Social Influence

These are my Social Influence topic notes for the AQA AS Psychology exam. Hope this helps :)

  • Created by: ___james
  • Created on: 25-03-14 18:03

Social Influence

  • This is the process whereby a person's attitudes, beliefs and behaviours are modified by the presence or actions of others. In simpler forms, this is when you change how you act, behave due to the influence of others around you.
  • Our social life is characterised by mostly subtle social influences, some of which we are aware of and some we aren't.
  • There are two types of Social Influence: Conformity and Obedience.
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Conformity (majority influence)

  • This is a form of social influence whereby a person or group of people's behaviour and attitudes are changed in line with the social norms or values of the majority even when there is no direct request for them to do so. It can result from either real or imagined pressure.
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  • This is a type of Social Influence where someone follows the direct orders or requests of another person often of a percieved high authority. It is thought that without such an order, a person would not have acted in this way. 
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Why do people conform?

  • Some people will change their thoughts and actions as they are uncertain what to think or how to behave in a given situation, so therefore they look to see what the majority of others are doing in the given situation. They look to the majority for influence on what to do in a situation. This is known as Informational Social Influence.

  • Individuals don't know what to do, but they want to be correct. They follow the majority as they are seen as 'correct' and the right thing to do, hence why the majority are doing so. This is based on our desire to be right.
  • Sometimes, we change our behaviour even if we think differently as we want to be seen as 'normal' and like those in a majority. This is known as Normative Social Influence. The individual wants to be liked and accepted by the group and may particularly change their behaviour and views but privately their views and behaviour doesn't change. This is based on our desire to fit in and to be liked. 
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Asch's study of Conformity (1951)

Aim - to see if participants would conform to the majority influence and give incorrect answers in a situation in which the task was unambiguous.

Procedure - 50 male participants, all college students, each was tested one at a time and sat with a group of confederates (these act as participants but are really working for the researcher and know the aims of the experiment), whom they thought were other participants.

Participants were sat in a room with 6-8 confederates and asked to judge which line out of a choice of 3 matched a line on a card.

Each participant was shown 18 sets of cards; for 12 of the 18 sets of cards, the confederates were asked to give unanimous incorrect answers - these were known as the critical trials. 

The real participant was always last or second last to answer.

The test was to see if the participant would conform to this wrong answer.

Results - An overall conformity rate of 32% across critical trials. 74% of participants conformed at least once, meaning 26% didn't conform at all. Only 5% conformed all the time.

Conclusion - Asch showed there was a strong tendency to conform even when the response was obviously wrong. This shows people feel social pressure to go along with the majority. It must also be remembered that 26% didn't conform at all, so some are better than others to resist that pressure to conform.

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Evaluating Asch's study of Conformity

  • Asch's study demonstrates Normative Social Influence as participants want to appear as 'normal' and like the majority, participants changed their behaviour to fit in with the majority and internalised the majorities answers into their own.
  • The experiment lacks mundane realism. The exerpiment has an interesting set up but it's still very artifical and doesn't mirror a real life situation. This affects validity as it is difficult to generalise the results.
  • It has experimental realism (participants believed in the experimental set-up and treated it as if it was real). Participants did believe this as they truly believed everything happening was real and this is good for the validity. 
  • The study was done in 1950's American, a time and place where there was high social conformity. Conforming was what was expected in this American era, people conformed and did what they were told - this therefore lacks the validity of the study.
  • The study is androcentric (all male participants) and fairly young. The sample used was a small precise sample group, therefore lacking population validity.

  • Ethical Issues were present as participants were put in a stressful situation and were decieved but these were justified as participants were later debriefed in depth. Despite some participants being stressed, it wasn't a life changing event. No long lasting physical or psychological harm affected any of the participants as it was all very mild stress. 
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Sherif's (1935) study of Conformity

Sherif conducted the first experiment on conformity in 1935.

He used a phenomenon called the autokinetic effect (automatic movement, this being an optical illusion to a stationary spot of light if seen in a dark room seems to be moving).

Sherif asked participants (who were unaware of this effect), to sit alone in a dark room and focus on the single point of light and then to estimate how far they thought the light had moved. When tested individually, the participants made variable estimates between each other.

However, when participants were placed in small groups of 3 and asked to give their estimates out loud, their responses had become more and more similar until they were virtually identical. A group norm had developed to which the participants conformed. 


Sherif has been criticsed for using a situation that was ambiguous. His experiment lacks mundane realism and doesn't reflect a real life scanerio.

Informational Social Influence is demonstrated here as it was unclear and they had no idea what to do and was based on our desire to be correct.

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Types of Conformity

Compliance - the most superifical ('fake') type of conformity.

  • The individual conforms publicily to avoid social disapproval, but maintains their own private opinion.
  • They therefore revert to their former behaviour and attitudes once they have left the situation.

Asch's study demonstrates Compliance.

Internalisation - This is the deepest type of conformity.

  • It represents a permanent change in the individual's behaviour and attidues and results from the views being internalised.
  • The individual is persuaded away from their previous view and behaviour and adopts the new view as their own, it becomes part of their value system.

 Sherif's study demonstrates Internalisation.

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Conformity Research

Asch -> Type of Conformity; Compliance -> Reason why people conform; Normative Social Influence.

Sherif -> Type of Conformity; Internalisation -> Reason why people conform; Informational Social Influence.

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Resisting Conformity

Explanations of resisting Conformity:

  • A need to be an individual - Sometimes we may wish to be like others, but all the time we have a need to retain our own individuality.
  • A need to maintain control - when 'giving in' to group pressure, we may feel that our personal control has been sacrificed. Therefore, we may be trying to hold onto the control we have.
  • Prior Commitment - People are generally less likely to change their opinion or conform to something if they have already displayed commitment to their view publicly to after, as coming across as indecisive can be embarrassing for some.
  • Time to think - Arnson (1999) suggests an appropriate tool for resisting pressure is to take time out to think about what we are doing. Finding support in ones final decision can be beneficial.  
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Resisting Conformity (cont.)

In Asch's study the conformity rate in the critical trials was 32%, so more of the time participants had resisted conforming. There could be certain dispositional factors on why some people are likely to resist conforming. Dispositional are reasons for behaviour that are caused by the individual.

One explanation for resistance could be Locus of Control.

Locus of Control - refers to people's beliefs about what controls events in their lives. There are 2 forms.

Internal locus of control - the belief the individual controls what happens to them.

External locus of control - the belief what happens to the individual isn't controlled by the individual but by facotrs outside of themselves, such as luck or a horoscope.

Those with high Internal Locus of Control are expected to show more resistance to conforming and being more independent. 

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Atgis (1998)

Atgis (1998) looked at other studies (carried out a meta analysis) that considered locus of control and conformity. He found there was a +0.37 correlation between having an external locus of control and conformity. While this correlation may seem small, it's quite significant. He also found that people with internal locus of control were less likely to demonstrate conforming behaviour.

This study was a correlational study therefore we cannot gather a Cause & Effect Relationship and say one thing caused another, there could be other factors contributing to the results.

Some people have a low need for the approval of others, this would reduce normative social influence as they don't have a need to be liked or accepted.

Individuals with high self-esteem behave more independently than those with lower self-esteem as they have more faith in themselves and feel confident when making their own decisions and opinions and don't need the approval of others. 

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Milgram's (1963) study

Aim: to find out whether ordinary people will obey a legitimate authroity even when required to inflict pain on another person. Milgram also wanted to test the hypothesis "The Germans are different".


  • Lab study conducted at Yale uni, using 40 male volunteers advertised in local newspaper. 
  • Participants were told the study concerned the role of punishment in learning. There was one confederate and one real participant. 
  • At the start of the experiment, the participant was told he would have to draw lots for who would take on the role of the teacher or learner. 
  • The selection was actually rigged so that every time the confederate drew the learner role and the participant drew the teacher. 
  • The learners task was to memorise pairs of words. When tested the learner would indicate his choice using a system of lights. The teachers' role was to administer an electric shock every time the learner made a mistake. The teacher sat in front of the shock generator that had 30 levers, each of which indicated the level of shock to be given.
  • The participants watched the learner being strapped into the electric chair in an adjoining room with electrodes attached to his arm. The participant was given an electric shock from the machine himself to show that it actually worked.
  • The learner, sat in another room, gave mainly wrong answers and recieved his shocks in silence until they reached 300volts. at this point, he pounded on the wall and then gave no response to the next question. He repeated this at 350v and from them on did and said nothing whereas no electric shocks were actually administered.
  • If the teacher asked to stop, the experimenter has a set of 'prods' to repeat, such as saying 'it is absolutely essential that you continue' or 'you have no other choice, you must go on'. The prods were identical for each participant and always repeated in the same order. If the participant refused to continue after the 4th prod, the experiment ended.
  • The experimenter continued until either the teacher refused to go on or until they reached 450 volts. The participant was then debriefed and taken to meet the confederate learner.


  • 65% of the participants continued to the maximum voltage. Only 5 participants stopped at 300 volts, when the learner first objected. Most participants found the procedure very stressful and wanted to stop with some showing signs of extreme anxiety. Many participants trembled, sweated and stuttered. 3 had seizures. 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. This suggests it's not evil people who commit evil crimes but ordinary people who are just obeying orders. 
  • Crimes against humanity may be the outcome of situational rather than dispositional factors. 
  • Germans are not different. 
  • An individuals capacity for making independent decisions is suspended under situational constraints - such as being given an order by an authority figure.
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Evaluation of Milgram's Obedience Study

  • Diane Boundmind (1964) - thought Milgram's study was unethical and unacceptable. It placed participants under too much emotional strain and pressure.
  • Ethics, Deception - participants were decieved into thinking it was a study for punishment, when it was a study into obedience.
  • Ethics, Psychological Damage - Milgram could have subjected participants to long term psychological damage.
  • Participants - from a small town (new haven) and were articial of the US population, an androcentric sample lacking population validity
  • Internal Validity (experimental realism) - Orne & Holland argued participants were going along with the act and didn't really believe they were given electric shocks...but, many showed physical and emotional harm.
  • Mundane Realism - Orne & Holland challenged the lab nature of the study suggesting it was unlike real life.
  • Lack of reflect to participants - causing harm.
  • John Dorley - argues possible conversion to doing more bad things? 



  • No Harm - Milgram's follow up questionnaires showed that 84% reflected they were glad to have taken part. Also, no evidence of long term harm was found.

  • Ethics, Careful Debriefing - Milgrim carried out sensible debriefing all participants.

  • Knowledge - Milgram asked psychiatrists, students and psychologists on the outcome, they said that 3% would go up to 450V.
  • Ethical Guidelines - based on Milgram's research, ethical guidelines were drafted to protect participants during research.
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