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Ethics: The study has received many ethical criticisms, including lack of fully informed consent by participants and the level of humiliation and distress experienced by those who acted as prisoners.

The consent could not be fully informed as Zimbardo himself did not know what would happen in the experiment (it was unpredictable). Also, participants playing the role of prisoners were not protected from psychological and physical harm. For example, one prisoner had to be released after 36 hours because of uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying and anger.

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Most of the guards found it difficult to believe that they had behaved in the brutalizing ways that they had. Many said they hadn’t known this side of them existed or that they were capable of such things. The prisoners, too, couldn’t believe that they had responded in the submissive, cowering, dependent way they had. Several claimed to be assertive types normally. When asked about the guards, they described the usual three stereotypes that can be found in any prison: some guards were good, some were tough but fair, and some were cruel.

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  • young men on probation showed v.similar rates of conformity to original study if have power & authority over people, those people conform
  • high rates of conformity in young west indian p's were placed in groups with a majority of confederates who were white. in 181 racial equality less established in UK

we cannot generalise regarding rates of conformity. depends on time & place & specific characteristics.

Lalancette 1990 used 40 students and used a modified version of A's study with less obvious answer. No evidence found of conformity & said A's study was an 'unpredictable phenomenon, not a stable tendency of human behaviour'

conformity in western world today less than in middle last century

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card 31- Size of majority

A's experimental method allowed to manipulate a variety of factors to see which influenced conformity rates.

in 1 set of variations, he manipulated size of group of confederates doing the conformity trial by using - 1,2,3,4,8,10,+15

  • A found conformity v.low when 1 confederate & 1 real p, with only 3% of p's changing view to confederate view.
  • when group increased to 3 confederates & 1 real p, conformity rose to 33% beyond this it did not increase regardless of group size.
  • in some conds, a greater majority of 15 led to slightly lower conformity rate -> maybe some p's suspicious of 15 nutters!
  • many replications have shown these findings robust. conformity seems to be at its max with 3-5 person majority Stang 1976
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in a final v. of A's experiment, he arranged for 1 confederate to agree with real p & give right answer. Conformity dropped dramatically -> people are able to remain independent in group situation when have small amount of support even just 1.

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The importance of place & culture

Smith & Bond 1993 did a meta-analysis using A's method across cultures. Conformity in Fiji was highest 58% on critical trials, lowest in Belgium 14%. This could be due to individualistic & collectivist cultures. Overall average for individualistic cultures is 25.3% whereas collectivist 37.1%. The characteristics of the culture & the qualities that are valued & encouraged as children are brought up may be a significant influence on how much people are prepared to conform with others.

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the importance of modern tech

Cross-cultural differences have been investigated in computer mediated communication where people interact without seeing each other. Much social interaction today takes place through this medium in the form of chat rooms & social networks. Early research into conformity by Crutchfield suggested that people who were unable to see each other were less prone to conform with (invisible) majority. cinirella & green 2005 investigated cross-cultural differences in conformity comparing face-to-face (f2f) communication & computer meditated communication. They found the expected cultural differences in f2f  communication, with conformity being higher in collectivist than individualistic cultures. However in comp mediated communication there was no cultural diff, implying conformity is less likely when people are unable to see each other

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Why do we conform?

Deutsh & gerard 1955 suggested 2 reasons for conformity:

Normative Social Influence

the person conforms due to their need to be accepted & belong to the group. this maybe because belonging to a group is rewardind & within a larger group there is power to punish or even exclude. within such a group, individuals can conform on surface but disagree privately, as indicated in Asch's study

Informational Social Influence

this involves different motives & needs but in many social situations people may be unsure of how to behave, think or feel & they may conform with others & copy actions realising that conformity may be a sensible decision.

The above model is known as the dual process dependency model. the 2 types of dependency are social approval (acceptance) & information.

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this explanation does NOT acknowledge the importance of a sense of belonging to a group. P's in an experiment cannot fear group exclusion & so it implies that factors other than dependency on the group may be important.

The dual process model see the choice to conform as a rational process in which the person weighs up the information given & their need to have  group approval.

Social Identity Explanations Hogg 2003, Hogg & Abrahams 1988

these researchers developed theories based on referent informational influence which considers the importance of relationships & emotional ties with other group members to help in understanding why we conform with them

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Tajfel's Minimial Group experiment 1971

Teenage boys aged 14-15 living in Bristol were randomly allocated to 1 of 2 groups on the basis of their preference to 1 artists or another. They than played a game in which they were able to allocate points that could be exchanged for money, to their own & their own & the other group. The boys consistently chose to allocate more points to their own group, even when they could gain more points 7 rewards by allocating equal amounts. T argued that there was a tendency to favour one's own group & discriminate against other.

from these findings T suggested that as well as personal identity, we each have a social identity. People define themselves by the social groups they belong to, such as female/ asian etc. these groups serve as reference groups to us & have powerful influences on our behaviour. This tendency is called the META-CONTRAST PRINCIPLE.

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groups provide norms/ rules to regulate the behaviour of members & these are internalised or taken in as ideas/ standards about ways of behaving by members. these norms regulate behaviour when with the group, conformity is not solely to gain approval of other group members or because fear rejection only because they are group member.

Hogg & Turner 1987 support this theory.

They carried out 4 conformity experiments asking p's to private responses to a conformity task similar to Asch. private responses remove the need for p's to conform for normative reasons as others cannot shows disapproval or rejection when they do not see the response. H&T found that the people only conformed when the majority consisted of members of their in-group rather than out group supporting the idea that we conform with members to our own reference group

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minority influence

some psychologists have attempted to explain conformity to a minority group. Moscovici's study shows that minorities exert most influence when they are consistent.

Clarke 1989 argues that a minority can exert influence in 2 ways:

1. by providing persuasive arguments: in study, majority members were likely to adopt the minority verdict when the  sole dissenter could provide evidence to change their minds but unlikely when they could is important in minority influence

2. by sharing defecting behaviour:  when people see others changing their views & adopting a minority viewpoint, they are more likely to follow, perhaps without examining the argument themselves

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There are 2 explanations for minority influence as follows:

Latane & Wolfe 1981 Social Impact theory

this starts from the basis that both minority & majority influence involve a no. of people, that they can divide into sources (ie people who provide the influences) & target those who can be influenced. L refers to social influence as a sense of forces operating in a social field. According to this approach the amount of influence, depends on 3 factors that interact.

1.Strength, namely the importance, power/ status of the person/group providing the influence

2. Immediacy, namely the psychological, physical/ social distance of the person providing the influence

3.the no. of people providing the influence. L&W argue that as the influence increases it gathers progressively more influence

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As the no. of people increases, the impact made by each person gets less & less, which L&W call 'negatively accelerating positive function'. A single individual taking a minority position will produce lots of impact & influence. When they are joined by a 2nd person arguing the same, their personal impact is slightly less & each one after that has a lesser effect. H&W give a good example to explain this. Switching on a single light in a dark room has a dramatic effect. switching on a 2nd light has slightly less impact although it may still have an effect.

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the theory has been tested in a no. of experiment. in 1 Hart,Stasson & kararu 1999 measured the impact of strength & immediacy on social influence. they placed p's in groups of 3, consisting  of 2 naive p's & 1 confederate who argued for a minority position. their task was to rate 40 uni applicants for places. Immediacy was manipulated by having the confederate 4 feet away (high immediacy) or 10 feet away (low) & strength was manipulated by having the confederate acting as a student (low) or an expert (high). they found the expert confederate had more impact than student, but only in the low impact setting when they were physically further away.there was no diff in the importance of strength in the high impact setting when the confederate was close by, implying that immediacy may be most important in minority

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Tanford & Penrods 1986 Social Influence Model

Agrees with social impact theory that minority influence increases as size of influence does & that each additional member/ defecter adds less influence. however where T&P differ from L&W is in their claim that a ceiling of influence is said to be reached when there are 3/4 defectors. According to T&P, 4 people in a minority will have an equal amount of influence to 5 or even 10. it may even be that further defectors weaken rather than strengthen the minority position

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