Social influence

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Social influence definition

  • Social infuence can be defined as the process by which an individual's attitudes, beliefs or behaviours are modified by the presence or actions ot others
  • some forms of social influence, such as when a teacher asks you to hand in work on time are obvious
  • other types of social influence are more subtle and unintended and sometimes unnoticed by those who are influenced
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Types of conformity

  • Conformity is the process of yielding to major influence 
  • Zimbaro et al (1995) defined it as a "tendency for people to adopt the behaviour, attitudes and values of other members of a reference group"
  • Zimbardo's definition proposes that we tend to go along with those people with whom we compare ourselves when we are evaluating our status
  • Although most people think of themselves as autonomous (independent individuals), they go along with the social norms that groups and societies have evolved
  • social norms that indicate how we ought to behave may be explicit or implicit (unspoken)
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Compliance, Identification, Internalization


  • publicly conforming to the behaviour or views of others in a group but privately maintaining one's own views


  • adopting the views or behaviour of a group both publicly and privately because you value membership of that group
  • however, new attitudes and behaviours are often temporary and not maintained on leaving the group


  • the conversion or true chaneg of private views to match those of the group
  • new attitudes and behaviours have become part of your value system and are not dependent on the presence of the group
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Why do people conform?

Normative social influence

  • based on our desire to be liked
  • we conform because we think that others will approve of and accept us
  • conformity that results from the desire to be liked is sometimes called compliance
  • According to the social impact theory, we respond to most normative influence when the group is very important to us and we spend a lot of time with it

Informational social influence

  • based on our desire to be right
  • look to others whom we believe to be correct
  • informational social influence may be particularly strong when we move from one group to another and experience situational ambiguity
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Asch's research into conformity

  • Solomon Asch carried out highly influential work at Harvard University in the US
  • He thought that the convergence of judgements found in the Sherif study could be attributed to the ambiguity of the situation
  • wondered what would happen when participants were exposed to normative social influence in a group situation when there could be no doubt about the correct answer to a question
  • Procedure involved 7 male student participants loking at two cards
  • the "test" card showed a vertical line and the other card showed 3 vertical lines of different lengths
  • task was to call out which of the 3 lines was the same length as the test line
  • the correct answer was always obvious
  • all participants except one were accomplices of the experimenter
  • genuine participant called out his answer second last
  • accomplices gave unanimous wrong answers on 12 of the 18 trials, which were called the "critical" trials
  • Asch used 50 male college students as naive, genuine participants in this first study 
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Asch's research into conformity

  • Findings:
  • participants conformed to the unanimous incorrect answer on 32% of the critical trials
  • 74% conformed at least once
  • 26% never conformed
  • Conclusion:
  • even in unambigious situations there may be strong group pressure to conform, especially if the group is a unanimous majority
  • Asch concluded that people go along with the views of others for different reasons
  • Some people experience normative social influence and feel compelled to accept the mistaken majority's norms or standards of behaviour to avoid being rejected
  • others experience informational pressures and doubt their own judgements i.e thinking "surely they can't all be wrong"
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Asch's research into conformity

  • Evaluation:
  • All the participants were male college students so it was a very limited sample
  • for this reason it might not be valid to generalize the findings to a wider population
  • time and place when the research was carried out might have affected the findings
  • 1950s, USA very conservative and involved in an anticommunist witch hunt against anyone thoght to hold left-wing views
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Conformity to social roles - Zimbardo's Stanford p


  • to investigate how readily people would conform to new roles by observing how quickly people would adopt the roles of guard or prisoner in a role playing exercise that simulated prison life
  • Zimbardo interested to find out if the brutality reported among the guard in American prisons was due to sadistic personalities of guards or had more to do with the environment


  • well adjusted, healthy male volunteers paid $15 a day to take part in a 2 week simulation study of prison life
  • volunteers randomly allocated to roles of prisoners and guards
  • local police helped by "arresting" 9 prisoners at their homes without warning
  • 3 guards on easch shift who wore khaki uniforms, dark glasses and carried wooden batons
  • no physical aggerssion was permitted
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Conformity to social roles - Zimbardo's Stanford p


  • guards harrassed and humiliated the prisoners and conformed to their perceived roles 
  • prisoners rebelled against the guards after only 2 days, guards quelled the rebellion using fire extinguishers
  • some prisoners became depressed and anxious, one priosoner had to be released after 1 day, 2 more had to be released on 4th day, by day 6, prisoners were submissive of the guards


  • the conforming behaviour of the participants can best be explaiend in terms of situational factors - the result of nromative social influence
  • people will readily conform to the roles they're expected the play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards
  • roles people play will shape their attitudes and behaviour
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Conformity to social roles - Zimbardo's Stanford p


  • study has received many ethical criticisms including those about lack of fully informed consent by participants and the humiliation and distress experienced by those who acted as prisoners
  • Zimbardo thought details such as being arrested at home were justifiable given the nature of the study
  • Zimbardo's follow up interviews with participants found no long lastin negative effects
  • According to Zimbardo, results show how easily people come to behave in uncharacteristic ways when placed in new situations and given new roles
  • Zimbardo was wrong to act as both prison super-intendent and chief researcher as this produced a conflict of roles and he lost sight of harm being done to the participants 
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Milgram's studies of obedience

  • Stanley Milgram carried out a series of studies to try to shed light on this aspect of human behaviour
  • In all, he studied over 1000 paritipcnats who were representtaive of the general population
  • found that under certain situational influences, most of us would obey orders that went against our conscience
  • Original study by Milram in Obedience (1963)
  • Aim: find out whether ordinary Americans would obey an unjust order from a person in authority to inflict pain on another person
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Original study by Milgram (1963)


  • 40 male participants, each paid $4.50, deceived into thinking they were giving electric shocks
  • participants were told that the study concerned the role of punishment in learning
  • genuine participant always had the teacher's role and a confederate played the part of the learner whose task was to memorise pairs of words
  • when tested, the learner would indicate his choice using a system of lights
  • teacher's role was to administer a shock every time the learner made a mistake
  • teacher sat in front of the shock generator that had 30 levers, each of which indicated the level of shock to be given
  • particpant watched accomplice being strapped into a chair in an adjoining room with electrodes attached to his arms
  • to begin with, accomplice answered correctly and then started making mistakes
  • every time he made an error he was to be given an electric shock administered by the participant
  • shocks started at 15V and rose in 15V increments to 450V
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Original study by Milgram (1963)


  • All paticipants went to at least 300V on the shock generator
  • 65% of participants went to the end of the shock generator
  • most participants found the procedure very stressful and wanted to stop, some showed signs of extreme anxiety
  • although they dissented verbally, they continued to obey the researcher who prodded them to continue giving the shocks


  • under certain circumstances,  most people will obey orders that go against their conscience
  • when people occupy a subordinate position in a dominance hierarchy, they become liable to lose their feelings of empathy, compassion and morality and are inclined towards blind obedience
  • atrocities such as those in world war 2 can be largely explained in terms of pressure to obey a powerful authority
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Original study by Milgram (1963)


  • The study has received many criticisms, most relating to the potential harm that might have been done to participants
  • Was uncertain whether participants really believed they were giving electric shocks
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Evaluating the validity of Milgram's studies

  • Experimental (internal) validity: measure of whether experimental procedures actually work and the effects observed are genuine. Orne and Holland claimed that the participants were "going along with it" when they "shocked" the learner. Argued partipants did not believe they were really giving electric shocks and were not really distressed, just pretending in order to please the experimenter and continue playing their roe in the study
  • Ecological validity: degree to which the findings can be generalised beyond the context of the investigation. Milgram's procedures have been replicated in other countries with higher levels of obedience found in Germany and lower levels found in Australia
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Hofling et al (1966) - Obedient Nurses

  • Situation used was a hospital
  • arranged for a nurse who was working along on a late shift to receive a phone call from an unknown doctor
  • asked her to administer 20mg of a drug called Astroten to a patient so that it would have taken effect before he arrived
  • if the nurse obeyed, she would be breaking several hospital rules
  • 1) giving twice the maximum dose allowable for this drug
  • 2) administering a drug that was not on the ward stock list for that day
  • 3) taking a telephone instruction from an unfamiliar person
  • 4) acting without a signed order from a doctor
  • despite this, 21/22 of the participants started to give the medication until another nurse stopped them
  • when interviewed afterwards, nurses said that they had been asked to do this type of thing before and doctors became annoyed that they refused
  • study showed high levels of obedience can be obtained in real-life settings and therefore provided support for the ecological validity of Milgram's findings
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Bickman (1974) the power of uniforms

  • Field study
  • Bickman found that visible symbols of authority such as uniforms increased levels of obedience
  • 3 male experimenters dressed either in uniform, as a civilian made requests of passersby in a street in NY
  • People were most likely to obey the experimenter dressed as a guard and least likely to obey the experimenter dressed as a civilian
  • strength of this study: real life setting
  • opportunity sample of participants may have affected the findings
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Explanations as to why people obey

Legitimate authority

  • One suggestion is that we feel obligated to those in power because we respect their credentials and assume they know what they're doing
  • Legitimate social powre is held by authority figures whose role is defined by society
  • this usually gives the person in authority the right to exert control over the behaviour of others and others usually accept it

Gradual commitment

  • an important eature of Milgram's procedure was the gradual way in which participants became sucked into giving greater and greater levels of shock
  • they found it difficult to decide when to disengage from the procedure because each voltage increment was fairly small
  • psychologists called this gradual commitment
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Explanations as to why people obey

Contractual obligation

  • Milgram pointed out that participants felt that they had "contracted" to help with the study
  • By coming along to the laboratory and publicly agreeing to accept the procedures, they saw themselves as helpful people, willing to aid scientific research

Altering the meaning of the situation

  • unpleasant reality of what the participants were asked to do in Milgram's study was altered by framing the task in desirable language
  • this semantic reframing is seen in advertising for example

The agentic shift

  • Milgram's agency theory states that people operate on 2 levels: as autonomous individuals, behaving voluntarily and aware of the consequences of their actions
  • on the agentic level, seeing themselves as agents of others and not responsible for their actions
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Explanations as to why people obey


  • the term "buffer" is used to describe any aspect of a situation that protects people from having to confront the consequences of their actions
  • Milgram suggseted that buffers acted as a mechanism to help people reduce the strain of obeying an immoral and unethical command
  • Buffers serve to facilitate obedience
  • In some real life situations, where obedience is required, the person merely has to press a button and the resulting destruction may not even be observed

Personality factors

  • Some dispositional (personality) factors have been proposed to explain Milgram's findings
  • Authoritarian personality: has rigid beliefs, is intolerant of uncertainty or change, hostile to minorities but submissive to those in authority
  • Psychopathic personality: Miale and Selzer claimed obedience of Milgram's participants was a socialy acceptable expression of their psychopathic impulses
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Social influence in everyday life

Explanations of independent behaviour

  • there are occasions when people appear not to conform, to behave independently
  • however, some apprently independent behaviour may really only be anticonformity
  • this is a consistent opposition to the norms of the group
  • anticonformity is a type of conformity as it is determined by the norms of the group
  • a person who displays true independence is unresponsive to the norms of the group
  • independent behaviour refers to behaviour that is not altered despite pressures to conform or obey
  • researchers have looked at why some people act independently despite social influence pressures including factors that contribute to resisting pressures to conform and factors that contribute to resisting pressures to obey authority
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Resisting pressures to conform

  • Two main factors are thought to be important
  • 1) the desire for individuation
  • 2) the desire to maintain control
  • - Desire for individuation
  • we wish to be like others some of the time but not wish to be exactly the same all the time
  • desire to maintain a sense of individuality sometimes outweighs pressures to conform
  • -Desire to maintain control
  • most of us wish to hold on to the idea that we can control events in our lives
  • if we experience obvious group pressure we may feel that our personal freedom and control have been threatened
  • people differ in the extent to which they desire to maintain control
  • other factors shown to play a part in resistance to conformity pressures include prior commitment and time to think and find social support 
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Resisting pressures to obey authority

  • Just as people may resist pressures to conform to the norms of a majority, so also people sometimes resist pressures to obey
  • a significant minority of participants in Milgram's obedience study refused to complete the procedure, despite prodding by the experimenter
  • number of key factors have been identified that contribute to this ability to resist pressures to obey a malevolent authority
  • these factors are:
  • when a person feels responsible for their own actions
  • when they observe others being disobedient (confformity effects)
  • by questioning the motives of those giving orders
  • when they have time to hink about what they are being asked to do
  • when orders are so heavy handed and restrictive that people aeact against their freedom being threatened
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Influence of individual differences on independent

  • Individual differences are important personal factors (such as personality, gender or culture) that differntiate people
  • individual differences between people may affect how they respond to situations where social influence is applied
  • most early researchers into social influenec were convinced that situational factors were sufficient to explain why people yielded or remained resistant to social pressure
  • in most cases where situational factors had significcant effects on obedience, some participants still showed resistance to obey

Moral reasoning

  • Kohlberg (1969) a colleague of Milgram's who studied the processes of cognitive development foudn that those who used more advanced stages of moral reasoning were more able to resist exhortations of the experimenter and showed  higher levels of disobedience (independent behaviour)
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Influence of individual differences on independent

Locus of control

  • concept of locus of control refers to individual differences in people's beliefs and expectations about what controls events in their lives
  • there are 2 extremes
  • those with an internal locus believe that what happens to them is largely a result of their own behaviour
  • a strong internal locus is associated with the belief that one can control much of their life and succeed in difficult or stressful situations
  • those with an external locus believe that what happens to them is controlled by external factors and agents
  • luck and fate are seen as important factors
  • people with an external locus tend to face stressful situations with a more passive and fatalistic attitude 
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Individual differences influencing independent beh

  • Another individual difference that helps explain differences in resistance to conformity pressures is the level of confidence that people bring to a situation
  • Asch discovered that some participants who lacked confidence still resisted pressures to conform 
  • closely observed behaviour of "independent" participants
  • he distinguished 3 main categories of independent behaviour
  • independence based on partipants' confidence that their perceptions were correct
  • independence accompanied by withdrawal, where participants felt the need to isolate themselves from the others by avoiding eye contact in order to deliver independent judgements
  • independence accompanied by tension and doubt, where participants' behaviour revealed discomfort that they were experiencing 
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Influence of individual differences on independent

  • Milgram reported no difference between men and women's levels of obedience to authority
  • most of Milgram's participants were male but he ran one study using 40 women and found 65% were fully obedient
  • Self-reported tension of obedient women was higher than that reported by obedient men
  • Bless reviewed 9 methodological replications of Milgram's procedure using both male and female participants and found the following
  • 8/9 studies reported no gender differences
  • consistency of this finding is notable as studies were conduced in different countries with both male and female researchers
  • seems fair to conclude that there are no reliable gender differences in levels of independent behaviour when it comes to resisting pressures to obey
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