Social Influence



Conformity: A change in a person's behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people.

Compliance is the weakest level of conformity. This is when a person may publicaly show themselves to go alond with the behaviour of the group to gain their approval or to avoid disapproval. Internally however their opinons may be different and this conformity may happen only when in the presence of the group. 

Identification is deeper than compliance but weaker than internalisation. An individual may adjust their behaviour and opinions publicly and privately due to accepting the group's viewpoint and wanting to belong to the group. This may only be temporary however and their behaviour changes when they leave the group.

Internalisation is the deepest form of conformity and is also known as 'true conformity'. This is when an individual adjusts their behaviour and beliefs because they come to accept a viewpoint as true. 

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Explanations for conformity: NSI

NSI: An explanation of conformity that says we agress with the opinion or the makority in order to gain approval or avoid social disapproval. This leads to compliance.

Key study: Asch (1995)

Asch gathered 123 male student volunteers to take part in a laboratory experiment fo what they believed to be a test of vision. Participants were shown a stimulus line and then three other lines known as A, B or C. They were asked one by one to say out loud which of the 3 sets of lines shown from A, B or C matched the original stimulus line they were shown. All except one student were confederates which were primed to give the same incorrect responses. The real participant always answered last or second to last in their response after having observed the confederates' answer.

Results: In control trials without confederates, participants gave incorrect responses approximately 0.7% of the time. In critical trials, 37% of real participants conformed to the majority group's incorrect answer. 75% of real participants conformed at least once in the experiments. 

Evaluations: +Lab study; - Not generalisable; - Conformity rates not high; - Unethical.

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Explanations for conformity: ISI

ISI: A form of influence, which an individual adopts the desire to be right - look to others as a way of getting evidence about whether it's right. Leads to internalisation.

ISI key study: Sherif (1935)

  • Placed participants in a dark room and subjected them to the auto-kinetoc effect. This illusion shows a still point of light appearing to move and participants were asked to estimate how far they believed the light had moved. They estimated individually and as a group. 
  • Same findings as Jenness (1932)

ISI key study: Jenness (1932)

  • Participants tasked with estimating the number of jellybeans contained in a jar and made an initial independnt estimate. Then had a group discussion and then presented the group estimate. Then they did a second individual private guess.
  • Findings: Individuals second guess converged towards group estimate. Women conformed more than men. 
  • Evaluations: + Lab experiment; - Ethical issues (deception); - Only focuses on ambiguous tasks.
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Factors affecting conformity

Group size

  • Asch found with only confederate that conformity was 3%. With two confederates this raised to 13%. With three confederates and one participant this raised to 33%.
  • A meta analysis by Bond et al of 133 similar studies found conformity peaked at 4-5 confederates.


  • Asch placed a confederate 2nd to last before the participant was able to give their and answer and instructed the confederate to give the correct answer. Results found conformity dropped to 5.5%. If the confederate went against both the real participant and other confederates, conformity dropped to 9%.

Task difficulty

  • Research has found that conformity increases as the difficulty of the task increases and the correct answer becomes less obvious. 
  • Lucas et al found that the influence of the task difficulty is moderated by the self-efficiency of individuals who were confident in their own abilities when the task was very hard.
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Conformity to social roles: Zimbardo

Key study: Zimbardo's prison study

Zimbardo was testing two possible explanations:

  • The dispositional hypothesis suggested it was due to the guards and prisoners being 'bad seeds' with sadistic, aggressive tendancies.
  • Situational hypothesis suggested the behaviour was due to the prison setting itself and the social roles imposed which supported the behaviour.


  • 21 male university students assessed as being mentally and physically stable with no criminal convictions chosen to play 11 prisoners and 10 guards, paid $15 a day. Basement of Stanford University converted into a mock prison and scheduled to last two weeks. 
  • 'Prisoners' arrested by real police officers at home and deindividualised. All referred to by numbers and chained around one ancle.
  • Guards wore uniforms, reflective sunglasses and issued hundcuffs, truncheons and keys.
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Conformity to social roles: Zimbardo cont.


  • Prisoners and guards settled into their roles with guards becoming more abusive. Dehumanisation was apparent with guards taunting prisoners and waking them up at night for demeaning jobs. Some guards offered extra hours without extra pay.
  • Prisoners became submissive some even siding with the guards. Prisoners referred to each other by their prison number - deindividualisation apparent.
  • 5 prisoners released early due to their extreme behaviours such as crying, anxiety and rage. Study stopped after 6 days.


  • + Control (internal validity)
  • + Real life application - Abu Ghraib
  • - Ethical concerns - Participants distressed
  • - Contrasting research - BBC Prison Study (Reicher and Haslam 2006)
  • - Individual differences - some guards acted fairly and didn't exert control over prisoners.
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Obedience - Milgram (1963)


  • Placed an advert for male volunteers. 40 participants selected aged 20-50. 
  • Decieved by being told they were taking part in a study on 'memory and learning' at Yale.
  • Volunteers invited individually, on arrival they were introduced to an experimenter in a wahite coat, and another man who they believed to be another volunteer 'Mr Wallace' who was a confederate.
  • They were told the experiment was about how punishment affected learning, the volunteer was always the teacher.
  • Placed in a room with a shock generator and the real participant was instructed to shock the learner every time they got an answer wrong. Real participant had 15V shock to make them think the shock was real. Confederate strapped into chair in the room next door. Voltages increased from 15V to 450V. 
  • Each time he was shocked by the real participant varied recorded responses of pain were played. At 150V the learner would protest and complain about heart problems. At 330 upwards he would give no response.
  • If teacher objected they were prompted to continue. 
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Obedience - Milgram (1963)


  • Of 40 participants, 62% of them went to give the max shock of 450V. 100% of participants went up to 300%.
  • Some participants behan to show signs of distress while others showed none.
  • Some argued with the experimenter however continued to obey.
  • 14 of 40 participants managed to resist the pressure to obey and chose not to continue above 300V.


  • - Ethical issues
  •  - Methodological issues - Gender bias, lacks ecological validity
  • + Sheridan and King (1972) found that despite real shocks given to a puppy, 54% of males continued to fatal shocks and 100% of females.
  • + During a French TV programme in 2010 a replication of Milgram's study saw 80% of participants deliverig the maximum shock to to unconcious man.
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Situational variables affecting obedience

Milgram found 3 main situational variables that affect obedience.


  • When the experimenter left the room and gave orders over a phone more people were able to resist, with only 20% going all the way to 450V.
  • When teacher and learner were in the same room obedience rates dropped to 40%.
  • When teacher was tasked to force the learner's hand onto a shock plate, obedience dropped to 30%.


  • Milgram recreated the study in a run-down office block in Connecticut and obedience rates fell to 47.5%. This suggests that the percieved legitimacy of the authority figure was lowered due to the location and it context.

The power of uniform:

  • Bushman (1988)- Police officer asking for money had 72% obedience; Business woman got 48% and a beggar had 52%.
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Agentic state

Explanations for obedience: Agentic state

Milgram proposed 'Agency theory' which suggests people are socialised from childhood to obey rules and this involves giving up some free will and autonomy. When a person feels in control of their actions they are autonomous. However, when an individual obey's an authority figure they enter the Agentic state where they no longer see themselves as responsible for their own behaviour, but an agent of the authority figure. In the individual's eyes they see the authority figure as responsible for the consequences and they become deindividualised. 

People enter the agentic state because the concern around maintaining a positive self-image restricts behaviour however the fact that responsibility shifts to the authority figure means perception of self is no longer relevant. The agentic state may be maintained due to the gradual commitment made by the individual from giving early shocks.

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Legitimacy of authority

Explanations for obedience: Legitimacy of authority

The agentic state can only be achieved through an individual believing the person giving the orders has legitimate authority to do so. People are socialised from an early age to accept a heirarchy of power exists within society with authority figues having power in social situations. 

Milgram believed that there was generally a shared expectation that most situations would have an appropriate authority figure controlling the situation. Therefore the person giving the order must be percieved to have the social power to give orders within the context of what is happening for them to be seen as a legitimate authority figure.

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Authoritarian personality

The dispositional explanation is based on the idea that behaviour is caused by the internal characteristics of a person. the authoritarian personality type was proposed by Fromm (1941) as an explanation for people who held rigid, intolerant and conservative beliefs and were characterised by absolute obedience to authority and the domination of those of lower social standing. 

Adorno et al believed this personality was shaped in early childhood by parenting that focused on heirarchial and authoritarian parenting styles. Under such conditions, children learm to obey authority and acquire the same attitudes through a process of social learning and imitation. To test for an authoritarian personality. Adorno created the 'F-scale' questionnaire which comprised of 30 questions assessing nine personality conditions.


  • + Zilmer et al (1995) reported that 16 Nazi war criminals scored highly on 3 of the F scale dimensions, but not all have 9 (as expected).
  • + Alyemeyer (1988) reported that participants with an authoritarian personality type, would give themselves more shocks than those without the personality type.
  • - The F-scale suffers from response bias.
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Social support

Explanations for resistance to social influence: Social support

Social support an dissent is one explanation for how people resist pressure to obey or conform. If a person sees other people refusing to obey or conform and go anaginst the social norm of the situation, this then makes is easier for the individual to also resist social influence as they would have increased confidence in their own view and they feel like less of a minority through the presence of allies.

Research to support: Milgram

In the variation of the study where the participants had seen a confederate refusing to administer shocks, obedience dropped to only 10% of people going to the full 450V. This shows how social support can give people confidence in resisting obedience.

Research to support: Asch

Variation of his line study. Confederate placed 2nd to last before the real participant was able to answer and instructed the confederate to give the correct answer. Resulta found conformity dropped to 5.5%. If the confederate went against the real participant and the other confederate's answers conformity still dropped to 9%.

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Social support cont.

Evaluation for Milgram's study:

  • Lab study
  • Demand characteristics
  • Lacked eco validity 
  • Gender bias

Evaluation for social support:

  • Research has found that response order is also an important factor in social support. For example Allen and Levine (1969) compared two conditions where in one condition a confederate answered correctly first followed by all the other confederates answering incorrectly. In the second condition the confederate answered second to last before the real participant all the other confederates answered incorrectly. They found social support was higher for the confederate in the first condition than the second and they concluded this was because an initial first response produces a commitment to the correct answer which endures even if otes disagree, highlighting how response order can affect resistance to social influence.
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Locus of control (Rotter 1966)

LOC is an explanation for resisting social influence. LOC refers to how much control a person believes they have over themselves and the world.

High internal:

  • In control
  • Confident in their own views and opinons
  • Less concious of what others think or likely to be led by other people's views over their own.

High external:

  • Feels situations/ control is out of their hands
  • Less confident in themselves so seeks other people's opinions/ views
  • More easily led by other people due to being less confident in their own ability.
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Locus of control - Research

Williams and Warchal (1981)

  • Studied 30 students over various conformity based tasks.
  • Assessing them using Rotter's LOC scale it was found that there was little difference between them according to Rotter's LOC scale but differences in conformity.
  • Main difference between the two were how assertive they were with those who conformed the most.
  • Therefore assertiveness may be a better explanation for why people resist social influences than LOC especially in regards to conformity based scenarios.

Spector (1983)

  • Used Rotter's LOC scale to assess 157 students. 
  • Those found to have a high external LOC were found to conform more than those with a lower external score, this was only in situations of NSI. Situations of ISI didn't result in conformity by either group.
  • Suggests LOC may be limited to explaining social influence resistance durig situations where individuals feel they need to fit in and not necessarily neutral situations where they do not stand to lose anything.
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Locus of control - Evaluation

  • - A lot of research into LOC such as this has been based on student groups and may lack population validity. Therefore difficult to generalise into LOC research to the wider population.
  • - LOC does not explain why some people have a high internal or external LOC. The explanation is therefore incomplete and oversimplified as it does not fully account for these personality differences in people and suggests something more complex occuring in people's development which distinguishes their percieved control in their lives.
  • - Most research into how LOC affects resistance to social influence is based on correlarional research. Can't be sure of cause and effect or that high LOC causes resistance. It may just be personality variables within participants.
  • + Research into LOC provides us with a real world understanding and possible real world applications. Twenge et al (2004) found that significantly more young americans were showing a higher rate of external LOC in samples of children between 1960 and 2002. Twenge believed the consequences of this was negative as external LOC was linked with poor educational performance, depression and also higher rates of violent crimes, divorces and mental health problems.
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Minority influence

Minority influence is when a smaller group or individual is able to change the view of the majority group through conversion. Conversion results in both the belief and behaviour being privately and publicly accepted as the standpoint is internalised. For conversion to take place, the minority group must adopt particular behavioural traits involving commitment, consistency and fleaxibility.

Minorities influence the majority through ISI. This takes a long tie as it requires people to question and examine their own beliefs unlike majority influence which is based on compliance and causes more instant conformity.

Minority influence is most effective when the group shows a consistent unchanging stance, showing confidence and unbias. Hogg and Vaughn (2002) consistency causes the majority to reassess their own viewpoints as doubt and uncertainty creeps in.

When a minority group is consistent within itself and their arguments for change they are more likely to be influential than a group that is fragmented. Commitment also forces majority group members to take their minority more seriously showing perseverence and confidence. Flexibility is also key for behavioural change, Mugny (1982) minority groups showing they are flexible shows that they are able to cooperate and be responsible which is more pursuasive than a group that is rigid and difficult to work with.

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Minority influence - Evaluation

  • + Moscovici (1969) Lab study with 32 groups of 6 females. Groups asked to identify the colour presented to them - always blue but varying shades. Confederates always answered incorrectly. When confederates were consistent in their responses and stated the slides were green, 8% of the majority also agreed. Seen higher when the group members were aksed to write down their responses rather than state them out loud. In secret more were likely to agree with the minority. When confederates gave inconsistent answers influence dropped to 1.25%.
  • - Gender bias. Research generally suggests women are more conformist than men so lacks external validity to real world settings.
  • +/- Wood et al (1994) meta-analysis of over 97 minority groups and their influence. Of those who remained the most consistent they were seen to have the highest level of influence supporting consistency. However, findings are correlational and we cannot be certain of cause and effect.
  • + Nemeth (1987) When the confederate was willing to be flexible and compromise to a slightly higher amount this also influenced the majority to lower their demands. Supports flexibility.
  • + Research in to minority influence has real world applications amd can help understand how terrorism radicalises people to join their cause. Commitment, consistency and persistence is evident in many groups with continuous suicide bombings.
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Moscovici's conversation theory

The role of social influence processes in social change

Attempts to explain how social change occurs through minority influence. Firstly a minority group draw attention to a particular issue they wish to have adressed for it to gain public attention. The majority group do not like conflict and as this issue invariably differs from their own, the majority would therefore look at the issue to decide their own opinion on it die to the cognitive conflict it creates. It brings something that they can relate or to agree with, this can initiate social change by putting it on the public agenda. If the group bringin the issue is also seen as credible this is likely to create a deeper conflict and therefore the majority are forced to examine the minorities argument in greater detail which could lead to a move towards the minority position publicy or privately for some.

Consistency is also important. An example of this is the Suffragettes whi used educational, political and various tactics to draw attention to the issue of only men having voting rights.

Another explanation looks at the augmentation principle. This suggests that if a group put themselves at considerable risk they will be seen as willing to 'suffer' for their cause and are more influential, eg. Gandhi. As more people shift to the minority opinon this makes it easier to conform. This is known as the snowball effect as the minority opinion spreads and becomes more widely adopted leading to a tipping point where it leads to wide-spread changes.

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Moscovici's conversation theory

Research and evaluation

  • + Research has real world influence and can help us understand how terrorismradicalises people to join their cause. Kruglanski stated terrorism could be seen as a movement for social change as such groups tend to be weaker than the majority and unable to take them on directly. Consistency, persistance and commitment is another feature evident in terror groups as they take their own lives, making people take notice. Supports the augmentation principle.
  • + Conversion theory as an explanation for social change is also supported by Mocovici's research into minority influence and how it influences majority group opinion which he argued could be applied to societal changes.
  • - A weakness of conversion theory is that the study it's based on is gender biased.
  • + Supports evidence for minority influence are the Suffregettes and Greenpeace
  • + Martin and Hewstone (1999) found minority influence led to more creative and novel judgements than majority influences, supporting the idea that it is the minority which have greater effects in drawing attention to issues and being social forces for innovation and social change.
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