Social Influence

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Types of Conformity

Definition of conformity; conformity can be defined as: a type of social influence defined as a change in belief or behaviour in response to real or imagined social pressure.

Without it we would not have social norms and acceptable behaviour. We expect people to conform to these ‘normal’ behaviours and in turn we conform ourselves. However this does not mean that people cannot also behave independently, and independent behaviour that does not conform to established social norms is an essential mechanism for social change. 

Compliance; outward behaviour, a person goes along with the attitudes and viewpoints of the majority in order to be socially accepted. The person does not actually share the attitudes and viewpoints; he/she is merely appearing to do so. 

Internalisation; both an outward and an inward behaviour; a person adopts the viewpoints and attitudes of a group and makes them their own. The person conforms because they believe the group’s viewpoint. It is a deep behaviour that leads to attitude change.

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Explanations of Conformity

Normative social influence

Most instances of conformity to the influence of a majority are due to informational social influence. This means that individuals tend to adopt the behaviours of the majority of a group because they do not want to be left out. Individuals do not believe the majority, they simply comply in order to be accepted. An example might be a person who openly agrees with the racist views of his or her new work colleagues, but is not themself racist and does not believe racism is right. 

Informational social influence

When the situation is ambiguous, people have a tendency to conform to the majority because it is a source of information. In other words, if an individual is unsure as to the correct answer or behaviour then they tend to believe the majority opinion and behave accordingly. Individuals internalise the majority opinion because they want to be right. An example might be someone who cannot decide which way to vote in a general election who, after finding out how everyone else in their group is voting, starts to believe the opinion of the group and votes the same way.

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Explanations of Conformity; Sherif

Sherif (1935) - the auto kinetic effect This was one of the earliest studies of conformity. Sherif placed groups of three participants into a darkened room and projected a small stationary point of light onto a screen. In the auto kinetic effect, a stationary dot of light in a darkened room appears to move slightly and Sherif asked his participants to estimate how far the point of light was moving. Sherif found that when participants gave their initial estimates they were very different from one another, however when participants were told what other participants had estimated then the estimates became more similar over successive trials. Sherif concluded that people have an in-built tendency to conform to the group opinion rather than remain individual in their opinions. In other words when they are unsure about the correct answer, they will look to others as they may know more or be more skilled. This is especially the case when people do not have the information necessary to make their own opinions, but they still have the desire to be right. The participants had conformed due to informational social influence. 

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Explanations of Conformity; Sherif


  • Ambiguous stimulus; The auto kinetic effect is a particularly ambiguous stimulus as participants imagine that a stationary spot of light is moving when it is not. Because it was impossible for Sherif to measure how far it was moving, and because it was impossible to provide a ‘correct’ answer, then it was also impossible to say for certain that the participants in the experiment had actually conformed.
  • Ecological validity; The task used by Sherif is far from an everyday task that represents everyday life. It is hard to imagine that people would often discuss how far a point of light appears to be moving in a darkened room, and so the study lacks ecological validity.
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Majority Influence

Asch experiment test conformity in situation where correct answer was obvious. Recruited 123 male students Swarthmore College USA to participate in ‘vision test.’ Divided into groups of 5 to 7, all but one were confederates. Each group  4 to 6 confederates, 1 naive participant.

Each group shown set of 3 lines and separate reference line, group members task of simply stating which line was same length as reference line. Each set of lines one line was obviously same length as reference line, two were obviously different. Group members gave answer one after the other, real participant gave answer in next to last place. Each group performed task 18 times. On the first 2 trials the confederates answered correctly, but for 12 of the remaining 16 trials they answered incorrectly. These 12 trials were the ‘critical trials’ in the experiment.

The results of Asch’s experiment were astonishing considering that the stimuli used consisted of unambiguous lines in which participants must have know the correct answer. Participants conformed to the obviously incorrect answer given by the group majority on 32% of critical trials. 74% of participants conformed to the incorrect group majority at least once. Only 25% of participants did not conform at all.

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Factors Affecting Conformity

  • Size of the majority; group size reduced to two (one confederate); almost zero conformity. A majority of two confederates yielded a small degree of conformity, and groups with three or more confederates produced highest rates of conformity. This shows that groups with a majority of three or more people are sufficient to cause conformity even when the correct answer is obvious. 
  • Unanimity of the majority; instructed one of the confederates to go against majority and give correct answer. Conformity rates dropped and real participant less likely to conform to the obviously incorrect answer. Presence of another going against majority opinion lends social support, other group members less likely to feel alone and more likely to stick to own opinion. However, when the dissenting confederate wore glasses the reduction in conformity was less noticeable, perhaps because the opinion of a group member with eyesight difficulties was less valid in a task that required a visual judgement to be made.
  • Nature of the task; When the task was made more difficult then conformity rates increased. Shows that when more difficult, individuals more likely to refer to majority opinion and so conformity is more likely. 
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Evaluating Asch's Line Experiement

  • Conformity rate was only 32%; Asch reported results as an astonishing rate of conformity, participants conforming to an obviously incorrect answer in 32% of critical trials. Failed to acknowledge 68% of critical trials no conformity, perhaps study was more a measure of factors that lead to resisting a majority rather than those that make conformity more likely. 
  • Socio-political context; Study may have been measuring political feeling and fears at the time rather than the human tendency to conform. 
  • Population validity; The participants were all young male students from the same American university. This meant the results were not generalisable outside of the population sampled and did not apply to anyone other than male American college students. 
  • Ecological validity; Judging the length of lines is not really an everyday task that people regularly participate in. 
  • Ethical considerations; Participants were deceived into believing they were taking part in a ‘vision test’ and were not informed that it was a study of conformity. Not gaining informed consent is a breach of ethical guidelines, however very different results would have been produced had participants known the true nature of the study and so it could be argued that deception was necessary.
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Conforming to a Social Role

The Stanford prison experiment

Zimbardo; do guards behave violently because rigid power-based social structure within prison (situational), or because aggressive/sadistic personalities led to choose to become prison guards (dispositional)? Investigate difference between situational and dispositional factors in social roles, creating mock prison in basement of Stanford University. Recruited 12 participants play role of prison guards, 12 to play prisoners from pool of 75 male volunteers. Participants screened for psychological disorders, any without were selected. 16 rules prisoners expected to obey, guards expected to enforce, meal times. Guards given uniform shirt and sunglasses. Start; prisoners arrested, taken to prison; ***** searched, given uniforms.

Intention to observe, film prison life for 14 days, what went on so brutal/shocking, experiment terminated after 6 days. From beginning prisoners reacted to guard treatment by ripping clothes off/ shouting abuse. Guards responded by aggressive enforcement. Used fire extinguishers against prisoners, locked in dark cupboard, harassed, played off against each other. Prisoners became subdued, fell into submissive role, feared/respected guards. Guards enjoyed power associated with roles, use of aggression and harassment steadily increased. 

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Evaluating Conforming to a Social Role

Ordinary people did not appear sadistic, environment led to adopt aggressive behaviours. Guards and prisoners conformed to social roles situation placed in. Conformity to social roles powerful human behaviour, one that is hard to avoid. Deindividuation; behave like prison guard when in prison/wearing a uniform, not behave like it in personal life. Prison inmates will behave as prison inmates when in prison, but outside prison will not behave that way.

  • Demand characteristics; knew they were taking part in experiment/observed, playing what they believed the role expected of them. In real life situation may not have behaved in same way. Level of brutality more extreme than expected when acting a role, individual guards sometimes more sadistic to prisoners when they were alone without an audience
  • Ethical considerations; deliberately put participants into a situation that caused them physical and psychological harm. He stopped experiment when became dangerous, tried to minimise psychological harm; debriefing. Provided valuable insight into human behaviour.
  • Ecological validity; differences between study and real life. Prison officers apply for jobs not as participants in an experiment where they could be either guard or inmate. Prisoners all committed crimes in prison because they were convicted, not because part of an experiment. Prison officers have families, they do not work 24 hours a day.
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Explanations of Obeying Authority Figures

Agentic state; In obedience situation, pass all responsibility for their actions to the authority figure, they move into an agentic state when they pass this responsibility to the authority figure. Shift from autonomous state to agentic state called agentic shift. Milgram’s participants debriefed after original electric shock experiment, many reported they knew it was wrong to deliver dangerous electric shocks, but felt experimenter was responsible, not them. 

Gradual commitment; If people start small then it is easier to do something bad. Participants started administering 15 volt shock; small, relatively harmless. Shock levels gradually increased in 15 volt increments, did not become dangerous/particularly painful until several shock administered. Had participants been asked to deliver just one large shock, less likely they would have done so, since they started small, only a little step to next shock, and another little step to the one after that and so on. People gradually commit to doing bad things. It should be remembered that the task used in Milgram’s experiment lacked ecological validity meaning that the findings should be treated with caution when using them as definitive explanations for obedience in real life situations.

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Explanations of Obeying Authority Figures

The role of buffers;reduce immediacy and impact of orders given.

  • When the authority figure in different room to participant, obedience rates dropped to 20%. Harder to refuse order when authority figure is in close proximity.
  • Obedience rates highest when victim in different room to participant. When participant could see victim, obedience 40%, when victim close enough to touch, obedience 30%.
  • Environment orders given in; moved to an office building, obedience 48%. Orders followed if given in appropriate environment. 
  • Legitimate authority figures; experimenter dressed in lab coat. Symbol of legitimate power and experience, believe legitimate authority figure. Impression of legitimate authority;police officers, security guards, nurses and doctors. 
  • Power of uniform; make people more likely to obey orders was shown by Bickman. Three male actors in normal clothes, as a milkman, or as a security guard. Actors asked passersby to do things and passersby were most likely to obey the actor dressed as a security guard and least likely to obey the actor in normal clothes. This was a field experiment with high ecological validity, however it used anopportunity sample that makes the results difficult to generalise beyond the people that just happened to be passing by.
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Research Into Obeying Authority; Milgram

Milgram advertised for volunteers, specifically males aged 20-50, all backgrounds, excluding university/college students, to make results generalisable. Taking part in memory experiment. Carried out at Yale University, paid $4 on arrival. 40 male participants selected. Introduced in pairs to experimenter, drew straws to be teacher or learner. 1 of the pairs =confederate, straws rigged, real participant always teacher. Experimenter explained teacher would test learner’s memory. Learner answered incorrectly, give electric shock. Learner strapped to chair, wired up to shock generator. Teacher believed electric shock generator was real, given a 45 volt electric shock. Electric shock generator row of switches marked 15 to 450 volts with adjectives describing how severe shock was, and 435 and 450 volts were labelled “***”.

Participant in adjacent room unable to see learner and only hear him through loud speaker. Every time learner answered incorrectly, participant instructed by experimenter to deliver next highest electric shock. At 75 volts participant heard learner say, Ugh, 120 volts learner protested, Hey this really hurts, 150 volts learner distressed, asking to be let out, 270 volts screaming in agony, after 345 volts learner became silent. If participant hesitated to giving shock, experimenter used prods including, “The experiment requires you to continue.” No electric shocks given, learner responses tape recording.

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Variations on Milgram's Study

Milgram estimated 4% would obey maximum 450 volt shock, however 65% of participants delivered electric shocks up to 450 volts even though ‘learner’ went through the stages of protest, agony, and silence. Ordinary people will, under certain situational pressures, obey orders from authority figures even though they go against their conscience and moral values.

Variations on Milgram’s basic procedure:

Proximity of authority figure; orders by telephone rather than face to face, obedience rate dropped to 20%, when the authority figure is in a remote location it is easier for people to disobey.

Proximity of victim; when participant able to see victim, obedience rate 40%, if participant required to touch victim, 30%. Easier to follow order to harm if unable to see their victim.

Seedy office building; Moving from highly respected University to downtown office, obedience rate 48%. Location orders given effect on whether they are followed.

Social support from dissenting confederate; introduced confederate who disagreed with orders, participant no longer alone, had social support, easier to disobey. Rate 10%.

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Conclusions of Milgram's Study

Milgram concluded from his initial experiment and the variations that:

  • Ordinary people are astonishingly obedient to authority when asked to behave in an inhumane way
  • It is not necessarily 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
  • An individual’s capacity for making independent decisions is suspended under certain situational constraints – namely, being given an order by an authority figure

Seems ordinary person has capacity to commit abhorrent acts when placed under the right sort of situational pressure, person’s personality far less of a factor than situation they are in.

Variations provide valuable insights into situations that make it less likely a person will follow an order to commit an immoral act. If possible people put under pressure to act against their moral values should distance themselves from the authority figure, and they should look for social support from a friend.

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Evaluating Milgram's Study

  • Conducted as lab experiment; tight control of extraneous variables, possible to establish cause and effect, i.e. situational pressures caused obedience. 
  • Deceiving participants; believe delivering electric shocks that harm another person is extremely unethical, participants showed distress when urged to continue. However, all participants reported during debriefing they were glad to have taken part, gave them valuable insight into own behaviour.
  • All male Americans aged 20-50 from New Haven. Generalising findings to humans who are neither American, from New Haven, male, or aged 20-50 is impossible.
  • Lacked ecological validity; being ordered to give electric shocks during a memory experiment is an unrealistic situation. Obedience in a laboratory setting has, however, repeated by Kilham & Mann; higher levels of obedience in Germany, lower in Australia. 
  • Demand characteristics; reaction of experimenter probably unrealistic. Unlikely even the coldest authority figure would remain impassive when instructing someone to harm another person, participants may doubt realism of situation 
  • Generalisability; In real life, orders come from many types of authority figure, in many possible situations. Results from one situation hardly apply to the many different possible situations.
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Obedience in Real Life Settings

Hofling et al; obedience in a hospital setting. Investigated obedience among nurses to an order from a doctor. Nurses did not know they were taking part in a research study. During shift researcher telephoned ward, introduced as doctor, instructed nurse to administer patient with 20mg of Astroten drug nurses unfamiliar with. Standard hospital rules prohibited nurses from taking telephone orders from an unfamiliar doctor, administering a drug that was not on a list of permitted drugs, and administering drugs without a signed order from a doctor. Despite this, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the fake doctor’s orders and gave the drug. Before experiment, Hofling asked nurses whether they thought their colleagues would obey orders given, majority believed almost no obedience. When nurses interviewed after experiment, defended actions by arguing it was normal to follow orders of the nature in the experiment. Study highlighted pressure nurses often placed under to follow orders even though doing so breaks their professional rules, supports Milgram's findings.

Rank & Jacobson repeated experiment, this time increased realism of situation by using valium at three times recommended dose. When research pretending to be doctor telephoned, introduced himself as doctor nurses would have heard of, the nurses were in position of being able to discuss order with other nurses before carrying it out. 2 of 18 nurses followed order. Increased realism and discussion with colleague lowered obedience rates.

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Minority Influence leading to social change

Moscovici investigated whether consistent minority influence a majority to give an incorrect answer in a visual perception task. Groups of 6 asked to estimate colour of 36 slides. All slides were blue, varying shades, 2 were confederates. Two conditions: consistent condition 2 confederates slides were green. Inconsistent condition; slides were green 24 of 36 trials, blue other 12. Consistent condition conformed to minority 8.4% of the trials 1.3% in the inconsistent, 32% conformed at least once. Shows consistent minority can influence members of a majority to make an incorrect judgement.  According to Moscovici an influential minority must possess several behavioural characteristics to succeed in creating social change.  Consistency;  Consistent minority was almost eight times more successful than the inconsistent one.Commitment; A committed minority shows the majority just how much it believes in its cause. Persuasiveness; The ability to put across a persuasive argument that makes sense. Majority member must believe and internalise the argument so that it becomes their own.

If minorities did not exist, would go along with majority all the time, never be any change in society, no new ideas enter culture, no unfairnesses challenged, society never improve. Even when minority is wrong can have important influence in creating productive thinking among majority members of a society and social change can result.

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Why Yield to Minority Influence

The snowball effect; majority slowly move towards minority, minority grows in size gradually picks up momentum, more majority members convert to minority opinion. Eventually minority grows so large, becomes the majority.

In-groups and out-groups; describe people like us, out-group consists of people do not share same characteristics as us. Hogg & Vaughan argue; most likely to be influenced by members of our in-group.

Social cryptoamnesia; social change occurs in a society, attitude or opinion integral part of society’s culture, source of minority influence forgotten. 

Minority has effective message, creates conflict in minds of majority. Majority forced to examine minority message. Message internalised by majority members, said to have converted. Message is passed on to many other majority members through the snowball effect until the minority becomes the majority. In time, the source of the message is forgotten and all that remains is the new social norm. 

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Effect of Personality on Independent Behaviour

Locus of control

Rotter locus of control as type of personality. Internal; what happens is consequence of own behaviour, they succeed in stressful situations. External; what happens controlled by external factors, luck or fate, relatively helpless in stressful situations.

Holland used Milgram’s study investigate link between locus of control and obedience, no relationship. Blass reanalysed found people with internal locus of control more likely to resist obeying. Participants with internal locus of control especially resistant to obedience if suspected being manipulated by the experimenter.

Schurz; Austrian participants asked to give increasingly painful bursts of ultrasound to learner, highest level could cause skin damage, no link between locus of control and obedience among 80% of participants that went to maximum ultrasound level. Participants classed as internal locus of control tended to take more responsibility.

Blass reviewed many studies, concluded no clear link between the two, studies supported link others didnt. Evidence participants with internal locus of control more able to resist pressures to obey.

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Effect of Gender on Independent Behaviour

Milgram found men and women equally obedient. Conducted one study small sample 40 female participants, reported higher levels of stress than males, women more empathetic. Meta-analysis of 9 studies using Milgram’s study on male and female participants, 1 study reported significant difference in levels of obedience; 40% men, 16% women. 

Doesn't appear real difference in ability to resist. Early research females more conformist, less independent. Tasks used gender biased towards male interests/abilities, unsurprising females conform more.

Sistrunk & McDavid conformity rates to typically male and female items; exposed  to social pressures to conform when identifying typically male and female items. Three conditions: stereotypically male items- mechanic’s tools, female items- sewing equipment, gender neutral items- popular rock stars. Males conformed more identifying female items, females more when males items, conformed equally when neutral items. Shows problem of researching effect of gender on independent behaviour, explains why females may appear to conform more.

 Conformity higher among females due to the social roles expected to conform. Western cultures, men strong and independent in stressful situations, women agreeable and supportive. Women conform more in public situations, pressured to fit into role expected, in private situations less difference in conformity between males and females.

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Effect of Culture on Independent Behaviour

Asch criticised as child of its time, conformity rates change dependent on social and cultural pressures present at the time. Perrin & Spencer repeated Asch’s experiment with British university students on science and mathematics courses, found lower rates of conformity. Repeated again, but participants were young offenders, confederates recruited from probation officers, found similar rates of conformity to original Asch experiment.

British students; used to making judgements about physical properties of things conformed less. British young offenders; unwilling not to conform, feared sanctions from probation officers more likely to conform. Perrin & Spencer concluded social and political situation in has considerable influence tendency to conform.

Smith & Bond found people in individualistic cultures; American/British, more likely behave independently than those from collectivist cultures;China/Japan. Collectivist cultures, group decision making highly valued, individualistic cultures people more concerned with independent success than well-being of community. 

Culture affect levels of independent behaviour in terms of culture and in terms of the situation within the culture at the time

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Resisting Pressure to Conform

Ability to resist pressures to conform. Actively behaves how feel is right and pleases them, disobeys orders when feel are unjustified.

  • Desire to retain individuality; want to be different to other people around us, to be individuals rather than members of a group. Western cultures; people may feel uncomfortable if they are the same as others around them all the time. Snyder & Fromkin compared American students. One group; attitudes same as 10,000 other students, other group told attitude very different to 10,000. Attitude the same- more likely to resist conforming. Students believe conforming attitude; effort to assert individuality.
  • Desire to maintain control; feel they have control over things that happen to them, if pressured may feel their control is threatened. Burger; rating scale classify people high or low desire to control. Low desire more happy to get help with puzzle. High control reacted with irritation at offer of help, felt ability to be individual was being threatened.
  • Prior commitment to making public opinion; expressed in public less likely to change opinion than opinion kept private, Create commitment to idea that people dont want to change.
  • Time to think/find social support; consider whether to conform- more likely to resist conforming. Swept along by social pressure, time to think perhaps resist that pressure.
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Resisting Pressure to Obey

Factors that make obedience to an authority figure less likely

  • Feeling responsible and empathetic; some of Milgram’s participants refused to continue delivering electric shocks thought the victim was distressed. When participants able to see victim, obedience dropped to 40%.
  • Disobedient role models; In Milgram’s experiment, participants found it easier to refuse to obey the order to give electric shocks when they could see another participant also disobey.
  • Questioning motives and status of authority; able to question the legitimacy of an authority figure, they find it easier to remain independent. Milgram moved his experiment to an office building, obedience rates dropped to 48%- status of  building; idea authority figure was less legitimate.
  • Reactance;  psychological process of doing the opposite to what is being asked. Results from overly harsh attempts to restrict a person’s freedom so that eventually the person reacts in a negative way.
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