Social Influence

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Social Influence Definitions

  • Conformity - A change in a person's behaviour or opions as the result of group pressure
  • Obedience - Following the orders of someone we believe to have authority (could be real or percieved authority figure
  • Social Loafing - Putting less effort into doing something when you are with others doing the same thing
  • Deindividuation - The state of losing our sense of individuality and becoming less aware of our own responsibility for our actions
  • Bystander intervention - When a witness of an incident, where a person needs help, goes to help the person
  • Social - Refers to interpersonal interaton (social psychologists are interested in the way people affect each other)
  • Social influence - The effect other people have on our behaviour (includes conformity, obedience and social influence)
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Why do we conform?

  • Consciously - we may look to friends for guidance when we are unsure of how to act
  • Unconsciously - we may copy the way others dress or even mirror their body language in certain situations

Deutsch and Gerrard (1955)

Firstly we have a need to be right - so if a situation is 'ambiguous' we check what others are doing before we act. In doing so we assume others are right and so we copy them.

Secondly, we have a need to be liked - we want to be accepted socially and be part of various groups, so we say and do what others in the group are.

  • Normative social influence - when we want to be liked by the other people in a group: we want to feel accepted by them and not be left out.
  • Informative social influence - using the behaviour of the people around us for information when we are in an ambiguous situation and are unsure of how to act. We might regard these people as 'experts' and may copy their behaviour.
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Factors that affect conformity

  • To fit in
  • To be accepted
  • We are unsure of how to act
  • To be liked
  • Not to be ridiculed
  • As humans, we are naturally curious/always want to be right
  • We are scared to take risks
  • Low self esteem
  • Peer pressure
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Asch (1951)

Aim: To find out if an individual would conform to the group even if they knew the group was wrong

Method: Asch devised a number of laboratory experiments with groups of six to nine participants (all male college students). There was one naive participant and the rest were confederates who had been told to give wrong answers on certain trials. The task was for participants to judge the length of lines (they were told that it was a test of visual perception - this is an element of deception). Asch showed the groups lines of different lengths and asked them to match the test line to one of the comparison lines (A, B, or C). The answer was clearly obvious. The participant was one of the last to give his judgement.

Results: In control group trials, when participants were tested alone (and so there was no pressure to conform), there were very few wrong answers. But Asch found that when they became part of a group, 25% of participants conformed to the rest of the group on most of the occasions when the group was wrong. Overall, 75% of participants conformed to the wrong answer at least once. The average rate of conformity was 32%

Conclusion: Asch concluded that the participants' behaviour is representative of conformity. Participants conformed to fit into the group and not be ridiculed, even though the people in the group were strangers.

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Evaluation of Asch (1951)

  • Participants were deceived about the true nature of the investigation: they were told it was a study on perceptual judgement. However, the deception was necessary: if they had been told it was a study of conformity the bahaviour wouldn't have been natural and participants might have displayed demand characteristics.
  • The participants were confused and embaressed. It was wrong to cause participants any physical or psychological pain. This ethical guideline is known as the protection of participants.
  • The method used was a laboratory experiment. An advantage is that variables can be controlled and it can be easily replicated (Asch did several variations of his original experiment). A disadvantage is that laboratory experiments lack ecological validity: this means that the findings cannot be generalised to other people, places or settings.
  • The sample only consisted of white, American male college students, which means that it is not a representative sample.
  • The nature of this task was artificial. It is not an everyday task to judge the length of lines, so it could be argued that both the task and the behaviour were artificial.
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Sherif (1935)

Aim: To discover thhe effect of judgement on listening to other people.

Method: He asked participants to estimate how far a spot of light moved when they were sitting in an otherwise completely dark room. In fact, the light didn't move at all, but owing to an optical illusion called autokinetic effect, it did appear to.

Results: Individually the participants gave a variety of estimates, which differed quite widely from each other's. However, after being allowed to undertake the same task in groups of three, their estimates became more similar until finally they were very close.

Conclusion: The participants used other people's opinions to help them form a judgement in an ambiguous situation.


  • Easy to carry out and replicate
  • Limited sample
  • Laboratory experiment
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Factors influencing conformity

In further trials, Asch found that the following factors influenced conformity:

  • Group size - levels of conformity were affected by the number of people in the group; however, it doesn't increase in groups larger than four, so it is considered the optimal group size.
  • Anonymity - when participants could write their answers down as opposed to announcing them publicly, conformity levels dropped. This suggests that individuals conform because they are concerned about what other people think of them.
  • Unamimity - when one other person in the group gave a different answer to the others, and therefore the group answer was not unanimous, conformity dropped. This was true even if that person's answer also seemed to be wrong.
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  • Obedience means following the orders of someone we perceive to be in a position of authority. Under normal circumstances this would be acceptable. However, history is littered with situations where authority figures have given people unreasonable orders with terrible consequences
  • Interestingly then, psychologists are concerned with finding out why we obey even when the orders we are given makes us do things we feel are wrong.

Obedience:                                                       Conformity:

Occurs within heirarchy, we do what someone       Regulates the bahaviour among those of equal

tells us because we perceive them to be 'above'     status. Emphasis is on acceptance


Bevaviour adopted is not necessarily the same      Often occurs amongst our peers; we go along

as the authority figure                                         with another or other to be part of 'their group'

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Milgram (1963)

Aim: Milgram was interested in discovering why so many Germans were obdient to the Nazi authority figures during World War II

Method: 40 male participants between the ages of 20 and 50 volunteered to take part in what they thought was an experiment about memory and learning.

They were introduced to a confederate and told they were paired with him. They then had to pick of a hat to see who would play the role of the teacher and who would play the role of the learner. This was actually fixed so the confederate was always the learner.

The participants were made to believe they were giving electric shocks to the 'learner' every time he got an answer wrong. However, the shocks were no real, the participant did not know this and was given a 45 volt shock to make it seem more real. They were seated in front of a 'shock generator' that had 30 switches marked 15 volts to 450 volts.

The 'learner' had to remember pairs of words and the participants had to deliver a shock that increased in severity with each mistake the 'learner' made. As the shocks increased, the participant heard the 'learner' groan in pain, protest and eventually yell to be released. This was just a recording. After doing a lot of yelling, the 'learner' fell silent. This made the participant want to stop,

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Milgram (1963) - continued

Method (continued): so the experimenter (dressed in a lab coat), would provide verbal prods such as, 'The experiment requires that you continue.'

Results: Prior to the experiment, Milgram asked psychologists how far they thought the participants would go. The consensus was that no more than 1% of them would deliver the 450 volt shock. However, despite the participants suffering a lot of distress (three of them actually had a seizure), they all delivered 300 volts, and 65% of them went all the way to 450 volts.

Conclusion: People are prepared to obey quite extraordinary orders if they think the person giving them is in a position of authority.


  • The participants suffered distress during the experiment and three of them had seizures. It is unethical to cause this much distress to participants and the experiment should have been stopped. However, Milgram argued that there was no way he could have predicted the results. 
  • The method used was a laboratory experiment. An advantage of this is that it can be replicated (which Milgram did) and the variables can be controlled. The disadvantages include
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Milgram (1963) - continued

Evaluation (continued):

  • the fact that it is an artificial environment and task, so the study lacks ecological validity, which means that it cannot be generalised to other people, places or settings.
  • Participants were deceived as to the true nature of the investigation, also to the fact that the 'learner' was a confederate and that the shocks weren't real. However, deception was necessary as, if they had known the real aim of the investigation, there wouldn't have been any point in doing it.
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Reasons for obedience

  • Buffers - this is anything that prevents those who obey from being aware of the full impact of their actions. In the original study, the wall was a buffer between the teacher and the 'learner'; when they were both in the same room, obedience levels dropped. If you are shielded or cannot see the person, you don't feel responsible.
  • Socialisation - we generally are taught throughout our lives to obey authority figures such as parents and teachers.
  • Legitimate authority - uniforms (such as white coats in Milgrams experiment) give people faith in the person telling them what to do.
  • Gradual commitment - you start out small but the commitment grows and you can't back out
  • Not feeling responsible - If the person is acting on behalf of someone we feel it is their responsibility, not ours.
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Factors that affect obedience

  • Prestige - When the setting was moved to a run-down offie, obedience levels dropped as the original study was conducted at a very prestigious university.
  • Surveillance - When the experimenter left the room, and also when he gae orders via telephone, obedience levels dropped. Participants were less likely to follow orders as they didn't have the physical presence of the experimenter there.
  • Authority - When the experimenter didn't appear as a figure of authority and wasn't wearing a labcoat, obedience levels dropped. Milgram suggested that when individuals feel that another person has authority over them, they no longer feel responsible for their actions and become an agent of the authority.
  • Personal responsibility - When the participant had to force the learners hand onto the shock plate, he had more responsibility for his suffering and so obedience levels dropped.
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Hofling et al (1966)

Aim: To see if people would follow an unreasonable order in their normal work environment.

Method: Hofling contacted 22 nurses individually by phone. Claiming to be a doctor, he instructed them to give a patient twice the maximum dosage of a drug called 'Astrofen'.

Results: Of the 22, 21 were prepared to follow his orders, despite the maximum dosage being clearly marked on the bottle.

Conclusion: Nurses are likely to obey the instructions of a doctor even when there may be bad consequences for a patient.


  • It was in an everyday setting but the drug used was not a real drug, and the nurses weren't allowed to discuss requests with anyone. This made the study less realistic, despite the apparent normality of the situation.
  • It lacks ecological validity.
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Bickman (1974)

Aim: He wanted to know if people would be more likely to obey an order if it came from someone in a uniform.

Method: He had actors dress as either a security guard or just in a casual jacket. They each asked people sitting in a park to pick up some litter. 

Results: What he found was that 80% of people obeyed the 'guard' compared with 40% when the actor wasn't wearing a uniform.

Conclusion: Wearing a uniform will increase the sense that a person is a legitimate authority figure.


  • It is a field study and is considered to have resonably good ecological validity.
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Practical implications of obedience

  • Knowledge of how and why people obey is useful in helping us to understand individuals behaviour (e.g. Nazi Soldiers)
  • However, their 'behaviour was unacceptable but in some regard understandable' - Philip Zimbardo
  • To the present day there is still chilling evidence that human beings can do the most terrible things (e.g. Abhu Ghraib prison in Iraq)
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Social Loafing

  • When people put less effort into a task that is being performed with others
  • When working in groups individuals tend to reduce their own level of effort... This is commonly known as th Ringleman effect
  • The more people = the less effort
  • Max Ringleman (1913/27) found that the collective effort of a tug of war team was only half the sum of the individuals
  • Conclusion: The sum of parts is greater than the whole (also known as social loafing)

Practical implications:

  • Any situation where groups are working together, there is the likelihood that some will work harder than others (e.g. in Sports situations or group work in school)
  • Should be taken into consideration when training or managing groups of people - distibute tasks to get maximum input from all members (Application of social loafing)
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Latane et al (1979)

Aim: To test the idea of social loafing

Method: Participants were split into two conditions that involved them shouting and clapping loudly. In one condition they were on their own; in another they were with four or six other people. Participants had to wear headsets so that they didn't know how much noise the others were making. Inverstigators recorded the amount of noise that was made.

Results: The results showed that the more people there were in the group, the less was the effort made by each individual. The output of sound when working with five others was reduced to about one third of their output when alone.

Conclusion: The participants made less effort in groups because other people were contributing to the task. This is an example of social loafing.


  • Laboratory setting - artificial tasks so leads to low ecological validity.
  • Issue of demand characteristics
  • Research only conducted on people from one culture; suggests other cultures could differ
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Earley (1989) and Factors affecting social loafing

He compared American and Chinese participants. He found Americans lost motivation in groups and the Chinese did not. It may be explained by individualistic culture (individual over culture) vs collectivist culture (the group above the individual).

Other studies suggest that social loafing may affect men more than women, as males are generally more competitive.

Culture can be a factor - some societies are naturally more aware of the needs of others than their own.

Factors that affect social loafing:

  • Size of the group
  • Nature of the task
  • Culture
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  • Loss of social awareness and sense of personal responsibility
  • As a result of feeling anonymous, you engage in behaviour that you would normally refrain from. This has been used as an explanation for crowd violence.
  • Deindividuation = physical anonymity + diminished self awareness = individuals become a whole, with its own heart, morals and lack of accountability.

Factors affecting Deindividuation:

  • Mood of the crowd
  • Anonymity (hiding identity)
  • Wearing a uniform
  • Being part of a group/gang

Application: CCTV


  • Why we wear uniforms (become part of a group/school/company)
  • Training of troops
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Implications of Deindividuation

Ehen people wear a uniform, they stop behaving as themselves (as an individual). The consequence of this is they adopt the behaviour of the business/school that the uniform represents.

One of the reasons students wear uniform is because it makes it harder for them to act independently and so it is easier to control them via a set of rules that apply to everyone.

Deindividuation tells us that uniforms are important because it means they stop behaving like an individual and instead adopt the behaviour that business/school uniform represents. This is most likely good behaviour.

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Zimbardo (1969)

Aim: To test the idea of deindividuation

Method: Using female participants in groups of four, participants had to give electric shocks to Philip Zimbardo's confederates.

The participants believed that they were taking part in a learning exercise. There were two conditions: in one the women wore hoods and identical coats (so that they were anonymous); in the other they wore their own clothes with name tags on and spoke to each other using their own names.

Results: Zimbardo found that the anonymous women were twice as likely to give shocks compared with the women wearing their own clothes.

Conclusion: Zimbardo concluded that if people know that they cannot be identified (have anonymity) they are more likely to behave aggressively.

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Zimbardo (1969) - Different Study

Aim: To see if people in a big city behave in a more antisocial way than people in a small town.

Method: He parked a car in each place with its bonnet up, as if it had broken down, and observed what people did as they passed by.

Results: Immediately people began stealing part off the car in New York, and within 2 weeks, there was very little left of it. In Palo Alto, the only time the car was touched was when someone lowered the bonnet to stop the engine getting wet when it was raining.

Conclusion: The deindividuation caused by living in a big city leads to an increase in antisocial behaviour.

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Bystander Behaviour

It involves:

  • Bystander Apathy - not doing anything
  • Bystander intervention - getting involved

Can lead to:

  • Diffusion of responsibility - in a group of people, there is less need to act because someone else who is present could also do something

One factor affecting if we help someone is the characteristics we have in common with the victim/how we feel about the person.

Cost of helping - the decision to help is driven by the costs and rewards. If the costs are higher than the rewards, they may do nothing. It is altuistic not to consider the costs. (what will it cost them in time, money or both)

Altruism - Helping someone without thinking of yourself, sometimes at great cost.

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Latene and Darley (1968)

Aim: To test the concept of diffusion of responsibility

Method: They tested this concept by asking students to sit in booths and communicate with each other via an intercom. They had a number of different conditions, which were as follows:

  • The participant believed that there was only one other person in the booth
  • The participant believed that there were two other people in the booth
  • The participant believed that there were five other people in the booth.

After the discussion had started, one of the others (a confederate) mentioned that he was epileptic. After a few minutes, he pretended that he was having a seizure.

Results: (percentage of participants who responded within the first four minutes)

  • When the participants thought there was only one person in the booth = 85%
  • When the participants thought there were 2 people in the booth = 62%
  • When the participants thought there were 5 people in the booth = 31%

Conclusion: When the participant thought that they were alone with the confederate, they were far

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Latene and Darley (1968) - continued

Conclusion (continued): more likely to help, compared with the participants who believed that they were in a larger group. This is an example of diffusion of responsibility, which supports the idea that as the number of bystanders increases, the less chance the victim has of receiving help, as the responsibility for the help is shared or diffused among them all.

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Latene and Darley (1968) - Different Study

Aim: To test the concept of pluralistic ignorance

Method: There were two conditions. In the first condition, participants were asked to sit in a room and complete a questionnaire on the pressures of urban life. The experimenter then arranged for smoke (actually steam) to pour into the room through a vent in the wall. The participants were watched through a one-way mirror and were timed as to how long it took them to report the smoke. The experiment was stopped at six minutes.

In the second condition, the procedure was as above, but participants were in a group with the confederates. When the participants asked them what they thought was happening, they replied, "Dunno." to all questions.

Results: Only 10% reported the smoke within 6 minutes when there were passive others in the room (compared with 75% when alone).

Conclusion: This is a clear example of pluralistic ignorance. People didn't want to over-react in the presence of others. We use their behaviour as guidance: if they appear to be calm, then there musn't be a problem.

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Piliavin et al (1969)

Aim: To test how bystanders behaved when put in a situation where a 'victim' (a confederate) needed help. Piliavin et al were also testing the concept of diffusion of responsibility.

Method: The procedure invloved two male confederates playing a victim who collapsed on the subway in New York. The participants were the passengers on the train (an opportunity sample). The different conditions were as follows:

  • The victim was either black or white
  • The victim was either carrying a cane (blind) or appeared to be drunk
  • In each condition there was a helper (confederate) who waited a certain amount of time before intervening if none of the participants did.

The were observers in the carriage who recorded how long it took people to help and if any comments were made.


  • The cane victim was more likely to receive help than the other victim and was helped immediately in almost every trial regardless of his race.
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Piliavin et al (1969) - continued

Results (continued):

  • The drunk victim was helped 30% of the time before the helper model intervened
  • The drunk victim was more likely to be helped by somebody of the same race
  • The victim (who was always male) was more likely to be helped by males than females
  • The number of bystanders had little effect on the rate of helping (so no diffusion of responsibility)

Conclusion: Piliavin suggested that the cost of helping is a factor affecting bystanders behaviour. The person will help is the costs were low (e.g. time, danger, inconvenience, etc.). For example, the cane victim received far more help because the costs of helping were lower than the drunk victim (for example, danger, embaressment). 

There was no evidence of pluralistic ignorance in this study.

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Bateson (1981)

Aim: To test the idea that if people felt high empathic concern for another person, they would help another person who appeared to be in distress.

Method: Participants were introduced to a confederate called Elaine. The participants were told that they were either similar to Elaine (the high empathy condition) or dissimilar to her (the low empathy condition). Participants then watched as Elaine received a number of electric shocks. After a while, Elaine appeared to become distressed and upset. Participants were then asked to make a decision. They could either take Elaine's place and receive the electric shocks instead of her or leave the experiment. 

Results: Those participants that were in the high empathy condition were more likely to take Elaine's place, even when they were given the chance to leave. Those participants in the low empathy condition were more likely to leave.

Conclusion: This demonstrates how being empathic (being able to experience the emotions of another person by imagining ourselves in their position) can lead to altuistic behaviour. The higher the empathy, the moe likely that altuistic behaviour will occur.

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Social Influence in the world

  • Conformity - Jury decision making (difficult to disagree with the majority)
  • Obedience - Challenger (space shuttle) disaster (engineers thought it would explode but were persuaded not to say anything)
  • Social loafing - Business and Sport (individuals will not put in the effort when working in a group)
  • Bystander intervention - Murder of James Bulger (1993) (when there are people around and nobody does anything, other individuals fail to act)
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