CONFORMITY AND OBEDIENCE

 

SOCIAL INFLUENCE

I. Cooperation and Competition

Overview

Learning Objectives

Content

Activities & Assignments

Resources

5 Square

Critical Thinking Questions

Summary of Question Types

II. Social Group Powers

Overview

Learning Objectives

Content

Activities

III. Conformity & Obedience

Overview

Learning Objectives

Content

Activities & Assignments

Resources

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Conformity and Obedience

 

I. OVERVIEW

Two of the more recognized areas of study within the study of social influence are the study of conformity and obedience. Each of these topics typically receives considerable attention in most General Psychology and Social Psychology textbooks. Given this level of attention, two of the psychologists associated with these areas of study (Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch) have become two of the more recognized names in social psychology. This module will provide various content and resources to assist in preparing a classroom presentation on these topics.

Additional information, comments or questions can be obtained from the author of this module:

Bill Southerly
Department of Psychology
Frosturg State University
Frostburg, MD 21532
bsoutherly@fre.fsu.umd.edu
301-687-4778

 

II. LEARNING OBJECTIVES

The primary objectives for this module include:

  • Defining conformity and obedience
  • Identifying key studies related to conformity and obedience
  • Identifying various factors related to conformity and obedience
  • Providing various activities that can be used to illustrate these concepts
  • Listing various resources (both print & internet) that can be used to supplement the teaching of these concepts

 

III. CONTENT

 

CONFORMITY
 

The tendency to change our perceptions, opinions, or behavior in ways that are consistent with group norms (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999, p 213)

 

KEY STUDIES
 
  • Sherif (1936) - demonstrated that individual perceptions that intially varied considerably, converged once placed in a group.
  • Asch (1951) - arguably the classic study in this area. Using a line judgment task, the author found that when individuals wer placed in a group of confederates who made an obvious incorrect decision, they went along with the incorrect choice about 37 % of the time. This finding has been confirmed in more recent studies as well.
  • Fein, Goethals & Kassin (1998) - when participants were asked to view a political debate among George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, it was found the presence of a confederate who cheered for one of the candidates influenced the participant's evaluation of that candidate in a positive manner.

 

FACTORS RELATED TO CONFORMITY
 
  • Informational influence - when you conform because you believe that others are correct in their judgments. Sherif's (1936) study illustrates this concept.
  • Normative influence - when you conform because you fear the possible negative social consequences of not going along. Asch's (1951) study illustrates this concept.
  • Size of group - conformity tends to increase as the size of the group increases, however, there is little change in conformity once the group size reaches 4-5.
  • Awareness of norms - the more aware someone is of the prevailing norm, the more likely one is to conform.
  • Presence of an ally - Asch (1951) found that even the presence of just one confederate that goes against the majority choice can reduce conformity as much as 80%.
  • Age differences - there is some evidence that age may play a factor. For example, during adolescence there is an increased tendency to "conform" to peers.
  • Gender differences - there is some indication that there are some gender differences but the findings are not clearly established yet.
  • Cultural influences - many instances of cultural influences leading to differences in conformity.

 

OBEDIENCE
 
 
 
Behavior change produced by the commands of authority (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999, p 232)

 

KEY STUDIES
 
  • Bickman (1974) - had research assistants "order" people passing by on the street to do something. When they wore security guards uniforms, almost 9 out of 10 people obeyed.
  • Milgram (1963) - the classic study in this area. A participant was paired with a confederate in a study of "the effects of punishment on learning." The participant served as the "teacher" and the confederate was the "learner." The teacher was to provide an progressive level of shock (though no shock was actually given) to the learner every time the learner gave an incorrect response. The question was how strong of a shock would the "teacher" provide. A group of psychiatrists estimated that only 1 % of the population would provide the maximum level of shock (450 volts) and most predicted that most participants would stop around 135 volts. Overall 65 % of the participants provided the maximum "shock" of 450 volts despite the pleas of the "learner". Though the original study consisted of all men, the study has produced similar findings with women and in other countries.

 

FACTORS RELATED TO OBEDIENCE
 
  • Authority figure - the prestige of the authority figure and the physical presence of the figure influence the degree of obedience. The higher the perceived prestige, the more the confomity and the physical presence of the authority figure increases the level of obedience. However, Hofling, Brotzman, Dalrymple, Graves & Pierce (1966) demostrated that powerful authority figures (in this case a physcian) can produce high levels of obedience without being physically present. The authors studied how nurses would respond to a phone request from a physician to administer an uncommon drug at a high dosage with the potential for harm to the patient. They found that 21 of 22 nurses were willing to complete these phone orders (though the nurses were stopped from actually administring the drug).
  • Proximity of victim - evidence indicates a person is more likely to obey an order that may produce harm if that person is physically separated from the potential victim. Milgram observed a drop to 40% full obedience when he placed both the participant and confederate in the same room and had a drop to 30% full obedience when the participant had to physically place the confederates hand on a metal shock plate.
  • Personal responsibility - in Milgram's study the experimenter assumed the responsibility for any harm that could have occurred. When a person has to assume personal responsibility for any harm that can come from obedience, the level of obedience tends to drop.
  • Escalation of harm - Milgram's study involved a gradual escalation of potential harm to the confederate as the "teacher" increased the levels of shock. The evidence suggests that situations that led to gradual escalation of harm tend to produce more conformity, that is, once a person starts the process it becomes more difficult to not obey.

 

IV. ACTIVITIES/ASSIGNMENTS

 

CONFORMITY

 

  • Replication of Asch's experiment - with a little work it is possible to produce a good classroom version of Asch's classic experiment on conformity. The details of the activity can be found in many General Psychology Instructor's manuals [e.g., Garrison (1995) ].
  • The Candid Camera segment "Face the rear" - is an excellent tool for generating discussion and illustrating conformity. These classic clips from the original show consist of a group of confederates and one participant on a simulated elevator. The confederates change directions, as well remove and put on their hats on cue as the participant responds to the pressure to conform. Several different participants illustrate the differences between the ones that conform easily and at least one guy that does somewhat reluctantly. A sure hit with students and instructors. It is available from McGraw-Hill publishers on both video and CD.
  • The Discovering Psychology video segment (produced by Annenberg/CPB) "The Power of the Situation" includes a clip from Asch's experiment, as well as Milgram's obedience study, Zimbardo's prison study, etc. This video provides an excellent tool for introducing social influence including conformity and obedience.

 

OBEDIENCE

 

  • The classroom authority - Hunter (1981) suggest an activity where you bring someone into your class before you arrive(e.g., another instructor) and have the students fulfill a series of requests (e.g., move them around, place hands on desk, etc.) including some "strange" requests (e.g., everyone with blond hair stand). Use your imagination. Then you can arrive at your classroom and lead a discussion on why people "obeyed" or "didn't obey" this person's orders. Excellent way to illustrate how easily people obey orders of an assumed "authority figure."
  • Student's prediction - Just as Milgram had a group of psychiatrists predict the level of shock that participants would administer in his study before he conducted it, you can ask your students to do the same thing before you start your discussion. Bolt (1999) describes this exercise as well as provides a handout that can be used to facilitate the activity.
  • The film Obedience - Penn State has a 45 minute film/video available of the original Milgram study that puts the student there while the experiment is being conducted. It also includes interviews with various participants.

 

V. RESOURCES

 

References

Asch, S.E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburg, PA: Carnegie Press.

Bickman, L. (1974). The social power of a uniform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 4, 47-61.

Bolt, M. (1999). Instructor's resources to accompany D.G. Myers, Exploring psychology (4th ed.). New York: Worth.

Brehm, S.S., Kassin, S.M. & Fein, S. (1999). Social psychology (4th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Fein, S., Goethals, G.R. & Kassin, S.M. (1998). Social influence and presidential debates. Manuscript under review, Williams College.

Garrison, M. (1995). Instructor's resource manual to accompany S. Kassin Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hofling, C.K., Brotzman, E., Dalrymple, S., Graves, N. & Bierce, C. (1966). An experimental study of nurse-physician relations. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 143, 171-180.

Hunter, W.J. (1981). Obedience to authority. In L.T. Benjamin, Jr. & K.D. Lowman, Activities handbook for hte teaching of psychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. New York: Harper.

 

Internet resources

 

 Milgram

 

http://muskingum.edu/~psychology/psycweb/history/milgram.htm

 

http://www.cba.uri.edu/Faculty/dellabitta/mr415s98/EthicEtcLinks/Milgram.htm

 

http://www.wardy.org/mihugo.html

 

Asch

 

http://www.psych.upenn.edu/sacsec/about.html

 

Social Psychology in General

 

http://miavx1.muohio.edu/~shermarc/p324tuta.htmlx

 

http://www.wesleyan.edu/spn/ - Social Psychology Network

 

http://cac.psu.edu/~arm3/social.html