Social influence

  • Created by: alex
  • Created on: 31-03-13 13:15


Social Influence: the process by which an individual's attitudes, beliefs or behaviours are modified by the presence or actions of others.

Conformity: the tendency to change our behaviour or attitudes in response to the influence of others or social pressure.

  • There are also different types of conformity:
  • Compliance is where one will outwardly change their mind to match a group’s but they will retain their own view in their heads.

  • Internalisation is where one will outwardly change their mind to match a group’s but whereas initially, in their head, they disagreed but over time their views are changed to match the group’s internally, so that they genuinely agree with them.

  • Identification: is when a person conforms to the role that society expects them to play.  There does not have to be change in private opinion.
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Research into conformity:

    • Asch believed that conformity was a rational process and so wanted to assess if a minority would conform to a majority even if the majority was clearly wrong.
    • Asch had participants carry out a line judgement task in which they had to indicate which of three comparison lines was closest to a standard line presented (known as the ‘Asch Paradigm’).

    • Asch used 123 male student participants that were divided into groups of 7 seated around a table. In actuality, in the groups, only one of them was a participant and the rest were confederates.

    • Asch found that the overall conformity rate was 37%, and 5% of participants conformed on every trial and 25% never conformed.

    • When asked why they conformed, participants gave a number of reasons: some felt their perceptions were wrong upon hearing different answers from the group, others stated that they believed the rest were wrong but they did not wish to stand out and it was reported that some participants grew increasingly nervous and self-conscious through trials.

    • Asch concluded that a strong, large group can exert intense pressure to conform, even more so if they are unanimous in their opinions.

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Evaluation of research into conformity: Asch

:( it is a limited sample – participants were all male students so we cannot generalise to other groups of people.

:( this study may lack historical validity – the 1950s was an era known for its pressure to conform, so maybe the results would be different if carried out today. In fact, Perrin & Spencer carried out the Asch paradigm using male science and engineering students and the conformity rate was 1/400 – perhaps the time of this study there was less pressure to conform or even the fact that intelligent science students may have been surer of themselves.

:( many ethical issues are raised by this study – participants reported that they felt anxious and stressed, even embarrassed – this breaches the protection of participants.

:( Due to the high control of the lab experiment, it lacks ecological validity and so cannot be generalised to a real-life setting. The nature of the task does not represent a common real-life instance of conformity, and so lacks mundane realism.

:) Its lab experiment nature means that great control was taken over the extraneous variables and so we can prove cause and effect. The high control also means that it is easy to replicate to check the reliability of the results.

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Research into conformity: Crutchfield

  • Crutchfield believed that the conformity found by Asch might have resulted from participants interacting face-to-face.
  • He carried out the same experiment but this time in separate booths where participants had to press a button to give their decision after seeing what they thought were other participants' judgements (however, experimenter controlled these judgements).
  • Despite absence of face-to-face group, conformity levels were 30% (not much different to Asch's results) and rose when the task became more difficult.
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Explanations of Conformity:

  • Normative Social Influence – This is the assumption that we have the desire to be liked so we conform because we prefer to be accepted by the group rather than stand out.
    • According to the Social Impact Theory - we are most likely to conform to normative social influence when group membership is important to us.
      • For example, in a study by Perrin and Spencer, unemployed black youths from from a racially tense part of London were more likely to conform to a majority made of other back youths when the experimenter was white.
    • Asch discovered that we are more likely to conform to a group of 4 rather than a group of 3, but increasing the size above this does not increase conformity levels.
    • Perrin and Spencer also found that people are more likely to conform when there is a cost to not conforming.
      • For example, they used students on probation where the majority comprised of probation officers and found a high conformity rate.

:) The concept of normative social influence has been used to give an insight into why some children bully other children. Garandeau et al. found that children who had a greater need for social acceptance were more likely to comply to pressures from the bullying group to bully in order to be accepted and maintain their friendship regardless of how they felt in private towards bullying.

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Explanations of Conformity:

  • Informational Social Influence – This is the assumption that we may conform because we have the desire to be liked so if we are unsure of what to do or how to behave in an unfamiliar or ambiguous situation, we may look at other people for clues as to how to act and copy them as they may have more knowledge than us.
  • We are most likely to conform to informational social influence when for example in an emergency when we may not have the time to think calmly so we look to others for information about the best course of action.
  • Also, when we believe the majority has more expertise or knowledge about a task as we have the desire to be right.

:) Supported by Henly who found that white participants who were exposed to negative information about African-Americans that thay thought was the the view of the majority incresed their prejudice scores (E.g were more liklely to overestimate the percentage of African-American who had spent time in prison).

:( This is challenged by Asch's findings in which he used students from three colleges varying in terms of intellligence and found that intelligent students from a private college conformed less than those of moderate intelligence from a 'metropolitan' college. However, students of lowest intelligence conformed mid-way between the two.

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  • Obedience:
  • the following of an order or an instruction from another person (who usually has power or authority over you) to carry out an action.
  • The difference between conformity and obedience is that the source of the social influence is different. Conformity is likely to be peer pressure whereas with obedience someone is likely to be giving you an order by an authority figure.
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Research into obedience:

  • Milgram aimed to investigate whether people would obey so far as to administer fatal electric shocks on an innocent person.
    • 1000 volunteers were told they were going to be a teacher or a learner but in fact they would always be the teacher as the learner was always a confederate whom the participant believed to be a fellow participant.
    • The teachers were told to ask learners questions and if they were wrong, they were to shock them, increasing the shocks in steps of 15V until they reached 450v (fatal). 
    • The shocks were not real, however, and the screams the teachers heard had been previously recorded. If participants did not want to continue shocking, they were urged to continue by the experiment.
    • It was predicted beforehand that a mere 1% of people would go to the full ‘450 Volts’ where in actuality 65% of people did.
    • He concluded that there seemed to be two reasons for obedience: a) the use of incremental increases (as the voltage increased in small steps) and b) the diffusion of responsibility (the experimenter assured the participant that they would take all blame if any harm were to come to the learner.
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Evaluation: research into obedience: Milgram

:( A major weakness of this study is that it arises many ethical issues. Firstly, there was obviously a large amount of deception as participants had no idea of what was really going on and because of this, they were unable to give informed consent. The ‘protection of participants’ guideline was heavily breached as many participants felt immense guilt, stress and worry and there was no protection from this.

:( Also, participants did not feel that they had the right to withdraw as they were told that “they must continue” when they protested. However, if participants objected repeatedly and strongly, they were allowed to stop.

:( Another weakness of this study is the fact that they were all volunteers – the study aimed to get a wide range of participants, yet volunteers are unrepresentative – they may be more motivated as they went out of their way to be in the study. Therefore, it lacks population validity.

:( Another weakness of this study is that as it was a lab experiment, there was high control and therefore it was an extremely artificial environment and so, the study lacks ecological validity and cannot be generalised to a real-life setting. However, the study has been replicated by other researchers which do have ecological validity for example Mantell found higher levels of obedience in a German sample than in an Australian study. Mann found a 40% obedience rate for males and 15% obedience rate for females.

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Explanations of why people obey:

  • Gradual commitment: Milgram found that once participants had commited themselves to giving low levels of shock,they found it harder to resist the demands of the experimenter to give gradual increases of shock.
    • Lifton carried out a study of Nazi doctors working in Auschwitz. These doctors were first required to give steralisations then were required to gradually carry out more and more horrific medical procedures ending with the killing of their patients. This provides support for the gradual commitment explanation.
  • Buffers: Anything that protects the individual from having to confront the consequences of their actions. In Milgram's study, the teacher and learner were in different rooms so the teacher was 'buffered' from seeing the learner in distress.
    • In the early years of the Holocaust, Jews were klilled by mobile killing squads. However, the physical proximity to their victims had a disturbing psychological effect on the killers, so gas chambers were designed to separate the killers physically from their victims. This provides support for the idea of buffers.
  • Agentic shift: Milgram believed that people usually behave in an autonomous statewhere they behave voluntarily and aware of the consequences of their actions. However, through agentic shift, in some circumstances, people may see themselves as the agent of another personand hence not responsible for their actions.
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Explanations of why people obey:

  • Personality factors:
    • Authoritarian personality - Milgram found that people who were highly authoritarian tended to display high er levels of obedience.
    • Psychopathic personality - Selzer claimed that the obedience shown by some of Milgram's participants was a socially acceptable way of expressing their psychopathic impulses.
      • However, Arendt challenged the claim that obedience was the expression of psychopathic impulses and found that Eichmann who had controlled the mass murder of the Jews during the Holocaust had just been obeying orders and seemed perfectly normal not showing any signs of psychopathetic tendencies.
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Independent behaviour:

  • Resisting conformity:
  • Desire for individuation - the desire tomaintain a sense of indivuduality sometimes outweighs pressure to conform. Asch discovered that many of the participants who responded to majority influence with independence were less concerned with social norms than those who conformed.
  • Prior commitment - once people publicly commit themselves to a position, they are less likley to change their opinions than if they hold this position only in private. In Gerard's variation of Asch's study, the participants gave their answer befor the unanimous answers of the majority but when offered the chance to reconsider, the participants almost never did.
  • Role of allies - Asch discovered that the introduction of a confederate who also went against the majority caused conformity levels to drop below 10%.Havind an ally appeared to built confidence and aid resistance because the participant was no longer facing a unanimous majority.
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Independent behaviour:

Resisting obedience:

  • Questioning the motives and status of authority: When milgram's study was moved from the prestigious surroundings of Yale University to some run-down office blocks, participants found it easier to question the legitiamcy of the experimentor's instructions. As a result, obedience levels dropped to 50%.
  • Disobedient models: The presence of disobedient models undermines the experimenter's authority and makes it more likely that the individual will have the confidence to resist pressures to obey. In a variation of Milgram's study, two confederates assisted the participant. However, when the two confederates refused to continue above 210V, 90% of the participants also refused to continue.
  • Feeling responsible and empathetic: In Milgram's study, some participants disobeyed the experimenter when they thought the learner was in distress. For these individuals, imagining the suffering was enoughto lead to an empathetic response and refusal to continue.
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Locus of control:

  • Internal locus of control - believe that what happens to them is largely a consequence of their own ability and effort so they can therefore control events in their life. People with a high internal locus of control tend to display independence in thoughts and behaviour so they are therefore better able to resist social influence.
  • External locus of control - believe that what happens to them is down to luck or the actions of others which they cannot control. They tend to approach situations with a more passive and fatalistic attitude and are less likely to take responsibility for their actions.
    • Holland carried out variations of Milgram's study comaparing how obedience levels altered for externals and internals. He found no significant relationship between locus of control scores and obedience levels.
    • Blass, however, carried out a replication of Holland's study and found that participants with an internal locus of control were more resistant ot pressures to obey.
    • Schurz carried out a study in which participants were instructed to apply increasing levels of ultrasound which they were told could damage skin at the high levels. He found that 80% of participants pressed all 20 switches, but found that locus of control scores had little relationship to obedience levels. However, he found that participants who maintained their independence and refused to continue had a greater tendency to accept responsibility (characteristic of internals).
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Locus of control factors:

  • Gender differences: research has found that there are gender differences in locus of control, with males typically being found to have more internal than females.
    • However, Schultz found no significant difference in locus of control for adults in a US population.
    • However, they did note that there may be specific sex-based differences for specific aspects of locus of control (e.g. men may have greater internal locus for questions related to academic achievement).
  • Cultural differences: research has shown that people from different cultures may also vary in terms of their locus of control.
    • McGinnies found that Japanese people are more external than people in Australia and the USA.
    • Berry on the other hand found that the differences in locus of control scores between different countries in Europe tended to be small.
    • Differences in locus of control may be found within the same culture. For example, Dyal found that ethnic groups differ in terms of locus of control (in a US sample, he found that black people were more external than white people).
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Social Change:

  • Social Change - when society adopts a new belief or behaviour as the norm (expected ways of behaving). Social influence can be used to bring about social change. Examples of social change include the suffragette movement.

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Minority Influence:

  • Minority influence - a form of social influence where majority group members reject the established group norm and gradually move towards the position being championed by the minority.
  • Creating attention: minorities draw attention to issues that may otherwise be ignored by the majority. If a person is exposed to an argument that contradicts that current view of the majority, this creates conflict  which the individual is motivated to reduce. This may be achieved by examinig the views of the minority more closely to better understand why they don't hold the same view as the majority.
  • Consistency: members of the mijority may simply dismiss the minority point of view, but if the minority are consistent, the majority may take their position more seriously.
    • Intra-individual consistency - where the individual members of the minority maintain a consistent position over time.
    • Inter-individual consistency - where there is agreement among the different members of the minority.
  • Augmentation: if the minority is seen make sacrafices to put their point across, the majority is more likely to re-evaluate their point as they see that they must really believe in the position they are putting across.
  • Snowball effect: the mass movement of members of the majority to toward the minority position. Once a few members of the majority start to move, the influence of the minority seems to gather momentumas more and more people convert.
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Evaluation of Minority Influence:

:) There can be positive impacts of social change through minority influence such as the Suffragette movement who held consistent rallies, drawing attention to the issue, being consistent even through difficult circumstances (some members were faced with inprisonment or death by hunger strike) they were able to gain women's rights to vote.

:) There are real-life examples of social change which shows that the methods of minority influence is used. For example terrorists, with their use of frequent suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan shows consistency - a method needed in social change. Also, as many members may die for their cause (e.g suicide bombers), this shows their willingness to suffer for their beliefs shows the method of augmentation.

:( The false concensus effect suggests that we tend to believe that majority of a group share similar viewpoints to our own so if they express a different viewpoint to ours, we are motivated to to consider carefully why they hold a different opinion and this deeper understanding can lead to social change. However, Mickie claimed that in reality, people do not waste time processing why a minority's viewpoint is different, suggesting that the minority is actually not very influential in social change.

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