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A University Essay on Social Influence

Updated on October 8, 2019

Social influence

Social influence theory states that an individual's actions beliefs and attitudes are influenced by others through compliance, internalization, and identification (Kelman 1958). The two different types of social influence we will be discussing is conformity and obedience. Conformity is the change in an individual's behavior in response to pressure from others while obedience is when an individual gives in to the commands of an authority figure. There are two types of social conformity, normative conformity and informative conformity. Normative conformity occurs because of the desire to be liked therefore the individual would change their views or behavior to please society. Informational conformity occurs because of the desire to be correct. I will be evaluating the research methods of social influence in conformity and obedience studies as follows. Solomon Asch(1951) study on social pressure tested informational conformity. There are several aspects of a group which can affect conformity, for example, the size of the group. Although sometimes the minority could influence the majority by being consistent. Also status, culture and gender play a major role in conformity pressure. The study of obedience, our second type of social influence we will be evaluating is led by the experiments of Stanley Milgram (1963). He had concluded that majority of the public would go along with potentially harmful commands of an authority figure.

Asch(1951) conducted a famous study on conformity. He wanted to study the impact of social pressure from a majority and how this would cause an individual to conform. Asch’s study consisted of 50 males which believed they were taking part in a vision test. He asked them to judge the length of a line, the confederates agreed on an answer beforehand. In each experiment, there was one real participant and seven confederates. These confederates were used as the majority to see if the rest of the individuals taking part would change their answers and conform. The real participants were deceived because they were told that the seven other people in each experiment were also real participants. Each of these participants had done 18 trials and the confederates gave the same incorrect answer in 12 of these trails.

During this experiment, numerous variations of this line judgment task were carried out. In one of them, the group size was changed. They used a variation of one to 15 confederates. When there was only one confederate in the session the conformity rate was 3 percent. When there were three confederates the conformity rate increased by 29 percent. As the number of the confederates increased per group the conformity rate also increased, this shows that group size does affect conformity because the majority of individuals want to fit in. Within another variation of the Asch's experiment, one of the confederates were asked to give the correct answer throughout. The Conformity rate dropped by 5 percent, this shows that if you break the group's unanimous position conformity is reduced.

Their findings were that 74 percent of the participants conformed on one trial while 26 percent never conformed to any of these trials. Asch also used a control group which one participant completed these trials without any confederates, less than 1 percent of

participants gave an incorrect answer. This shows that social influence, in this case, a majority influence could change the behavior or action of an individual. On the other hand, this experiment had low population validity because Asch only used male participants so we cannot generalize these results to the entire public. This study also has low ecological validity, this is because it's not an everyday task to be measuring lines so this does not show conformity in everyday life. Asch's research is also unethical because he broke a number of ethical guidelines. These include protection from harm and deception. He deliberately deceived his participants by making them believe they were taking part in a vision test. Perrin and Spencer (1980) repeated Asch experiment on a group of British university students which study maths and science. They found lower rates of conformity than those of the Asch study. They suggested that this was because of the fact that these students were used to making judgments of physical properties of things.

Affect and arousal is another factor which causes individuals to comply. A social report had shown that the effect of affection and how it can cause the chance of compliance with a request made by the other increase (Cialdini & Tristan, 1998).One factor affecting compliance is the physical attractiveness of a person. The more attracted an individual is to a person the more likely they would comply with a request. This results in a higher tip-earning. Lynn & Simmons (2000). Reciprocity requires us to repay what another individual has done for us. Whatley(1999) had studied private and public consequences on reciprocation. He found out that in public compliance, feelings of shame were reduced while in private compliance, pity was reduced. A presence of favor increased in both public and private compliance. On the whole public compliance was greater than private compliance. This could be because the individuals would want to look good in public so they would comply with the request.

Obedience is a form of social influence in which the individual gives in to the commands of an authority figure. Milgram (1963) carried out an experiment testing whether individuals are obedient to authority figures even if it means harming another person. Milgram selected participants for his experiment by advertising in a newspaper. He selected only male participants. In this experiment they were asked to act as learner or teacher, the participant was always learner while the confederate was the student. The learner was then taken into another room and asked questions. The teacher was told to give an electric shock every time the learner gets the question wrong. Every time the learner would get an incorrect answer the teacher would increase the voltage by 15 volts. 65 percent of participants continued to the highest voltage of 450 and all the participants continued to 300 volts. The amount of electricity that was believed to be used to shock the person was actually not used and the whole experiment, in fact, consisted of groans for help. At approximately 75 volts the person supposedly being electrocuted cry out in pain; however, once it had gotten to 150 volts the person begged for this to stop. It was argued that it was easy for people to increase the voltage level as it increased in small intervals. Milgram concluded that ordinary individuals are likely to obey orders of someone if they are a person of authority.

This study was carried out in a laboratory so it had low ecological validity as you wouldn't be in this scenario with the variables controlled in everyday life. This experiment would be more suited to a military context. (Orne & Holland, 1968) claimed that this study lacked experimental realism as the participants probably knew that they were not actually administering the electric shock. This study was also self-selected so it cannot be a representation of the entire American population. This experiment was replicated 18 times in different cultures and most of these lead to the same conclusion as Milgram's study. In one of this replication experiments, Milgram tested whether the actions of the participant would change when the authority figure is not close by. Due to this many of the participants missed out shocks or gave a smaller shock than what was ordered of them. This showed that the proximity of the authority figure, in this case, the experimenter affects obedience.

There were many ethical issues in Milgram's study. Deception was a major factor, the participants believed they were administering a shock to an individual when in reality it was a confederate. These participants were exposed to a very stressful situation which could cause psychological distress, later on, this breached the ethical conduct of protecting the individual from harm. On the contrary, Milgram had briefed each participant and also did a follow up of the participants well being for a period after the experiment. During the experiment the participants found it easier to give larger shocks after giving smaller ones, this is validated by the foot-in-the-door type phenomenon Gilbert (1981). The foot in the door technique (freedman & Fraser, 1966) asumes agreeing to a smaller request increases the chances of agreeing to a second larger request.


We found out that the size of the group and unanimity affect conformity. The conformity rate increased when the confederates in each group were increased. So overall group size does affect conformity because the majority of individuals want to fit in. During one of the Asch experiments, one confederate was told to give correct answers in all the trials. This led to a decrease in conformity in the trials. This shows that if the real participant has support for their beliefs they would be less likely to conform because of social pressure.

We used Milgram's study to test obedience to an authority figure. The results were shocking to me as 64 percent of the individuals had continued to give fatal levels of electric shocks to another individual. They thought they would not be held accountable as they were just complying with what the authority figure had ordered them to do. This study helped us understand why the Germans justified the Nazi killings. They also thought they

would not be held accountable for their actions and that they were merely puppets. My view on this is that an individual of authority could incline you to hurt another innocent person but it is down to your morals. Most of the studies used were artificial and cannot measure conformity and obedience in real life, because you would not normally be in these scenarios and the variables would not be controlled like in these studies. So in my opinion, Milgram's study can measure obedience in a military context.


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Bond, R., & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Aschs (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin,119(1), 111-137. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.119.1.111

Conformity - Asch (1951) | tutor2u Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2018, from

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Rashotte, L. (2007). Social Influence. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology,4426-4429. doi:10.1002/9781405165518.wbeoss154

Shanab, M. E., & Yahya, K. A. (1978). A cross-cultural study of obedience. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society,11(4), 267-269. doi:10.3758/bf03336827

© 2019 Yasmin Saciid


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