Group Behaviour - How We Are Affected By The Presence Of Others
Psychology experiments into group behaviour have been extremely influential in the development of psychology in the 20th Century. A group can be defined as the gathering of two or more individuals and this simple act and its consequences, has proved to be a rich source of exploration for eager psychologists looking to explain behaviour.
The Experimental Viewpoint
Much of this research has been carried out from an experimental perspective, where by creating controlled environments, experiments can be preformed where subjects can be closely observed on their responses to a range of social stimuli.
The clear advantage of such a methodology is the aspect of control where the researcher is able to simulate a situation and assert control over variables in order to analyse responses. This aims to establish causes and effects and advocates of the experimental perspective are convinced of the benefits of their methods.
Behavioural Studies of Sherif
An obvious starting point is the classical studies carried out by Sherif (1936). Sherif examined the influence of other group members on individuals within the group by conducting studies into decision making.
Using optical illusion, Sherif firstly asked his subjects, while alone, to estimate the movement of a light. He found in this environment, individuals make their decisions quickly and utilised what he called their own ‘personal frame of reference’ (Brown, 2004), producing a broad range of estimates.
Repeating the study with two or three individuals in a simulated group setting he discovered that their estimates became more similar to the other group members.
Sherif concluded that the presence of others can influence the judgements or decisions made by individuals.
Testing individuals alone first provides opportunity to analyse their personal decision making processes in order for a comparison to be available after group testing.
Making Judgements Within a Group
Judgements collected from subjects when tested alone would provide a basis to expect similar judgements when they are tested as a group. If indeed these judgements were similar, this would throw doubt upon whether it was actually the group setting that produced the results found.
Upon evaluation of the study it was suggested that some subjects may have been more forceful in their judgements, stating them early on in the discussion. This suggests a role of ‘leader’ emerges allowing the remaining group members to simply follow this lead.
The studies of Asch (1952) are also of significance and are very similar in design to those of Sherif.
Asch focused on the conditions that may induce individuals and groups to either resist or yield to external pressures such as peer pressure. The main differences between Aschs and Sherifs studies were the introduction of ‘confederates’ who were group members secretly instructed by the researcher to behave in a certain way.
Asch discovered a significant shift towards the majority opinion in the group, therefore the naïve subject consistently moved towards the view of the confederates who he/she was outnumbered by.
Overall, Asch found that one third of his subjects moved towards the majority opinion. In further studies, Asch made the difference between the lines smaller so the matching of the lines proved more difficult. In these studies he found more subjects conformed to the majority judgement of the confederates.
Interestingly, when a further ‘naïve’ subject was added to the experiment there was a marked decrease in the percentage of ‘naïve’ subjects who moved towards the majority when the second ‘naïve’ subject agreed with their opinion.
Asch's Confederates Experiment
Eight subjects were in the group, seven of which were confederates of the researcher instructed to give the same wrong answer.
The task was to judge which of three unequal lines on a card matched a comparison line on another card.
The lone subject who was not a confederate was called the ‘naïve’ subject. Each subject was asked to announce their opinion to the group without prior discussion.
"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves"— Lao Tzu
Aschs research was an improvement of Sherifs study and by introducing confederates has produced much more detailed results. In this study the only factor available as to why the ‘naïve’ subjects may have changed their opinion was the influence of the confederates’ majority view.
Therefore, his conclusion that a majority can influence a minority appears accurate. However, it is important to note that one quarter of the subjects in fact remained independent and did not change their opinion despite the pressure of the majority confederates.
This does not refute Aschs conclusion but it does point towards individual differences and minimise the significance of his conclusion.
Post-experiment interviews revealed that the subjects felt conflict; however those who did not yield claimed they were able to separate themselves mentally from the rest of the group.
This raises the issue of whether the subjects were actually aware of being in a group. In Sheriffs’ study, subjects commented on struggling to arrive at answers on their own and not considering themselves as part of a group.
Despite this claim a significant percentage still followed the suggestion of others and behaved in a in a way characteristic of being a group member.
The Controversial Studies of Milgram
Another influence to be considered in the experimental perspective and its contribution to the study of groups is the studies of Milgram (1960-1963).
His studies were extreme and in today’s times would raise serious ethical concerns were it to be repeated. Milgram created a controlled experiment where one individual was instructed to inflict pain on another, who was a confederate, through the means of electric shocks. These experiments found that 26 out of the 40 subjects indeed conformed to the researchers’ instructions (Brown, 2004).
Milgrams conclusions were that group membership may provide protection to individual members from the pressures put upon them by the researcher.
In a second study, Milgram introduced a second confederate who refused to conform to the researchers’ instructions. Interestingly, it was found that in this situation the number of subjects who did conform to instructions dropped dramatically to only 4 out of the 40 subjects tested (Brown, 2004).
What Milgrams studies do is provide further evidence that when support is available within a group, members are more likely to persist with their original opinion as seen in Aschs studies.
Minority Group Members
Further research closely related to Aschs work is the studies of Moscovici and colleagues (1969). Female subjects were tested and asked to estimate the colour of a slide. Mirroring Aschs controls, two of the six subjects tested were confederates of the researcher and were instructed to call the slides green.
The naïve subjects saw the slide as blue. This was a consistent pattern which is the significant factor of this study. In the control conditions with no confederates it was found that more subjects called the slides green.
In the second condition, the confederates were inconsistent and the effects on the naïve subjects were not statistically significant. Moscovici concluded that a minority can influence a majority.
This is the opposite conclusion to Aschs conclusions, however rather than contradict them, they co-exist in that they show that both situations are possible.
In explanation, Moscovici claimed that different processes are at work. He believed that information from a minority is processed more actively due to the cognitive and social conflict in which it induces, therefore creating counter arguments.
Moscovici’s work illustrates possible conflict and confusion of evidence within the same perspective and methodology.
What these studies have shown us is that individuals are more likely to be honest in their responses when alone and have no external pressures present. When in a group setting, support of other members is required in order for them to feel confident in their views. Furthermore, when they are outnumbered by an opposing opinion, self-doubt sets in and conformity may occur. However, there may be exceptions to this as illustrated by the studies of Moscovici. As humans we are very social and will migrate towards others when the opportunity presents itself. Where psychology is useful is helping us to understand how this can affect our behaviour and our decisions even if we are not fully aware of them ourselves.
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Asch, S.E. (1952b). "Social psychology". Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
Brown, H. (ed) (2004) ‘Themes in experimental research on groups from the 1930’s and the 1990’s’ in Wetherall, M (ed) (2004) ‘ Identities, Groups and Social Issues’ London, The Open Univerisity/SAGE
Morgan, H and Thomas, K (eds) (2004) ‘ A psychodynamic perspective on group processes’ in Wetherall, M (ed) (2004) ‘ Identities, Groups and Social Issues’ London, The Open Univerisity/SAGE
Moscovici, S., Lage, E., & Naffrechoux, M. (1969). Influence of a consistent minority on the responses of a majority in a color perception task. Sociometry, 365-380
Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms.Oxford, England: Harper, xii 210
© 2014 Fiona Guy