Why do people conform in groups? Why do we obey authority figures? How does your role in society affect your behavior? And how can the pressure to conform sometimes lead people to commit atrocities in the name of ‘obeying orders’?
Psychologists have spent decades studying the power of social influence, and the way in which it manipulates people’s opinions and behavior. Specifically, social influence refers to the way in which individuals change their ideas and actions to meet the demands of a social group, perceived authority, social role or a minority within a group wielding influence over the majority.
Most of us encounter social influence in its many forms on a regular basis. For example, a student may alter his or her behavior to match that of other students in a class. The majority-held opinions of a group of friends are likely to inform the views of new members to that social group. Furthermore, we are influenced by the requests of people who are seen as holding positions of authority. For instance, an employee will follow the orders of his supervisors in order to please them.
Why people accept social influence
There are a number of reasons why people allow social influences to affect their thoughts and behavior.
One reason is that we often conform to the norms of a group to gain acceptance of its members. Supporters of a football team voluntarily wear shirts of their teams to feel a part of the group. Friends may also wear similar clothing to their peers to experience a sense of belonging and to emphasise their shared ideas.
Group conformity can also encourage cooperation when attempting to achieve a shared goal. When an individual is able to exhibit a minority influence over a wider group, he or she can persuade that group to work collectively. For example, charity organizers recruiting new volunteers advocate improving their community (e.g. litter picking) in a way that cannot be achieved as easily by just one person acting alone.
However, cooperation can lead to a conformity of views, resulting in a phenomenon known as groupthink. When this occurs, team members adopt agreed views and actions in the pursuit of a given goal, but reject criticism from individuals who oppose or question the group’s behavior. This lack of critical thinking can have a negative impact on a group’s performance as its ability to evaluate its own behavior and adapt to changing conditions is impeded.
Additionally, group conformity enables a sense of cohesion within a society. Laws prohibiting violence and theft help to protect every individual within a community. However, such laws depend on people conforming to the norms of the wider group by acting as law-abiding citizens.
Whilst social influence can have a positive effect on behavior, its disadvantages have been a motivating factor behind research into conformity by psychologists such as Stanley Milgram.
Conformity to a narrow set of behaviors and views can discourage the nurturing of new ideas which could improve the lives of a group. It can discourage its members from questioning and debating the beliefs and held by the majority of a group and its practises. This behavior has been observed in cults, where members are often reluctant to doubt the group’s authority publically for fear of being rejected by their peers.
Another form of social influence - minority influence - has also been used historically for malign purposes. The followers of leaders such as Adolf Hitler accepted and often internalized the Nazi leader’s fascist views without question.
Following the Second World War, German officer Adolf Eichmann attempted to justify his participation in the Holocaust by claiming that he was merely ‘following the orders’ of perceived authority figures: in Eichmann’s case, his commanders.
People tend to conform for one of two reasons: to act based on a more informed view (informative social influence) or to match the views and behavior of a social group (normative social influence):
Informative social influence (or social proof)
People feel the need to be informed by accurate information, and when they lack confidence in their own knowledge, they turn to others in the hope that they will provide them with the correct information. By accepting this information, regardless of whether it is accurate, the person is subjected to social influence.
Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated informative social influence in an experiment using the autokinetic effect.
Sherif (1935) placed participants in a darkened room, then projected a single, stationary light onto the wall facing them. In accordance with the autokinetic effect, when a person is unable to see another object to judge the light’s relative position, the light appears to move.
One group of participants was then asked individually how far the light had moved. Based on their own perception alone, they reported that the light had shifted widely varying distances.
A second group was also asked how far the light had moved, but gave their answers in front of other members of the group.
Sherif found that participants who gave their answers in a group provided varying distances, but that the reported movement eventually fell into an ever-smaller range. In other words, when participants were unsure of the light’s movement and information was available from other members of the group, they used their answers to inform their own opinions, leading to conformity amongst participants.
Normative social influence
A second type of conformity is normative social influence. People want to ‘fit in’ amongst friends and colleagues, and to be liked and respected by other members of their social group. They value the opinions of other members, and seek to maintain their standing within the group. Therefore, individuals will adjust their own attitudes and behavior to match the accepted norms of the group.
This conformity with the majority may involve following the fashion trends that are popular amongst a group of friends, adopting the rituals of a religious group or watching a particular TV show because classmates at college talk about it.
Social influence and conformity
Social influence takes a number of forms. One type of such influence is conformity, when a person adopts the opinions or behaviors of others. This often occurs in groups, when an individual conforms to the social norms respected by a majority of the group’s members.
An individual may conform to the opinions and values of a group. They express support for views accepted by the group and will withhold criticism of group norms. Behavioral conformity can also influence a group member’s actions: a person will behave in a way that is similar to others in the group.
When conforming to the social norms of a group, a person may disagree with the opinions that they express or the actions that they take, but nonetheless, they adopt the behavior that is expected of them.
- Public conformity involves matching one’s behavior meet the expectations of others, whilst privately holding a different view. For example, a student may express a liking for a rock band because all of his friends listen to it. Privately, however, he may dislike their music, but conforms in front of his friends to gain their acceptance.
- Private conformity occurs when a person internalizes the views of a group, and adopts a majority opinion as his or her own. For instance, the student listens to the music of a rock band that his friends like. Over time, he realises that he too enjoys this type of music. As his private opinion has changed, private conformity has occurred.
Asch’s conformity experiments
One of the most-cited researchers into conformity was the Polish psychologist Solomon Asch (1907-1996). In the 1950s, he carried out a series of experiments known as the Asch Paradigms to understand the circumstances which led to people conforming to a majority influence.
In an experiment at Swarthmore College, Asch (Asch and Guetzkow, 1951) presented participants with a printed line of a given length, and a series of additional lines of varying lengths. One of the lines was the same length as in the initial image, whilst the other two were significantly different.
In a group setting, participants were then asked to individually report which of the lines was the same length as the first. They were unaware that other members of the group were confederates who, in some of the trials, had been instructed to answer that a line which was clearly of a different length matched that of the original line.
Participants were torn between two options: did they report the answer which they had observed to be obviously correct but contradict other members of the group? Or, should they disregard their private opinion and report the answer that other group members were reporting?
Using this experimental design, Asch discounted the potential for informative influence to affect participants’ answers. As the matching line length was obvious, they had no need to refer to other group members’ opinions.
Even when the correct answer was obvious, Asch found that participants would conform to the group norm and report obviously inaccurate answers.
Asch’s studies showed that social influence can lead subjects to doubt their own knowledge when it is contradicted by the majority of their group’s members, or to exhibit public conformity and avoid questioning group norms.
Kelman (1958) distinguished between 3 types of conformity, including identification.
This occurs when an individual identifies with other members of a group and conforms to its opinions and behaviors. In doing so, they may seek to gain the favor of other members and to be accepted into the group.
When identifying with a group, a person does not internalise its norms. When they leave the group, they may assume their own beliefs and behaviors.
For example, an employee joining an office may go bowling as colleagues on her team like to visit the bowling alley once a week. Privately, however, she may dislike the pastime and prefer to spend it reading at home.
Internalization is a form of opinion conformity, whereby the opinions of a group, or minority within that group influence an individual’s own opinions. The person may not only express the views of the group publically, but also adopts these new views and regards them as being his or her own - a form of private conformity.
The internalization of new beliefs frequently occurs in religious groups, when members privately adopt the spiritual ideas expressed by the authority figures (e.g. a priest or other spiritual leader) as their own personal beliefs.
Another form of conformity is achieved through compliance. This involves a request that an individual or group complies with the instructions of another. Unlike internalization, compliance does not require private conformity, as a person may reluctantly comply with a request whilst privately doubting it.
Compliance frequently occurs when a person is asked by an authority figure to meet a particular set of demands. For example, drivers comply with the directions given by traffic wardens, and students comply with the requests of their teacher, who they view as holding a position of authority.
Compliance may be achieved using a number of techniques known as compliance strategies. These are often used by salespeople to persuade potential customers to fulfill their request to place orders.
Compliance strategies include the foot-in-the-door technique, which involves a person making a small initial request in order to gain compliance with another question. Once a person has complied with a request, they are more likely to agree to a later, more significant, request. For example, a car sales representative may ask a prospective customer to agree to test-drive a new car. If the person agrees, they may be able to persuade them to extend their compliance by accepting a later request to buy the car.
The door-in-the-face technique is another compliance strategy which takes an opposite approach. An unreasonably large request is made initially, followed by the request that the subject is expected to comply with. A person will almost certainly reject the first request, but the second appears more reasonable when compared to it, and so they may be more inclined to comply with the second proposition.
Read more about compliance strategies here
Obedience is a form of public conformity which occurs when a person modifies their behavior to obey the directions of another, often in a position of authority. It does not require a subject to alter his or her private opinion.
Hierarchical relationships often involve one party obeying the orders of another. For instance, a son is expected to obey his parents, a teacher directs students to behave in class and a soldier takes orders from a superior officer. In each instance, the person in a subordinate position obeys the other, often for fear of the consequences of disobeying them.
In 1961, as the Nuremberg trials were taking place in Israel, the Nazi Adolf Eichmann gave testimony in his defense that he was merely following the orders of higher-ranking officials when he carried out war crimes leading to the Holocaust. American psychologist Stanley Milgram questioned how such people could obey the directions of others when such actions would lead to such atrocities. Milgram (1963) conducted an experiment in which participants played the role of ‘teacher’.
One participant, a confederate, was asked to learn a set of word pairs and the teacher would test his knowledge of these pairs. They were placed in adjacent rooms and the teacher was positioned in front of a set of controls to administer electric shocks to the learner. The teacher was instructed to punish the learner with a shock after each incorrect he gave (they were unaware that their compliance would not result in an actual shock to the confederate, who enacted responses to the punishments).
Milgram tested participants’ willingness to obey by instructing the experimenters to administer higher shocks. When they displayed a reluctance to injure the learner, further encouragement to continue the procedure were given.
The study found that all of the participants obeyed the order to shock the learner, but to varying degrees. His findings suggest that obedience to perceived authority figures can take precedence over one’s own morals, and that situational factors, such as the setting participants found themselves in, can influence behavior even when personality factors (e.g. moral objections) oppose it.
Milgram (1974) proposed agency theory to explain the tendency to obey authority. He suggested that an individual may be in one of two states at any one time:
- Autonomous state - when an individual’s behavior is determined by his or her own independent beliefs and responsibility is taken for such actions. When a person regrets their actions, they experience feelings of guilt.
- Agentic state - a person perceives another as being in a position of authority. They obey orders issued by the authority figure, acting as an ‘agent’ on their behalf. When this behavior is perceived to be a mistake, the person attributes responsibility to the authority that ordered it, rather than feeling guilt for their role in it.
When a person feels that an authority will take responsibility for the actions that they ask them to carry out, Milgram believed that an agentic shift can occur from an autonomous to an agentic state.
Factors affecting conformity
Conformity rates within a group vary depending upon a number of factors.
The size of a majority can affect conformity rates within a group. Asch (1956) tested conformity rates whilst varying the number of confederates taking a common position. He found that conformity increased in line with the size of the majority, but that the most substantial increases occurred as the majority increased from 1 to 3.
Additionally, Asch found that group consensus and objecting members can affect conformity. Unanimity of opinion amongst members increased conformity, whilst dissenting voices encouraged other members to behave independently.
Cultural differences can also influence conformity. Bond and Smith (1996) found a correlation between conformity levels and societal attitudes in terms of individualism-collectivism. Conformity levels have been found to be lower in cultures where individualism is valued (particularly in Western countries such as the UK and US). In collectivist cultures, where individuals are expected to behave and work in a way that benefits society as a whole, conformity is often higher.
Furthermore, task difficulty can affect the extent to which an individual will consult the majority-held opinion when completing an activity. Lucas et al (2006) found that individuals’ reduced confidence in one’s own abilities to succeed at a task, or low self-efficacy, can increase his or her conformity.
A further form of social influence is the roles in which people find themselves. Each role is associated with a set of attitudes and forms of behavior, and the role that a person is assigned can influence their actions and opinions.
Most of us are influenced by a number of roles at any one time. You may play a professional role - from doctor to wait-staff, naval officer to writer. Each profession is associated with different types of behavior. For example, people expect a doctor or naval office to be more serious than a circus entertainer, and may try fulfill this assumption when given a particular professional role. Other types of role, such as gender, family and societal roles, can also influence behavior.
Zimbardo et al (1973) conducted a well-known study to examine how social roles influence behavior. In the Stanford prison experiment, participants were assigned the role of either prisoner of prison officer, and were asked to play out their roles in a mock prison which Zimbardo had built in the basement of Stanford University, complete with cells for subjects.
During the study, Zimbardo himself assumed the role of prison officer in order to observe the behavior of participants.
He found that the behavior of those assigned to act as prison officers rapidly changed to meet their perceptions of the role. They would punish prisoners by asking them to perform push-ups and in one incident, sprayed a fire extinguisher in an attempt to quell a rebellion.
Similarly, prisoners themselves adopted a subservient role to the officers, treating them as authority figures and reporting on the ‘misbehavior’ of fellow prisoners.
Zimbardo found that assigned social roles led participants to behave in a way that they would not normally. Having eliminated participants from the experiment who were likely to behave in an offensive manner, he concluded that it was people’s preconceptions of their assigned roles and the experimental situation in which they found themselves that influenced their actions.
Whilst conformity usually occurs in response to the norms of a majority - other members in a social group - individuals or minorities of a group can also exhibit social influence. This is known as minority influence.
Minority influence occurs when an individual presents an opinion that is different to that held by the majority. As this opinion is novel and contrary to group norms, the attention of other members’ is drawn to it, and they are led to consider the merits of the minority opinion.
As minority influence runs against the accepted beliefs of a group, it cannot rely upon normative influence to lead other members to comply: individually tend towards a majority-held view to feel as though they are part of a group. Instead, a minority view usually needs to exert informative influence. By presenting new information (e.g. a key fact) as having been overlooked by the majority, a minority can persuade other members to reconsider their opinion. This process is known as conversion. If a minority influence is able to convert a sufficient number of members, the view will eventually become the opinion held by a majority of individuals within the group.
Many social and political movements, such as the civil rights movement in the United States, use minority influence to change the views of the wider population.
Minority influence is more effective when the person expressing the view displays consistency: Moscovici et al (1969) conducted an experiment in which a group was asked to identify the color shown on a series of slides. When a minority of confederates within the group consistently answered that slides were ‘green’, other participants were more likely to be influenced when giving their own answers than when the confederates were inconsistent in their responses.