How do others influence our behaviour?

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When it comes to the theory and research of social psychology, one important topic to address is how others influence our behavior.

Within the field of psychology, social influence is a wide-ranging concept that is closely tied to social psychology. It explores how the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of individuals are affected by the presence of others, whether they are real, imagined, or implied (McGrath, 1970). These influences have a substantial impact on our social existence.

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When we are in social situations, we tend to adapt our behavior to fit in because we are unsure how to feel or act and prefer guidance from others. Additionally, our social interactions are shaped by social norms, which encompass the accepted thoughts, emotions, actions, and attitudes among a specific group of people. When a group has clearly established expectations for behavior, individuals may feel obliged to conform and abide by these norms.

In this essay, we will examine various examples of social influences. These examples include majority and minority effects, obedience, conformity, and the reasons behind our conscious and subconscious yielding and conformity to social influences.

Conforming implies adhering to rules, standards, and laws, and behaving in accordance with socially accepted norms and conventions. It typically entails aligning oneself with the perceptions or actions of the majority within a given social context. This concept is described by Goldstein (2004) as compliance with preferred behaviors favored by the social majority.

Asch (1956) conducted a study on the major influence. The participants believed they were involved in a visual discrimination task. The groups consisted of one participant and several confederates. They were given four lines to compare, with one line (‘X’) being identical to either ‘A’, ‘B’, or ‘C’ (the comparison lines). The group had to publicly announce which of the three comparison lines matched the standard line. They took turns declaring whether line A, B, or C matched the standard line. The confederates were instructed to intentionally choose the incorrect answer for 12 out of 18 trials.

The participant who was not aware of the experiment’s true nature was strategically positioned to respond second to last. This placement allowed them to hear the responses of the confederates, which exerted a majority influence, before providing their own answer. The findings revealed that 75% of participants conformed at least once, while 50% conformed and provided incorrect answers in at least 6 trials. Additionally, 5% of participants conformed in all the incorrect trials. On average, the conformity rate across all trials was 33%.

Asch’s participants, when questioned about their conformity to the incorrect majority, expressed feeling uncertain and doubtful due to conflicting opinions within the group. They acknowledged that although they held different thoughts from the group, they second-guessed their own opinions in light of a divergent majority opinion. Moreover, they disclosed a reluctance to draw attention or appear foolish in front of the rest of the group.

The study found that people conform to majority influence in social groups to avoid ridicule and social disapproval. This is demonstrated by a controlled study where incorrect answers occurred less than 1% of the time when participants were not subject to incorrect majority influence. Additionally, Deutsch & Gérard (1955) conducted different situations similar to Asch’s experiment and discovered that participants gave the correct answer when they were able to write their response privately.

According to Deutsch & Gérard (1955), conformity can be defined as either normative influence or informational influence. Normative influence is the desire to be liked and fit in with a group, while informational influence is the desire to be correct or do the right thing by joining a majority opinion. When experiencing informational influence, individuals often internalize or privately accept the information as being correct (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). In contrast, normative influence typically leads to compliance, where individuals may change their opinion in the situation but revert back to their original opinion outside of it.

The Asch study’s validity is limited as it may not be applicable to real-life situations. In a study by Williams and Sogon (1984), Japanese students who belonged to a sports club exhibited even greater conformity when influenced by people they knew. However, this finding may only apply to the collectivistic nature of Japanese society and may not be applicable to other societies. Smith and Bond (1993) conducted a study on cultural factors and found that conformity is higher in individualist cultures where group harmony is emphasized.

The study carried out by (Jenness, 1932) looked at the estimation of the number of beans in a jar by students. They were then brought together to discuss their estimates. After being separated and asked again, Jenness observed that the estimates had all gravitated toward a central figure or ‘group norm’. This led to the conclusion that in situations where there is ambiguity, people seek guidance from others, presuming that a majority opinion is more dependable.

(Sherif, 1935) conducted an experiment where participants sat in a darkened room and were asked to estimate the movement of a spot of light, even though it was not actually moving. Sherif discovered that when participants were allowed to discuss their opinions, their answers became more similar, suggesting the development of a group norm. This study further illustrates the tendency to conform to a majority in ambiguous situations. However, it is important to note that both Jenness and Sherif’s studies were highly artificial and may lack ecological validity.

The concept of minority influence is distinguished from majority influence, as it involves individuals who challenge the prevailing norm and adopt a minority position. The suffragette movement in the early 20th century provides a notable example of minority influence. A dedicated group of suffragettes fervently advocated for women’s right to vote. Their relentless efforts and the justice behind their cause led to the success of the movement, resulting in granting women voting rights and persuading the majority to embrace their perspective. This phenomenon is known as conversion since it entails an individual’s personal shift in beliefs rather than mere conformity to societal expectations (internalization).

In a study conducted by Moscovici, Lage, and Naffrenchoux (1969), it was found that a minority group can influence the majority. The study involved participants divided into groups of four with two confederates representing the minority. They were shown different shades of blue slides and asked to state the color verbally. The confederates consistently said “green” for all 36 slides or sometimes 24 times “green” and 12 times “blue”. Results showed that approximately 8.42% of the trials had participants agreeing with the minority. It is important to note that at least once, about 32% of participants agreed with the minority. Hence, this study demonstrates the ability of minorities to influence the majority’s opinions.

Group identification and social cryptoamnesia provide insights into why individuals succumb to minority influence. In their study, Maass, Clark, and Haberknorn (1982) examined the impact of a minority group, comprising either heterosexual or gay individuals, advocating for gay rights to a majority heterosexual group. The researchers observed that the influence exerted by the minority was stronger when they were heterosexual compared to when they were gay. This discrepancy can be attributed to the greater ability of heterosexual participants to identify with the heterosexual minority.

The essay has discussed different types of indirect social influence, in which individuals may decide to comply with the perceived pressure from either a majority or a minority. This implies that we are fully aware of these social influences on our behavior. Obedience to authority represents another form of social influence. In his study, Milgram (1963) examined whether regular individuals would follow the orders of an authority figure who appeared to be legitimate, even if it involved causing harm to another person, such as administering electric shocks.

The study findings implied that individuals exhibit unexpected obedience to authority when instructed to engage in cruel behavior. The explanations for such compliance include gradual commitment, the agentic shift, and the influence of buffers. Since the participants had already administered mild shocks and committed to this behavior, it became increasingly challenging for them to defy the experimenters’ demands to escalate the intensity of the shocks and alter their perspectives.

The concept of the agentic state involves individuals perceiving themselves as agents who fulfill the desires of an authoritative figure. According to Milgram (1974), individuals transition between an agentic state and an autonomous state when participating in an authoritarian system. In this state, individuals no longer perceive their actions as motivated by personal purpose, but instead as serving the intentions of another person.

Buffering also had an effect on obedience. When participants were shielded from seeing the victim, their obedience decreased. While Milgram’s research is controversial, it has provided valuable insight into the influence of authority and can help shed light on events such as the Holocaust. It explains why many Nazi soldiers followed orders to commit brutal acts, possibly due to the presence of authoritative figures.

Conforming is a result of our natural psychological need for growth, belonging, and maturity, as stated by Maslow (1943). It is evident that people are conscious of social influences, whether it is the effects of the majority or minority, or obedience to authority. People conform to these influences due to various factors such as normative and informational influence, group identification, social cryptoamnesia, gradual commitment, agentic shift, and buffers. Nonetheless, we will continue to argue that individuals are often unaware of the influences on their behavior, thoughts, and emotions (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977).

Agnew.C (Eds, 2009) discusses the focus on behavior in social psychological theory and research. Asch, S.E. (1951) examines the effects of group pressure on judgment modification and distortion. Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004) explore social influence and compliance. Crisp, R.J., & Turner, R.H. (2010) present essential social psychology concepts. Deutsch, M & Gérard, H.B (1955) conduct a study on normative and informational social influences. Dunn, D & Hammer., E (2010) discuss psychology applied to modern life. Hogg, M.A & Vaughan, G.M. (2005) provide an overview of social psychology. Jenness, A. (1932) investigates the role of discussion in opinion change. Maslow, A.H. (1943) presents a theory of human motivation. Moscovici, S. (1980) proposes a theory of conversion behavior. Milgram, S. (1974) explores obedience to authority.London is the location of Tavistock.

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