Social Influence in Everyday Life


Independent Behaviour

Explanations of independent behaviour including locus of control, how people resist pressures to conform and how people resist pressures to obey authority

'Independant behaviour refers to behaviour that is not altered despite pressures to conform or obey'

  • Independent behaviour was demonstrated in Asch's study (24% never conformed) and Milgram's research (35% refused to carry on to 450volts)

Locus of Control - Rotter (1966)

The term locus of control refers to individual differences in people's beliefs and expections about what controls events in their life. There are two extremes;

  • Those with a high internal LOC believe that what happens to them is largely a consequence of thier own behaviour. A strong internal locus of control is associated with the belief that one can control much of one's life and succeed in difficult or stressful situations. Someone with a high internal LOC accepts responsabiliy for their actions and are therefore more likely to be independent. They are less likely to conform and less likely to be obedient 
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Independent Behaviour

  • Those with a high external LOC tend to believe 'things happen to them' and are largely uncontrollable. Luck and fate are seen as important factorn. People with a high external LOC tend to face stressful situations with a more passive and fatalistic attitude. They beleive that their actions have little impact and are therefore less likely to conform and more likely to obey

Those with a high internal locus of control are more lieky to actively participate in attempty to bring about change in society, often involving some degree of sacrafice and sometimes person risk to themselves. They do this because they believe that their actions can bring about a worthwhile outcome. For example;

  • African-American college students who participated in civil rights activities in the early 1960's were higher on internal LOC than those who weren't interested in taking part (Gore and Rotter 1963)
  • Atgis (1998) carried out a meta analysis of studies which showed that those who scored higher on external LOC were more easily persuaded and more likely to conform than those with a low score. The average correlation between LOC and conformity was 0.37 which was statistically significant
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Independent Behaviour

  • Holland (1967) investigated the relationship between LOC and obedient behaviour and found no association. However, the data from the study has been re-analysed using more sophisticated statistical tests by Blass (1991). He found those with an internal LOC were more likely to resist pressures to obey. Blass concludes that research findings in this area are unclear, with some studies finding no relationship between LOC and obedience and others finding some relationship between LOC and obedience
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How people resist pressures to conform

1. The presence of allies

  • If there are others in a group who do not comply with the majority, conformity will decrease and independence will increase. This can be explained in terms of the social support provided by a fellow dissenter. This makes the individual feel more confident in their own decision and more confident in rejecting the majority. This suggests it is importand to break the unanimity of the majority - if they don't all agree their impact is reduced
  • This was demonstrated in a variation of Asch's study. When the participant was in a group with another participant or confederate who gave the correct response, conformity levels dropped from 32% to 5.5%. When the dissenter gave the other incorrect response conformity dropped from 32% to 9%. Allen and Levine (1971) also found that even if the dissenter wore thick glasses and admitted to sight problems , conformity rates dropped

2. Desire for individuation

  • We may wish to be like others some of the time but not wish to be exactly like them all of the time. This desire to maintain a sense of our own individuality sometimes outweights pressures to conform. In Western cultures, people may feel uncomfortable if they appear like everyone else
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How people resist pressures to conform

  • Snyder and Fromkin (1980) led one group of American students to believe that their most important attitudes were different from those of 10,000 other students. A second group was told that their most important attitudes were almost identical to those of 10,000 others. When the second group was later put into a conformity study, they resisted pressures to conform

3. Moral Considerations

  • Much of the conformity research involves judgement about physical reality. In these situations, the costs of abandoning personal views are relatively minor when compared to the benefits achieved as a consequence of fitting in with the majority
  • However, if the task involves judgements with a moral dimension, the cost to personal integrity may be considerably higher
  • A study to support this was performed by Hornsey et Al (2003). Participants showed remarkably little movement towards the majority on attitudes that had moral significance for the individual (e.g. cheating)
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How people resist pressures to conform

4. Desire to maintain control

  • Most people want to hold onto the idea that they can control events in their lives. If we experience obvious group pressure, we may feel that our personal control and freedom have been threatened. People differ in the extent to which thet desire to maintain control
  • Burger (1992) found that people with a high need for personal control and more likely to resist conformity pressures than those with a lower need
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How people resist pressures to obey

1. Waking from the agentic state (feeling responsible and empathetic)

  • If a person feels responsible for their actions, they are far less likely to obey
  • In one or Milgram's trials, there were two dissenters who refused to continue at 210volts and at 240volts. Both had lived in Nazi occupied territories during the second world war. One said they stopped because 'perhaps we have seen too much pain' and the other said it felt 'cowardly' to assign responsibility for his actions to the experimenter
  • Milgram explained that personal and related experience may make people more likely to 'wake' from their moral sleeping and to resist the agentic state. Milgram suggested that by informing people about experiments such as his may help to reduce destructive obedience. 

2. Social Support/Disobedient Role Models

  • If an individual joins with others to resist, or is presented with the example of others resisting than disobedience is more likely
  • In one Milgram trial, two confederates joined the 'subject'. When the two confederates refused to continue, obedience in the one naive participant to continue to 450volts fell to 10%
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How people resist pressures to obey

3. Questioning the motives and status of authority

  • Questioning the motives, legitimacy and expertise of the authority figures reduces the rate of obedience
  • For example, when one of Milgrams studies was transferred tp a run-down office block, the levels of obedience dropped. This because the lack of prestigious surroundings made it easier for participants to question the legitimacy of the experimenter

4. Time for discussion

  • If people have time to make a decision and opportunities to discuss an order, they are more likely to disobey. Gamson et at found that 32/33 groups refused to go along with unjust authority. They had plenty of time for discussion

Gamson et al

  • Volunteers were paid to take part in a paid group discussion on 'standards of behaviour in the community' They were put into groups of 9 and met by a consultant from a fictional human relations company (MHRC)
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How people resist pressures to obey

  • The consultant explained that MHRC was conducting research for an oil company which was taking legal action against a petrol station manager.  They argued that the manager had been sacked because his lifestyle was offensive to the local community. In contrast, the manager argued that he had been sacked for speaking out on local television against high petrol prices
  • Participants were asked to take part in filmed group discussions about the sacking. It became apparent that their own views were irrelevant and the HR company wanted them to argue in favour of the sacking. The cameraman would stop filming at certain points and ask them to argue in favour of the sacking. Participants were then asked to sign a consent form allowing the film to be used in court
  • 32/33 groups rebelled in some way during the group discussion. In 25 of the groups, the majority refused to sign the consent form. 9 groups threatened legal action against the MHRC


  • Gamson's research has a high level of realism. Participants behaviour was likely to be free from demand characteristics as they were unaware of participating in a research study
  • It is difficult to seperate the many factors that may have led to disobedience in this research
  • There are a number of ethical issues involved in this study. Participants were decieved and did not give full informed consent
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Social Change

  • To have social change, people in a society or social group need to behave differently
  • Pressure to conform to majority influence generally prevents social change. Normative and informational social influence encourage people to go along with the majority and this encourages status quo (no change)
  • However, there is evidence that under certain circumstances a minority (small group) can create social change. One example of this is the suffragette movement in the 1920's. A minority view eventually became a majority view
  • Another example was Rosa Parks in 1953. She was a black woman who refused to give up her bus seat for a white man. At that time in Alabama, USA, this was illegal. The action of this single woman 'lit a fuse in the black community' and led to the rise of civil rights movements. Nine years later, segregation was banned in the USA
  • These models were effective in prodicing social change because society was ready for these changes. This is known as a zeitgeist (spirit of the time)

For social change to happen, the minority group should be;

  • Consistent in their views - a confident minority are more likely to affect the majority
  • Flexible and willing to compromise
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Social Change

  • Another explanation for minority influence is the snowball effect. Once a few members of the majority start to move towards the minority position, the influence starts to gather momentum
  • Minority groups influence majority groups through a process called social cryptoamnesia. Minority ideas are assimilates into the majority viewpoint without the majority remembering where the ideas came from
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