Social Influence


Definition of Conformity

The tendency to change what we do (behaviour), think or say (attitudes) in response to the influence of others. The pressure to conform can be real or imagined. 

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Asch (1951)

High level of control = lack of validity

In Asch's experiment, the answer to the question of lenth of line was obvious. In real life, conformity often occurs where there is no 'correct' answer. (opinions on movies...)

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Evaluation of Asch

Perrin and Spencer (1980) repeated Asch's original study with engineering students in the UK. Only one student of 396 trials. It may be that the engineering students felt more confident about measuring lines than the original sample and therefore were less conformist.

Also possible that the 1950s americans were in an especially conformist time. (conform to the established social norms)

Limited research beacuse it means that the Asch effecr is not consistent across situations and may not be consistent across situations and possibly across time.

Ppts knew they were in a research study so may have shown demand characteristics.

Trivial task so no real reason to conform. Findings don't generalise to evryday situations.

Only men were tested by Asch. Other research suggests that women might be more conformist, they may be more concerned about a social relationship. (Neto 1995)

Men were all from the US, individualist culture, people are concerned about themselves. Confornity studies conducted in collectivist cultures (China) where the social group is more important than the individual.

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Types of Conformity

Compliance- the most superficial type of conformity, shown by most of the ppts in Asch's experiment. Conforms publicaly with the views expressed by others in the group

Identification- takes place when the individual is exposed to the views of others and chnages their view publicaly and privately to fit in with them.

Internalization- the deepest level of conformity, also known as conversion. Views are taken on at a deep and permanent level, they become part of the person's own way of viewing the world.

They reflect the reasons or motives for change, from superficial group acceptance (compliance) to a sense of belonging (identification) and conversion to a difficult viewpoint (internalization) 

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Why people Conform

Normative social influence- conformity based on the desire to be liked and accepted, you conform to the social norm.

Informational social influence- conformity based on the desire to do the right thing, you use the information given to conform to the social norm.

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Factors affecting Conformity

Unanimity- complete agreement from a group pf people about an answer or viewpoint.

The dissenter supports the ppts, increasing the ppts confidence that they are correct 

The dissenter breaks the united front of the rest of the group (gave a different incorrect answer)

Size of the majority- In one set of variations Asch maniupulated the size of the group of confederates carrying out the conformity trial bu using 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 10 and 15.

1 confederate + 1 ppts = 3% conformity 

2 confederates + 1 ppts = 13% conformity

3 confederates + 1 ppts = 33% conformity

Some conditions a large group of 15 confedeates + 1 ppts = lower level of conformity as the ppts became suspicious of the large majority answer.

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Factors affecting Conformity (2)

Task Difficulty- In difficult tasks, our confidence in our judgements tends to drop

In Asch's original experiment, task of judging lengths was very easy. 

Increased task difficulty by making the difference in length smaller = increased conformity 

Rosander (2012)- internet communities, conformity increased with task difficulty 

Allan, Midjord, Martin and Gabbert (2011)

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Evaluation of Zimbardo

Large control over variables = increased internal validity = lack of realism 

The perofrmances were based on their stereotypes of how prisoners and guards are supposed to behave. Prisoners rioted because this is what they believed prisoners did. Guards treated prisoners badly because they belived thats what guards did. 

Zimbardo pointed to evidence that the situation was very real to the ppts. Quantitative data gathered during the procedure showed that 90% of the prisoners' conversations were about prison life.

Prisoner 416 expressed that the view that the prison was a real one, but run by psychologists not the government. 

Increased internal validity as ppts felt the situation was real.

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Dispositional Influences

Fromm (1973) accused Zimbardo of exaggeraating the power of the situation to influence behaviour and minimising the role of personality factors (dispositional factors) E.g. only a minority of the guards (1/3) behaved in brutal manner. 

Another third were keen on applying the rules fairly. The rest actively tried to help and support the prisoners, sympathising wiht them, offering them cigarettes and reinstating privelages

Ppts were conforming to social roles- may be over stated. The differences in the guards behaviour indicate they were able to exercise right and wrong choices, despite the situational pressured to conform to a role.

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The BBC Prison Study, Method

Reicher and Haslam (2006)- The BBC prison study

Controlled observation in a mock prison, which was filmed for tv (demand characteristics). The ppts were 15 male volunteers who had responded to an advert (volunteer sample, demand characteristics) 

They were randomly assigned to 2 groups- 5 were guards, 10 were prisoners. They had daily tests to measure levels of depression, compliance with rules, and stress.

Prisoners knew that one of them, chosen at random would beomce a guard after 3 days. 

An independent ethics committee had the power to stop the experiment at any time in order to protect the ppts.

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The BBC Prison Study, Results

The guards failed to form a united group and identify with their role. They didn't always exercise their power. (eflt uncomfortable with the inequality of the situation. 

In the first 3 days, the prisoners tried to act in a way that would get them promoted to guard status. 

Once one was promoted they became a much stronger group because they knew there were no more chances of promotion.

The unequal system collapsed due to the unwillingness of the guards and the strength of the prisoner group. 

On Day 6 the prisoners rebelled and the ppts decided to live in a democracy, this also collapsed due to tensions within the group. 

The study was abandoned early by advice of the ethics committee, as the ppts showed signs of stress.

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The BBC Prison Study, Evaluation

Ppts didn't fit into their expected social roles, suggesting that these roles are flexible.

Contrasts with Zimbardo's findings. Reicher and Haslam's prisoners were a strong group, and the guards were weak. However, it's possible that this was because Reicher and Haslam's guards weren't as empowered as Zimbardo (encouraged to maintain order).

This study has been criticised for being made for TV (elements were staged and ppts played up to the camera, artificial situation) The results can't be generalised to real life.

The ppts were protected by the ethics committee and the study So the ethics were good, ppts were not deceived. so they could give informed consent.

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Explanations for Obedience

Extreme obedience had taken place in Germany during the holocaust. 

Due to this Milgram set out to investigate obedience due to authority.

Validity of Milgram- 

  • Orne and Holland (1968) argued that Milgram's research lacked internal validity, ppts didn't believe the shocks were real.
  • Ppts should have questioned why there was a need for a teacher at all, the experimenter could have administered the shocks himself. 
  • If ppts didn't believe the shocks were real then there wouldn't be an adequate measure of obedience. 
  • Milgram said they were given a sample shock to convince them.
  • Also referred to footage of the experiment and the behaviour ppts showed (intense stress)
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Dual Process Dependency Model

Dual process theory is a psychological theory that aspires to explain a type of social influence, namely, that of majority influence. It was formulated by Deutsch and Gerrard (1955) and has had a persistent influence on subsequent thinking.

The two processes at work are normative and informational influence.

Criticisms- Hogg and Turner (1987) carried out a series of experiments using a conformity task similiar to Asch's line experiment, but varying the composition of the group from strangers to groups of friends. 

Ppts were placed in booths so they could hear each other's responses but couldn't see them. 

Hogg and Turner found that conformity to the wrong answer only occured when people were among groups of friends. Other studies have extended these findings, indicating that conformity to group norms persists even when group members are not present. 

This shows how friends serve as a refernce group, implying that conformity takes place due to group membership. 

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Conformity to Social Roles

Social roles such as a doctor, teacher or prison officer are associated with patterns of expected behaviours which people may adopt. 

Zimbardo- Stanford Prison experiment, (1971). Stanford University US. Zimbardo set up a mock prison experiment in the basement of the Uni.

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Ethics in Social Influence research

Milgram's study was critisised for raising serious ethical issues. 

Baumrind (1964) levelled a number of charges at Milgrams research.

  • Milgram failed to ask his ppts for information 
  • He coerced them into continuing with the experiment (very difficult to withdraw)
  • Put in an extremely stressful situation (believed they may have injured or killed another person) (permanent psychological harm)
  • Milgram argued that he attempted to gain presumptive consent before the study by asking the psychological community to predic the findings of the study suggesting only 1-2% would go all the way to 450V. (there oudln have been such a trong opposition if thee were the results.
  • Milgram argued in reponse to the coercion, each person who took part in the experiment, was able to accept authority or to reject it. although it was difficult to withdraw it was possible. (35% rejected and stopped)
  • Milgram argued that ppts were provided with a thorough debrief after. 
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Ethics in Social Influence research (2)

Milgram sent out a questionnare of over 1000 people who had taken part in his studies. Of the 92% that responded:

  • 84% were either glad or very glad to have taken part
  • 15% were neither glad nor sorry to have taken part
  • 1.3% were either 'sorry' or 'very sorry' to have taken part
  • 74% had learned something of personal importance.
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Situational Variables affecting obedience


  • Milgram removed th eperimenter from the room and told him to give the teachers orders over the phone. Many more ppts resisted the authority of the experimenter, with only 20% going to 450V
  • Milgram brought the learner closer in proximity, placing him in the same room as the teacher, (can be seen and heard) Obedience levels dropped.  
  • "Touch Proximity"- The teacher and learner were in the same room and had to press the learners hand to a hc plate. 30% of ppts still went to 450V

Slater (2006)- virtual environment were pts were instructed to shock the learner via text message. The decrease in proximity led to the highest levels of obedience in all ppts.

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Situational Variables affecting obedience (2)


  • One factor that Milgram thought may have contributed to high levels of obediece was the setting of th experiment, Yale Uni
  • Milgram moved his experiment into a seedy office above a shop. Calling it "Research associates LTD" 
  • Under this condition, there was a significant drop in obedience. 48% of the pps went to 450V. 
  • The high status of Yale Uni, was one factor that contributed to the high levels of obedience.
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Situational Variables affecting obedience (3)


  • Experimenter wore a white lab coat (establishes authority) 
  • Bickman (1974)- firled experiment in New York, he asked passers by to carry out unusual tasks (picking up rubbish, standing on the other side of the bus stop) Half the time the experimenter was dressed as a security guard, the rest of the time in street clothes. 92% of the ppts would comply with the request to lend money hen in uniform, but 49% when in street clothes
  • Bushman (1988)- used Bickmans method of studying, this time using female confederates, dressed in one of two ways. (uniform or smart clothes). The confederate ordered passers by to give a small amount of change to a motorist, looking for money at a parking meter.  
  • Bushman found that 70% complied when she was in uniform, compared to 58% when dressed in smart clothing.

Both studies show how uniform provieds a symbol of authority, increasing obedience.

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Definition of Agentic State

A state in which an individual carries out the orders of another person, acting as their agent with little personal responsibility

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Definition of Agentic Shift

The switch from operating as an autonomous individual to acting as an agent for another person, usually an authority figure.

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Definition of Authoritarian

A person who has extreme respect for authority and who is very obedient to those who have power over them. They may be hostile to those of lower rank.

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Dispositional Explanations: Authoritarian Personal

Adorno studied over 2000 American students, from mainly white middle-class backgrounds. He interviewed them about their political views and their early childhood experiences. 

He also used projective tests, neutral stimuli such as picturesthat could be used to gain access to people's thoughts, to assess whether or not they were radically prejudiced. 

Adorno found that people who had been brought up by strict parents, who had harsh, physical punishment, when they were children often grew up to be very obedient.

Adorno developed a number of scales to measure aspects of behaviour and attitudes, including ethnocentrism, anti-semitism, and to potential for fascim. (The F-Scale, measuring the authoritarian personality)

Elms and Milgram (1986) carried out interviews with a subsample of those who had taken part in Milgram's first four experiments. Those who went to 450V scored higher on the tests of authoritarianism and lower on scales of social responsibility than those who defied the experimenter. 

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Definition of Social support

Support from other people who are also defying the pressure to conform or obey. 

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Definition of Locus of Control

Refers to the sense of control people have over the success, failures and events in their lives.

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Explanations of resistance to social influence

  • Asch's 1951 experiment, 24% of people did not conform to the confederates' etimates of line length at any point.
  • Milgram's 1963 experiment, 35% of the 40 male ppts disobeyed the experimenter by refusing to give the full 450V shocks.
  • Hofling's field experiment, one nurse out of 22 refused to administer the drug 'Astrogen' to a patient.
  • Zimbardo's prison study, around 2/3 of the guards resisted the pressure to behave sadistically towards the prisoners.

Obedience is influenced by external (situational) and internal (personality) factors.

An important external factor is the presence of others who are also resisting the pressure the conform or obey, providing social support.

An internal (personality) factor which seems to be important is an internal locus of control.

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Locus of Control

People with a high internal locus of control perceive (see) themselves as having a great deal of personal control over their behaviour and are therefore more likely to take responsibility for the way they behave. E.g. I did well on the exams because I revised extremely hard.

A person with a high external locus of control perceive their behaviours as being a result of external influences or luck. E.g. I did well on the test because it was easy.


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Locus of Control (2)

Oliner and Oliner (1988) - interviewed two groups of non-Jewish people who had lived through the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. They compared 406 people who had protected and rescued Jews from the Nazis with 126 who hadn't done this.

Oliner and Oliner found that "rescuers" had scores demonstarting internal locus of control and also scored higher on measures of social responsibility. 

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Definition of Minority Influence

Occurs when an individual or small group of people influence a larger group to change their attitudes or behaviour toward an issue.

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They must be:

  • Consistent
  • Commited 
  • Flexible

Moscovici's conversion theory (1980) descries the different ways in which majority and minority influences occur:

Majorities exert influence by making peoplecompare their views with that of the majority group. Most people prefer to belong to the majority group with its superior social status. (Comply with majority viewpoint without really thinking about it) 

Minorities exert their influence through validation processes. The different view put forward leads people to think deeply about the message. Attitude change tends to be private and occurs after exposure to minority viewpoint. Unlikely to invlove conversion, a profound modification of beliefs. Over time there is public acceptance of the minority position. 

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Definition of Social Change

Changes in attitudes, behaviour and/or laws which take place on a large scale and affect society.

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