How do others influence our behaviour?

How do others influence our behaviour? Discuss with reference to social psychology theory and research.

Social influence has many different definitions in psychology, it is mainly used to summarise the field of social psychology. Mainly looking at “how thoughts, feelings and behaviour of individuals are influenced by actual, imagined or implied presence of others” (McGrath, 1970.) Our social life is mainly distinguished by our social influences; influences we are both consciously and subconsciously aware of.

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As individuals we occasionally change our behaviour to ‘fit in’ to social situations, we alter our behaviours as we are unsure of the correct way to feel or act and use others as a resource of information. Our social life and influences are further characterised by social norms, these norms are defined as accepted ways of thinking, feeling, behaviours and attitudes within a social group. When a group has a well recognised set of social behaviours, pressure then arises for individuals to maintain these norms, to obey and conform to them.

This essay will explore a variety of different examples of social influences; covering majority and minority effects, obedience, conformity and explanations as to why we yield and conform to social influences, both consciously and subconsciously.

A person is said to conform if they “comply with rules, standards and laws. Behaving accordingly to socially acceptable conventions and/or standards, usually preferred by what is considered the social majority.” (Goldstein, N. J. 2004) The ‘majority’ refers to the major influence that the majority of people think or act in that certain social situation.

As study into major influence was conducted by Asch (1956) participants in the study believed they were participating in a visual discrimination task. Groups consisted of one participant with the rest as confederates and were given four lines to compare, the ‘X’ (standard line) was identical to one of either ‘A, B or C’ (comparison lines.) The group had to publicly declare which of three ‘comparison’ lines matched the ‘standard line’ and took it in turns to say whether line A, B or C matched the standard line. The confederates were instructed to pick an incorrect answer for 12 /18 trials.

The real i.e. naive participant was always placed so that they answered second to last, giving them time to hear the confederates answers (the majority influence), before then giving their own. The results showed that 75% of participants, conformed at least once, 50% of participants conformed on at least 6 trials and provided incorrect answers. 5% conformed to all incorrect trials. The average conformity rate was 33% across all the given trials.

Asch asked the participants as to why they has conformed to the incorrect majority, they described that they felt uncertainty and doubt as a result of the differing opinions in the group, they admitted knowing that even though they thought differently to the group, they doubted their own opinions due to a different majority opinion and that they did not want to stand out or be perceived to be ‘stupid’ to the rest of the group.

The study overall showed evidence that we do conform to majority influence in social groups to avoid ridicule and social disapproval. This is supported by the controlled study which showed incorrect answers occurring less that 1% through the trial when participants were not subjected to an incorrect majority influence. Furthermore Deutsch & Gérard (1955) designed different situations that varied from Asch’ experiment and found that when participants were writing their answer privately, they also gave the correct answer.

They defined conformity in summary is due to either “normative influence or informational influence, in short, normative is the result of wanting to be liked (fit in with the group) and informational is the result of wanting to be right (joining a majority opinion in order to be correct or do the right thing)” (Deutsch & Gérard,1955). Informational influence often results in internalization or private acceptance, where a person genuinely believes that the information is right (Hogg &Vaughan, 2005). Normative influence however usually results in compliance, whereby although a person may be seen to change their opinion, outside of the situation they will revert to their original opinion.

Asch study lacks validity in that it cannot be readily applied to real world situations. Williams and Sogon (1984) studied Japanese students who belonged to a sports club and found that conformity was even higher when the majority influence was people whom the students knew. However it is important to remember this could represent the collectivistic nature of Japanese society and may not be generalisable to other societies. A further study into cultural factors by (Smith and Bond, 1993) showed that conformity within individualist cultures does appear to be higher in societies where group harmony is important.

A study conducted by (Jenness, 1932) involved a jar of beans and students estimating how many beans were inside the jar. After, he grouped the participants together to discuss the contents. When they were separated and asked their opinions again, Jenness found that the estimates had converged around a central figure and ‘group norm’. The conclusion suggested that in ambiguous situations, we tend look to others for help, assuming that a majority figure will be more reliable.

(Sherif, 1935) asked participants to sit in a darkened room and had to guess how much an a spot of light moved although it was actually unmoving. He also found that answers to an ambiguous stimulus become similar when participants are allowed to discuss their opinions as the answers also appeared to develop a group norm. Further demonstrating again a tendency to conform to a majority in ambiguous situation. However both Jenness and Sherif studies are very artificial and lack ecological validity.

As there is majority influence, we also have minority influence, this is where people reject the established norm of the majority and form a minority. An important example of a minority influence is the suffragette movement in the early years of the 20th century. A small group of suffragettes argued strongly for the view that women should have the right vote. From their hard work, combined with the justice of their case, the movement finally led to allowing women the right to vote and the majority to accept the minorities view. This is knows as conversion as unlike compliance, conversion involves a person personally altering their views and beliefs away from the given situation (internalzisation) rather than just altering it to fit in.

Moscovici, Lage and Naffrenchoux (1969) study into minority influence also proved that a minority can influence a majority. Participants in the study were placed in a group consisting of four participants and two confederates (minority). They were shown different shades of blue slides, the participants were asked to state the colour of each slide out loud. The confederates answered green for each of the 36 slides or answered green 24 times and blue 12 times. They found that the participants agreed with the minority on 8.42% of the trials.. Notably, 32% gave the same answer as the minority at least once. The findings showed that minorities can influence majority opinion.

Group identification and social cryptoamnesia are the key explanations as to why people yield to minority influence. Maass, Clark and Haberknorn (1982) studied how a minority group preaching to a majority heterosexual group about gay rights differed depending on if the minority group was also heterosexual or gay. If the minority was gay, they had less influence on the participants, compared to a larger influence if the minority was straight. This could be explained in that the heterosexual participants were able to identify more with the heterosexual minority.

So far, the essay has covered types of indirect social influence where people can choose to yield to the perceived pressure of a majority or minority, this suggests we are completely consciously aware of such social influences on our behaviour. Obedience to authority refers to an alternative type of social influence. Milgram (1963) investigated whether ordinary people would obey the commands of a seemingly legitimate authority figure, even when it meant harming another human being i.e. by the administrating of electric shocks.

The findings of the study suggested that people are surprisingly obedient to authority when asked to behave in an inhumane way. Gradual commitment, agentic shift and the role of buffers are explanations as to why people obey. As participants had already given lower-level shocks and committed to this course of action, it became harder to resist the experimenters requirement to increase the shocks and change their minds.

The agentic state refers to when a person sees themself as an agent to carry out another person’s wishes i.e. the authoritve figure. (Milgram, 1974) argued that people move between an agentic state and an autonomous state on entering an authoritarian system, Milgram claimed the individual no longer views themselves as acting out of his own purpose but sees themselves as agents for another.

Buffering also had an effect, as when the participant was protected (buffered) from seeing the victim, obedience fell. Milgram’s research although controversial has been of great value in terms of understanding the power of obedience to authority and can help explain such atrocities as the Holocaust, why so many Nazi soldiers obeyed their orders to carry out incredibly inhumane actions due to perhaps the present of authoritative figures.

To conclude one of the main reasons we conform is due to our innate psychological need for intuitive growth, belonging and maturity (Maslow, 1943). There is evidence to suggest people are in fact aware of social influences whether it is majority and minority effects or obedience to authority; people yield to such influences for a variety of reasons: normative and informational influence, group identification, social cryptoamnesia, gradual commitment, agentic shift and the role of buffers. Nevertheless we will continue to debate that people are often unaware of the influences on their behaviour, thoughts and emotions. (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977) References

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Moscovici, S. and Zavalloni, M. (1969). The group as a polarizer of attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 125-135. Maslow, A (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper. p. 236 Ratele, K & Duncan, N (2003). Social Psychology: Identities and Relationships. Kenwyn, SA: Juta & Company Ltd: 10. Sherif. M. (1935). A study of some social factors in perception. Archives of Psychology, 27(187) Smith, P.B. and Bond, M.H. (1993). Social Psychology Across Cultures: Analysis and Perspectives. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Smith, P.B. and Bond, R (1996 ). Culture and Conformity: A Meta-Analysis of Studies Using Asch’s ( 1952b, 1956) Line Judgment Task. Psychological Bulletin , Vol. 119(1), 111-13. Retrieved from

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