What Do Classic Studies of Social Influence Tell Us About Group Effects on Individual Behaviour?

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What do classic studies of social influence (e.g., Asch, 1952; Milgram, 1974; Zimbardo, 1971) tell us about group effects on individual behaviour?

Social influence is the effect one person or a group has on the attitudes or behaviour of another. There are several different kinds of social influence. This essay the focuses on conformity - yielding publicly to group pressure, and sometimes yielding privately also (e.g. Asch (1951)); also on obedience – behaving as instructed, for example Milgram (1974). Studies of these kinds of social influence aim to show how much individuals will conform or obey authority, and suggest possible reasons for these effects.

Asch’s (1951) study aimed to investigate whether individuals would conform when the group is clearly wrong. The control group made less than 1% of errors. In experimental groups, 74% of participants conformed at least once. Participants said they knew others were wrong but did not want to look different. A few thought that the group must be right because they had a better view. This shows that group pressure is strong since most people conformed against their own judgement at some point. It also shows that there were individual differences, since 5% always conformed while 26% never did.

The majority of conformity studies tend to show the effect found in Asch’s study, i.e. quite a high percentage of people show conformity behaviour. There are several explanations of majority influence on individual behaviour. Informational influence: people feel the need to be right. When uncertain the group has informational power over an individual because it can provide information about what is correct. This effect is likely to lead to internalisation – the individual starts to believe what they conform to. This is supported by a greater level of conformity behaviour shown with greater uncertainty, difficulty of task and unanimity of majority. However it does not explain conformity in studies like Asch’s where the answer was clear.

Another explanation is normative influence: individuals need to be accepted and approved by others. The group has power because it can reward with approval and punish with rejection. This effect is likely to lead to compliance – the individual publicly conforms whilst privately disagreeing. This is supported by the lower conformity when participants can respond in private or when there is another individual disagreeing with the majority.

These explanations do not explain why some groups cannot exert informational and normative influence and others can. For example, Abrams et al. (1990) found that psychology students conformed more to a group of psychology students than history students.

Milgram (1974) stated four main differences between obedience and conformity: firstly, obedient individuals feel that the authority figure has the right to give orders. Secondly, in obedience compliance occurs without imitation, when conforming individuals copy others. Thirdly, conformity is a response to implicit pressures, whereas orders are explicitly stated in obedience. Finally, individuals do not admit their conformity: they say their mistakes were due to errors in their judgement rather than the effects of group pressure. In obedience individuals admit to obeying authority figures.

Obedience research had a lot of attention in the latter half of the last century. One of the main reasons for this was because of the Second World War where many soldiers obeyed authority figures without question. Many psychologists then questioned the fundamentals of what was understood to be human nature. One of the most published trials of Second World War criminals was that of Adolf Eichmann in 1960. Like many others who were tried for war crimes, he attributed his actions to “following orders”.

Milgram’s (1963) study aimed to find out to what extent individuals will obey an authority figure. 65% of participants gave the maximum “shock” to a “learner” participant....
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