Psychology Of Social Influence Research Paper

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Social influence refers to the ways people alter the attitudes or behavior of others. Typically social influence results from a specific action, command, or request, but people also alter their attitudes and behaviors in response to what they perceive others might do or think. Social psychologists often divide social influence phenomena into three categories— conformity, compliance, and obedience—although the distinction between the categories is often difficult to discern. Conformity generally refers to changes in opinion or behavior to match the perceived group norm. These changes are voluntary, although the individual may not always be aware that he or she is conforming. Compliance refers to changes in behavior that are elicited by a direct request. These requests usually call upon the individual to buy a product, do a favor, or donate money or services. Obedience refers to responses to direct commands or demands from an authority figure. Although individuals are not physically coerced into these responses, they often feel as if they have little choice but to obey the command.



1. Conformity

People exhibit conformity when they change their attitudes or behavior to resemble what they believe most people like them would think or do. Everyday examples of conformity include selecting clothes to match what other people are wearing and recycling newspapers because it appears that most people support recycling. Psychologists have identified two primary motives to explain conformity behavior— informational influence and normati e influence (Deutsch and Gerard 1955). When informational influence is operating, individuals conform because they want to be accurate. People agree with the perceived norm because they lack confidence in their own judgment and assume that the typical judgment is correct. When conformity reflects normative influence, the individual’s primary concern is to gain social approval and to avoid the consequences of appearing deviant. People go along with the perceived norm because they hope their conformity will lead to acceptance from the group or because they hope to avoid the criticism, ridicule, and possible rejection that may follow a failure to conform. In practice, informational influence and normative influence often operate hand in hand. For example, a conforming individual may hope to gain acceptance from a group and may also believe that the majority of group members are correct in their judgment.

The first demonstration of information influence in a conformity study was reported by Muzafir Sherif (1936). This classic investigation placed male participants in a totally darkened room. Periodically a small dot of light appeared on a wall approximately 15 feet away, and the participants’ task was to report how much, if any, they saw the light move. In fact, the light did not move. Sherif took advantage of a perceptual illusion known as the autokinetic effect—the tendency to see a stationary point of light move in a dark environment. When three participants sat together and reported their perceived movement aloud, Sherif found that over time the estimates each participant gave tended to resemble those of the others in the room. In other words, each group established its own norm for the amount of movement they perceived, and the group members tended to see an amount of movement close to that norm. These participants typically were unaware that they had been influenced by the group, and later investigations found participants continued to rely on the group norm even after the other individuals were no longer in the room.

A second set of early conformity studies demonstrated the power of normative influence. Solomon Asch (1951) asked participants to engage in a simple line judgment task. In the standard procedure, several individuals at a time were presented with a picture of a ‘standard’ line accompanied by three comparison lines. The task was to identify which of the comparison lines was the same length as the standard line. The individuals gave their responses aloud for the experimenter to record. Because the length of the lines differed by noticeable amounts, the task was an easy one. However, only one of the individuals in the study was a real participant. The others were confederates who, beginning with the third line judgment task, began to give wrong answers (before the real participant’s turn to respond). On 12 of the remaining 16 trails, the real participant heard each of the others select a comparison line that clearly was incorrect. The question was whether the participants would give what they knew to be the correct answer, or if they would go along with the response given by the group. Typically, participants went along with what their senses told them. However, on 37 percent of the trials the participants conformed to the norm and gave the same response as the rest of the group. Moreover, approximately three-quarters of the participants went along with the majority at least once.

Most of the conforming participants in Asch’s studies were motivated by normative influence. That is, these individuals were concerned about how they would look in the eyes of the other participants if they were to express their true judgments. When participants in one study were allowed to give their responses in private, the rate of conformity dropped dramatically (Asch 1956). However, at least some informational influence also appeared to be operating in the Asch studies. That is, some people came to believe that the shared perception of the group must be more accurate than their own visual perception.

1.1 Variables Affecting Conformity

Although numerous replications of Asch’s findings provide persuasive evidence for the power of conformity, not all people conform to the same degree in the same situation. For example, cultural variables have been found to play a role in the conformity process. Bond and Smith (1996) reviewed 133 studies using the Asch procedure conducted in 17 countries. They found participants from collectivist cultures were more likely to conform to the group norm than people from individualistic cultures. These investigators also found a trend toward less conformity since the 1950s in studies with US participants. Thus, changes in societal standards, such as the value placed on independence and autonomy, may affect the extent to which members of a given culture conform. Age also appears to play a role in this process. Consistent with conventional wisdom, researchers find that young adolescents are particularly prone to conforming with the behavior of peers. Finally, several investigations find that personality plays a role in conformity. People who have a high need to feel in control are less likely to conform, whereas those who are highly concerned with the impression they make on others are more likely to go along with the perceived norm.

Psychologists have not always agreed on the extent to which gender influences conformity behavior (Cooper 1979, Eagly and Chravala 1986). Although some disagreement remains about the size of the effect, it does appear that women are more likely to conform than men. Moreover, this tendency to conform seems to be especially likely in face-to-face situations like the Asch procedure. Explanations for this difference include men’s need to appear independent and women’s tendency to promote smooth social interactions.

Finally, the number of other people in the situation affects conformity behavior. Asch (1956) varied the number of confederates in his procedure, creating conditions with one to fifteen confederates. He found that conformity increased noticeably as the number of confederates grew, but that this effect leveled off after three or four. In other words, five or fifteen confederates giving an incorrect response to the line judgment task generated no more tendency to conform to the norm than four confederates. Other researchers have developed elaborate models to account for the effects of crowd size on conformity (Latane 1981, Tanford and Penrod 1984). These models consider such variables as characteristics of the individuals in the group and physical proximity of the group members.

1.2 Perceived Norms

The impact of norms is not limited to situations like the Asch paradigm, in which people observe the behavior of others and face immediate social consequences. Rather, many daily decisions are influenced by what individuals believe to be the normative behavior for a given situation. Whether people give money to a charitable cause, yield the right of way to pedestrians, or take an extra copy of the paper from a newspaper box depends to some degree on what they perceive to be the normative behavior in that situation. Researchers have identified two kinds of perceived norms (Cialdini et al. 1991). Injunctive norms refer to correct behavior, that is, what society says one should do in the situation. Injunctive norms tell people they should give to charitable causes and that they should not take a newspaper they have not paid for. Descriptive norms refer to what most people actually would do in the situation. Although people typically do not have adequate data to make an accurate assessment of what most people would do, they commonly rely on whatever information they have to estimate the descriptive norm, however incorrect they may be.

Injunctive and descriptive norms often are very similar and lead us to the same decision about our behavior. However, psychologists also point to some notable exceptions. For example, a widely accepted injunctive norm states that people should not litter in public settings. But a parking garage filled with bits of litter suggests to passersby that the descriptive norm— what people actually do—is quite different. Whether people respond to the injunctive or descriptive norm in this situation may depend on which of these two is brought to their awareness. Researchers in one set of studies placed useless flyers on windshields in a parking garage (Reno et al. 1993). When the drivers’ attention was drawn to the litter that others had apparently tossed to the ground (descriptive norm), they tended to also drop the flyer on the ground. When these drivers were made aware of the injunctive norm, such as when they saw another person pick up a piece of litter to keep the environment clean, most decided against littering.

2. Compliance

People demonstrate compliance when they agree to an explicit request, such as a request to buy a product or to volunteer their time. Much of the research on compliance has examined the effectiveness of sequential-request procedures. By presenting participants with certain kinds of request in specific sequences, investigators have identified many of the psychological processes that lead people to accept or refuse a request. Four of these procedures are described here.

The most widely researched of the sequentialrequests procedures is the foot-in-the-door technique (Freedman and Fraser 1966). The procedure begins with a small request that virtually everyone agrees to. At some later point, the same requester or a different individual returns and presents a larger request. This second request is known as the target request, because getting participants to agree with the larger request is the real purpose of the procedure. If the foot-in-the-door manipulation is successful, participants will comply with the target request at a higher rate than if they had been presented only with the target request. Numerous investigations demonstrate that the foot-in-the-door procedure can increase compliance to the request. However, reviews of this literature find that many studies fail to produce the effect and that the overall size of the effect is not large (Burger 1999). Part of the problem with this research is that investigators have used a variety of procedures to create a foot-in- the-door manipulation, some of which are not effective. For example, the foot-in-the-door procedure is more likely to increase compliance when participants are allowed to perform the initial request, when the initial request requires more than a minimal amount of effort, and when the second request appears to be a continuation of the initial request (Burger 1999).

Researchers disagree on the psychological processes underlying the foot-in-the-door phenomenon. The most widely cited interpretation for the effect is the self-perception explanation. According to this account, agreeing with the initial request causes people to alter the way they think about themselves. When later presented with the target request, these individuals are said to use their compliance to the small request as an indicator of their attitude toward such causes or toward participating in these kinds of activities. Because they agreed to the small request, they are more likely than control participants to agree to the target request.

Another common sequential-request procedure begins with an initial request so large that most people refuse. These individuals then are presented immediately with a smaller (target) request. If this door-in-the-face technique is successful, participants will agree to the target request more often than if they had not first rejected the large request (Cialdini et al. 1975). For example, participants in one study were asked to volunteer for a two-year placement working as a youth counselor. After they refused, experimenters asked participants if they would chaperone some children on a two-hour trip to the zoo. These participants agreed at a higher rate than those asked only the target request (Cialdini et al. 1975).

The door-in-the-face procedure is said to be effective because the requester takes advantage of a widely practiced social rule called the reciprocity norm. The reciprocity norm governs many social exchanges and requires that people return favors and acts of kindness (Gouldner 1960). Most people feel a strong sense of obligation to someone who has done them a favor, even when that favor was not requested. Moreover, studies find that people often give back more than they received in order to relieve themselves of their obligation. When applied to the door-in-the-face situation, the requester ‘gives’ the individual what appears to be a concession. That is, the requester seems to give up something he or she wants, and the individual reciprocates by giving something to the requester, i.e., the target request.

Another sequential-request procedure begins when the participant agrees to a request at a given price. Requesters using the low-ball procedure then raise the cost of the request slightly. The procedure leads to more compliance at the higher price than when the price is presented at the outset (Cialdini et al. 1978). For example, undergraduates in one study agreed to participate in a psychology experiment. The students then were informed that the experiment was to be held at 7.00 a.m., thus making participation more costly than they probably had imagined. Nonetheless, these students showed up for the early morning experiment more often than those told about the time of the experiment at the beginning (Cialdini et al. 1978). The effectiveness of the low-ball procedure is said to result from a sense of commitment that develops when the individual agrees to the initial request. The individuals feel committed to perform the agreed-upon behavior, or at least to do something for the requester (Burger and Petty 1981). This sense of commitment causes people to continue to agree to the request even at the higher price.

In contrast to the small-to-large price progression used in the low-ball technique, the that’s-not-all procedure uses a large-to-small price progression. Requesters using this procedure present the request at a given price, then improve the deal before the individual can respond (Burger 1986). For example, participants in one study were told the price of a cupcake was one dollar. Before participants could respond, the salesperson said the price really was 75 cents. The participants in this condition were more likely to buy the cupcake than those told at the outset that the price was 75 cents (Burger 1986). The that’snot-all procedure is said to work in part because, as in the door-in-the-face procedure, the requester appears to be making a concession. The procedure also is effective because it appears to alter the ‘anchor point’ the individual uses to decide if the final price is a good or fair one. That is, participants are said to use the initial price as a reference point when deciding whether to agree with the final price. Because the final price is lower, participants are more likely to see it as reasonable than when they are presented only with the lower price.

3. Obedience

Obedience refers to an individual’s response to a command from an authority figure. Implicit in this description is the notion that the recipient of the command is reluctant to engage in the behavior and probably would not unless give direct orders to do so. Consequently, psychologists’ ability to conduct controlled laboratory studies of obedience has been limited by concerns for the welfare of participants who are torn between obeying commands and following their conscience. As a result of heightened concerns for the ethical treatment of human participants in recent years, most of the insights psychologist have about the obedience process come from a series of demonstrations conducted in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram (1974).

The basic procedure in Milgram’s studies used one real participant, one confederate posing as a participant, and an experimenter. The study was described to participants as a learning experiment designed to test the effects of punishment. The participant’s task was to teach a list of word associations to the confederate by punishing the confederate for incorrect answers. The method of punishment was electric shock, with the participant instructed to give increasingly severe shocks to the confederate for each wrong answer. The participant’s dilemma occurred when the confederate complained about the shocks and demanded to be released from the shock apparatus. In most versions of the procedure the participant could hear the confederate screaming in pain through the wall that separated them. Although it was apparent that the confederate was suffering and was probably receiving dangerous levels of electric shock, the experimenter commanded the participant to continue giving shocks. The procedure continued until the participant refused to go on, or until the participant pressed the highest button on the apparatus (labeled 450 volt) three times, for a total of 33 shocks.

The results of the study were unexpected. Prior to conducting the investigation, Milgram asked students, middle-class adults, and psychiatrists to predict the results. Everyone agreed that the typical participant would stop very early in the shock sequence and that virtually no one would continue to the 450 volt level. However, in the basic procedure Milgram found that 65 percent of the participants continued to follow the experimenter’s commands all the way to the end.

Milgram (1974) conducted a series of variations on the basic procedure in an effort to explain the participants’ high level of obedience. He found that proximity of the participant and confederate appeared to play a role. Obedience dropped to 40 percent when the participant was in the same room as the confederate, and dropped to 30 percent when the participant was required to touch the confederate to administer the shock. Although the original studies were con- ducted with male participants, a similar pattern was found when Milgram used women as participants. The level of obedience did not diminish when the experimenter gave his commands in a meek manner, but dropped to 20 percent when the commands were given by another confederate posing as a participant. Milgram concluded from this last finding that obedience does not depend on the authority figure’s personality or charismatic style, but rather that obedience requires only that the individual be recognized as a legitimate authority.

Most social psychologists point to Milgram’s research as an example of the often-unrecognized power of the situation to influence behavior. Although personality characteristics of the participants can affect whether they obey or refuse the command (Blass 1991), the discrepancy between people’s predictions and the actual outcome of the Milgram studies suggests that the situation had a greater influence than most people recognize. Other psychologists point out that Milgram’s procedure also took advantage of conformity and compliance processes. For example, by moving from small to progressively larger shocks, Milgram placed participants in a situation similar to that used in foot-in-the-door demonstrations. Milgram also found a drop in obedience when participants had information about descriptive norms. When participants saw two other participants (actually confederates) refuse the command, only 10 percent obeyed the experimenter’s commands to the end.

4. Future Directions

Although researchers have identified many social influence phenomena, questions remain about the psychological processes underlying some of these behaviors. Future research is likely to examine these processes, with particular attention to the way multiple processes combine to produce conformity and compliance. Investigators also may focus on variables affecting social influence. In particular, cultural differences in conformity and compliance behavior are likely to be explored. However, future research on obedience probably will be limited by concerns for the ethical treatment of human participants. For many years now, these concerns have prevented researchers from replicating the procedures used by Milgram in his obedience studies. The challenge for investigators is to develop procedures that create a realistic obedience situation without exposing participants to excessive emotional stress.


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