Social Influence


Types of Conformity


  • Conform publicly but privately disagree 
  • e.g laughing at a joke that you don't find funny 


  • Conform publicly as well as privately because they have identified with the group and they feel a sense of belonging
  • e.g foreigner singing national anthem for another country to not upset hosts 


  • Conform publicly and privately because they have internalised and accepted the views of the group 
  • e.g your flat mates are vegetarian and over time you believe eating meat is bad so you become a vegetarian 
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Explanations for Conformity

Informational social influence (ISI)

  • When someone conforms because they want to be right, so they look to others by copying them, to have the right answer in a situation.
  • When a person is uncertain or unsure, they would look to others for information.
  • It usually leads to internalisation and occurs in situations where we do not have the knowledge or expertise to make our own decisions
  • e.g. a person following the direction of the crowd in an emergency, even though they don’t actually know where they are going, as they assume that everyone else is going to the right place. 

Normative social influence (NSI)

  • When someone conforms because they want to be liked and be part of a group
  • It often occurs when meeting new people or a person wants to avoid the embarrassing situation of disagreeing with the majority
  • e.g. a person starting to smoke because they are surrounded by other people who smoke
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Evaluation of Explanations for Conformity

+ Research for ISI

Lucas et al. (2006) gave students easy and hard maths questions. People conformed more to incorrect answers if they were difficult rather than if they were easy. This occurred more if the student thought they were poor at maths. This experiment shows that people conform more when they are unsure of the answer. 

- Individual differences in NSI

Research shows that NSI affects people's behaviour differently. Some people aren't bothered about fitting in, so they conform less than a person who wants to fit in and be liked. McGee and Teevan (1967) found that students with a high need to be in a relationship with others were more likely to conform. This suggests that not everyone has the desire to be liked so there are individual differences in the way people respond. 

- ISI and NSI may not be completely exclusive 

Research by Asch suggests that if there is another dissenting confederate, conformity is reduced. This may be because they can provide social support and reduce the effect of NSI by providing the participant with a supporting view. This can also reduce the effect of ISI as the participant has an alternative source of information. This means that it may be more beneficial to look at NSI and ISI as complementary, rather than exclusively. 

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Asch's Research


  • Asch (1951,1955) used a lab study of 123 male US student volunteers from Swarthmore College.
  • Each participant was in a group of 6-8 confederates.
  • The participant was told the study was for vision.
  • They were given two cards: one with a "standard line" and another with 3 lines on marked A, B and C. 
  • The participant was asked which of the 3 lines matched the standard. 
  • On 12 out of 18 trials the confederates were told to give the same wrong answer.


  • The naive participant gave a wrong answer 36.8% of the time. 
  • Overall 25% of participants didn't conform in any trials but therefore, 75% conformed at least once. 
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Asch's Variations

Group size 

Asch increased the size of the group by adding confederates which increased the size of the majority. Conformity increased with the group size but only up to 3 confederates then it levels off. With 3 confederates, the conformity rate was 31.8% whereas with 2 confederates, the conformity rate was 14%. Therefore, an individual is more likely to conform when in a group of 3.


The addition of a confederate agreeing with the participants decreased conformity by 25%. The presence of a dissenter let the participant behave more independently. 

Task difficulty

Asch made the lines more similar in length which made conformity increase. This suggests that ISI plays a greater role when the task becomes harder as they look at each other for guidance.  

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Evaluation of Asch's research

- Time period

During the 1950's, McCarthyism played an important role in the USA. This was a strong anti-communist era where conformity was very high. People were scared to go against the majority and so were more likely to conform. This may explain why Perrin and Spencer (1980) found conformity to decrease when they repeated Asch's study with engineering students in the UK. One student conformed out of 396 trials. This may be due to engineers feeling more confident measuring lines but is more likely down to the time period. This suggests that the Asch affect is not consistent across time and is not a key feature of human behaviour 

- Artificial situation and task

The participants knew they were taking part in study so may have guessed the aim of the study and presented demand characteristics. The task of identifying lines was trivial so there was no real reason to not conform. This is a limitation as the findings don't generalise to everyday situations so may have poor ecological validity. 

+ High internal validity

There was strict control over extraneous variables such as timing and the type of task used. The participants did the experiment before, without confederates, to see if they actually knew the correct answer removing the confounding variable of lack of knowledge. This suggests that valid and reliable ‘cause and effect’ relationships can be established.

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Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment


  • An advert for male volunteers was put in a paper. 75 males responded. They all took a test to check family background, criminal background etc. 
  • 24 male American students, who were rated as physically and mentally stable, mature and free of criminal history, were chosen and were paid $15 a day.
  • They were randomly signed the roles of either guards or prisoners. 
  • The prisoners were picked up on Sunday morning by the police and searched, stripped naked and deloused. 
  • The basement of the Stanford University psychology building was converted into a prison. 
  • The prison cells were 6x9 and 3 prisoners to a cell. Solitary confinement was 2x2x7 ft. 
  • Both roles had to wear uniforms. The prisoners wore numbered smocks (which they were referred by), nylon stocking caps and a chain on their ankle. The guards wore khaki uniforms, reflective sunglasses (to prevent eye contact) and were issued with handcuffs, keys and truncheons. 
  • Zimbardo played the role of the prison superintendent. 
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Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment


  • Both the prisoners and the guards adopted their new roles in a short period of time.
  • Guards began to harass and torment prisoners in very aggressive ways which threatened the prisoners psychological and physical health.
  • After the study, the guards had said they enjoyed harassing the prisoners and relished in their new-found power and control.
  • The study was stopped after 6 days instead on 2 weeks as intended. 
  • Within 2 days the prisoners rebelled by ripping their uniforms, shouting and swearing at the guards. The guards then used fire extinguishers on them.
  • After 2 days, the guards made the prisoners do tedious jobs like cleaning toilets. The guards constantly harassed the prisoners to remind them they were being monitored.
  • One prisoner was released on the first day because he showed signs of psychological disturbance.
  • 2 more prisoners were released on the 4th day due to their health. 
  • Prisoners would only talk about prison issues and snitch on other prisoners to the guards to please them. This is significant evidence to suggest that the prisoners believed that the prison was real and were not acting simply due to demand characteristics. 
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Evaluation of Zimbardo's research

+ Research evidence to support

2003/2004 US army military police committed serious human right violations against Iraqi prisoners ay Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The prisoners were tortured, sexually abused and some were murdered. Zimbardo argues that the same conformity to social role effect seen in the Prison Experiment was evident in real life. 

- Research evidence to contradict 

Reicher and Haslam (2006) partially replicated the Prison Experiment on the BBC TV. It was the prisoners who eventually took control of the prison and subjected the guards to a campaign of harassment and disobedience. The researchers argued that the guards failed to form a cohesive group. However, the prisoners did, so they refused to accept the role of a prisoner. 

+ Control

Zimbardo had some control over variables e.g. the participants. He only chose participants who were emotionally stable and were then randomly allocated roles. This helps rule out individual differences as an explanation and suggests the behaviour was due to pressures of the situation. Having high control means the study has high internal validity. 

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Milgram's obedience study


  • Milgram recruited 40 males through a newspaper advert and flyers. He advertised the study was for memory. The participants were aged between 20-50 and were offered $4.50.
  • On arrival they were "assigned" their rigged role. The participants were always the teachers and the confederate played "Mr Wallace" the student. The experimenter (another confederate) was dressed in a lab coat. 
  • Participants were told they could leave at any time.
  • The learner was strapped in a chair in another room and wired with electrodes. The teacher was required to give the learner an increasingly sever electric shock each time the learner made a mistake on the task. The shocks were demonstrated on the teacher but after that weren't real. The shock level started at 15 volts labelled "slight shock" and rose to 450 volts labelled "danger- severe shock" 
  • When the teacher got to 300 volts the learner pounded on the wall and gave no response to the task. On the 315 volt shock, the learner pounded on the wall again but after that there was no further response.
  • When the teacher turned to the experimenter for guidance the experimenter said, "an absence of response should be treated as a wrong answer".
  • When the teacher wasn't sure about continuing, the experimenter would say " please continue", then " the experiment requires you to continue", then "it is absolutely essential that you continue" then " you have no other choice, you must continue". 
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Milgram's obedience study


  • No participant stopped below 300 volts
  • 12.5% stopped at 300 volts
  • 65% continued to the highest level of 450 volts
  • Qualitative data was collected by participants behaviour such as signs of extreme tension: sweating, trembling, stutter, biting lips, groans. Three even had "full blown seizures"
  • Prior to the study Milgram asked 14 psychology students to predict the results. They thought that no more than 3% would continue to 450 volts. 
  • All participants were debriefed afterwards and sent a follow-up questionnaire where 84% reported they were glad they participated in the experiment. 
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Evaluation of Milgram's obedience study

+ Debriefing

The participants were thoroughly and carefully debriefed on the real aims of the study, in an attempt to deal with the deception and the lack of informed consent. In a follow up study a year later, 84% of participants were glad they were part of the study and 74% felt as if they learned something. This suggests that the study left little or no permanent long-term psychological harm on participants. 

+ External validity has been established by supporting studies

Hofling et al (1966) observed the behaviour of doctors and nurses in a natural experiment. The researchers found that 95% of nurses in a hospital obeyed a doctor (confederate) to increase the dosage of a patient’s medicine, double what is advised on the bottle, over the phone. This suggests that ‘everyday’ individuals are still susceptible to obeying destructive authority figures.

- Validity

Orne and Holland (1968) argued that the participants behaved this way because they didn't  believe in the set up. They may have guessed it wasn't a real shock so  the study has low internal validity. Perry confirms this as she reviewed the interview tapes and found that a significant number of participants raised questions about the legitimacy of the electric shocks. However, quantitative data gathered by Milgram directly suggested that 70% of participants believed that the shocks were real. Sheridan and King’s study administered real electric shocks to puppies. 54% of male students and 100% of females delivered the fatal shock. This suggests that the findings were likely to be accurate. 

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Milgram's study - Situational Variables


In the original study the teacher and learner were in adjoining rooms whereas in the proximity study, the teacher and learner were in the same room. The obedience rate went from 65% to 40%.


Milgram changed the location to a rundown building rather than Yale University. In this situation the experimenter had less authority, so obedience fell to 47.5%.


Milgram carried out a variation where the experimenter left the room so an "ordinary member of public" (confederate) was the experimenter. They wore ordinary clothes and the obedience rate dropped to 20%, the lowest of all variations. 

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Evaluation of Milgram's variations

+ Research support

Bickman (1974), in NYC, had three confederates dressed in different outfits: Jacket and tie, milkman's outfit and a security guards’ uniform. They stood in the street and asked passers-by to perform tasks like picking up litter or giving them money for car parking. People were twice as likely to obey the person dressed as a security guard than one dressed in a jacket and tie. This supports Milgram's claim that uniform conveys authority and is more likely to cause people to obey.

- Poor internal validity

Orne and Holland's criticism of Milgram's study was that people may have worked out the shocks were fake. It is even more likely that participants in Milgram's variations realised this especially when the experimenter was replaced by a "member of public". This is a limitation because it is unclear whether the results are genuinely due obedience.

+ Culture

Miranda et al. (1981) found an obedience rate of 90% amongst Spanish students. This suggests that Milgram's conclusions are not limited to American males but are valid across all cultures and genders. However, Smith and Bond (1998) made the point that replications of the study are taken place in developed societies which aren't that different to the USA so it would be premature to conclude that Milgram's findings apply to people everywhere.

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Explanations for obedience

Agentic state - A mental state where we feel no personal responsibility for our behaviour because we believe we are acting for someone else. This clears our conscience and allows us to to obey an authority figure that we may disagree with. 

Autonomous state - A person feels free to behave according to their own principles and therefore feels a sense of responsibility for their own actions. 

When a person shifts from an autonomous state to the agentic state, it is called an Agentic Shift. Therefore, people are more likely to obey when they are in the agentic state as they do not believe they will suffer the consequences of their actions.

Binding factors - Aspects of the situation that allow the person to minimise the damaging effect of their behaviour e.g. he was foolish to volunteer. 

Legitimacy of authority - We are more likely to obey people who we percieve to have authority over us e.g. teachers, parents, police etc because these people are agreed by society to have more authority. 

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Evaluation of explanations for obedience

+ Research support

Blass and Schmitt (2001) showed Milgram's study to students and asked them who was responsible for the harm to "Mr Wallace". The students blamed the experimenter and indicated that the responsibility was due the experimenter because he was top of the hierarchy and therefore had the legitimate authority. They recognised legitimate authority as the cause of obedience. 

- Limited explanation

The agentic shift doesn't explain why some people don't obey. Also, it doesn't explain the findings of Hoflings et al.'s study. The agentic shift explanation predicts that as the nurses handed over the responsibility to the doctor, they should have shown levels of anxiety as they understood they could be harming the patients. But this wasn't the case. This suggests that the agentic shift can only explain some situations of obedience. 

+ Cultural differences  

Many studies show that countries differ in the degree in which people obey to authority. For example, Kilham and Mann (1974) replicated Milgram's procedure in Australia and found only 16% of their participants went to the top voltage. Mantell (1971) however found 85% of Germans went to the top voltage. This shows that is some cultures authority is more likely to be accepted as legitimate. This cross-culture research increases the validity of the explanation. 

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The authoritarian personality

Dispositional explanation - Any explanation of behaviour that highlights the importance of the individual's personality.

Authoritarian personality - A type of personality that Adorno argued was especially susceptible to obeying people in authority. 


Adorno et al. (1950) investigated the causes of the obedient personality in a study of more than 2000 middle class white Americans and their unconscious attitudes towards racial groups. They developed several scales to investigate this including the fascism scale (F-Scale).


People with authoritarian learnings (high on F-Scale) identified with 'strong' people and were condescending to the 'weak'. They were very conscious of their and others status, showing respect to those in higher status. 

Authoritarian characteristics

People with an authoritarian personality are especially obedient to authority. They have an extreme respect for authority and have highly conventional views towards sex, race and gender. They believe we need strong leaders to enforce traditional values. Everything is either right or wrong. 

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Evaluation of the authoritarian personality

+ Research support

Milgram and Elms (1966) conducted interviews with a small sample of fully obedient participants, who scored highly on the F- Scale, believing there may be a link between obedience and authoritarian personality. However, this is only correlational which means there is no 'cause and effect' and a third variable may be involved. These two variables may be due to lower level of education for example. 

- Limited explanation

In pre-war Germany, millions of people displayed obedient, racist and anti-Semitic behaviour. They all must have had different personalities so it's extremely unlikely that they all had the authoritarian personality. This is a limitation as another explanation must be more realistic for example, social identity. 

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Resistance to social influence

Social Support

Conformity - Helps people resist conformity. The pressure to conform can decrease if other people aren't conforming. Asch's research showed that if another non-conforming person enters the room, conformity rates fall. 

Obedience - Helps people resist obedience. The pressure to obey decreases if other people aren't obeying. In one of Milgram's variations, the rate of obedience dropped to 10% when the participant was joined with a disobedient confederate. 

Locus of control (LOC) - Rotter (1966)

The LOC is a measurement of an individual’s sense of control over their lives, i.e. to what extent they feel that events in their lives are under their own personal control.

Internals - Fate lies in your own hands so people are better equipped and more confident to resist social influence or even become leaders. E.g. I won the award because I worked hard.

Externals - What happens to you is down to luck, so they don't resist social influence. E.g. I won the award because it was my destiny. 

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Evaluation of resistance to social influence

+ Research support for social support

Conformity - Allen and Levine (1971) found that conformity decreased when there was another person not conforming even if the confederate wore thick glasses so couldn't see the lines properly. This supports the view that resistance enables someone to be free of the pressure from the group. 

Obedience - Gamson et al. (1982) found higher levels of resistance in their study than Milgram. This may be due to Gamson's study being conducted in groups. 29 out of 33 groups of participants rebelled. This shows that peer support is linked to greater resistance.

+ Research support for LOC

Holland (1967) repeated Milgram's study and measured whether participants were internal or externals. He found that 37% of internals and 23% of externals did not continue to the highest shock. This suggests internals have greater resistance. 

- Contradictory research for LOC

Twenge et al. (2004) analysed data from American obedience studies over 40 years. The data showed people have become more resistant to obedience but also more external. This challenges the link between internal LOC and resistance to obedience. 

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Minority Influence

  • Consistency - Minority influence is most effective if the minority keeps the same beliefs. This consistency may be between people in the minority group (Synchronic - "They all think the same thing, maybe they have a point") or over time (Diachronic - "They have been saying this for a while, maybe they are right"). This causes people to rethink their own views. 
  • Commitment - Minorities can perform extreme activities to convey their point which draws attention to their views. These actions should be at some risk to the minority as this demonstrates commitment. Augmentation principle: "Look what he has done to express his view! He must really believe in it!". 
  • Flexibility - There is a balance between consistency and flexibility so, members of the minority need to be prepared to adapt their point of view and accept reasonable and valid counter-arguments to avoid being rigid and repeating points over and over. 
  • The process of change - When people hear something new, they are more likely to think about it, especially if the source is passionate. It's the deeper processing which can cause people to convert. The more this happens the faster rate of conversion - snowball effect. 
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Evaluation of minority influence

+ Research support for consistency

Moscovici et al.’s study showed that a consistence minority opinion had a greater effect on other people that an inconsistent opinion. Wood et al. carried out a meta-analysis of 100 studies and found that minorities who were seen as being consistent were most influential. This is strong scientific evidence that consistency is a major factor in minority influence.

- Artificial tasks

Tasks involved in minority influence e.g. identifying the colour of a slide are very artificial. Research is therefore not realistic about how minorities attempt to change the behaviour of majorities in real life. In cases, such as jury decision, the outcomes are more important, sometimes even life and death. This means findings and minority influence studies such as Moscovici et al.’s are lacking in external validity and are limited in what they can tell us about how minority influence works in real life social situations.

+ Research support for internalisation

In variation of Moscovici’s blue green slide study participants were allowed to write their answers down so their responses were private. Agreement with the minority position was greater in these circumstances. Members of the majority were being convinced by the minority’s argument and changing their own views but were reluctant to admit to the publicly. Moscovici thought this may be due to the fact they didn’t want to be associated with the minority position for fear of being considered “awkward”.

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Social Change

1) Drawing attention by social proof - e.g. civil rights marches.

2) Consistency - e.g. having many marches and many people involved.

3) Deeper processing of the issue - people who had accepted the majority be begin to think about the minorities view. 

4) Augmentation principle - e.g. when people risk their lives for their beliefs.

5) Snowball effect - e.g. celebrities may get involved which causes more people to get onboard and more and more people convert. The majority may become the minority. 

6) Social cryptomnesia - people have a memory that change has occured but don't remember how it happened. 

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Evaluation of social change

+ Research support for normative influences

Nolan et al (2008) hung messages on the front doors of houses in San Diego, California every week for a month that said that most residents were trying to reduce their energy usage. As a control, some residents were asked to save energy but made no reference to other people’s behaviour. He found significant decreases in energy usage in the first group. This suggests that conformity can lead to social change through the operation of normative social influence.

- Minority influence is only indirectly effective

Social changes happens slowly for example, it has taken decades for attitudes against drink-driving and smoking to shift. Charlan Nemeth (1986) argues that the effects of minority influence are indirect and delayed. They are indirect as the majority is not influenced by the central issue itself. They are delayed because the effects may not be seen for some time. This suggests that minority influence can't fully explain social change as the effects are fragile and its role in social influence very limited.

- Role of deeper processing

Minority and majority influence involve different cognitive processes. Minority influence causes individuals to think more deeply about an issue than majority influence (conformity). Diane Mackie (1987) disagrees and says that it is majority influence that may create deeper processing if you do not share their views. This is because we like to believe that other people share our views. When we find that a majority believes something different, then we are forced to think long and hard about their arguments and reasoning. This means that a central element of the process of minority influence has been challenged, casting doubt on the validity of Moscovici’s theory.

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