Conformity is a form of social influence which involves a change in a belief or behaviour in order to fit in with a particular group. This change is in response to real (involving the physical presence of others) or imagined (involving the pressure of social norms / expectations) group pressure.
Muzafer Sherif (1935) conducted a lab experiment study on conformity in 1935. Sherif conducted this study by putting participants in a dark room and told them to watch a pinpoint of light and report how far it moved. However psychologists had discovered that a small, still light in a dark room often appeared to be moving and this was known as the autokinetic effect. The autokinetic effect is an illusion because the light does not actually move. However, people almost always believe that it does move. He found out that when participants were tested alone; their estimates (on how far the light moved) was very different (e.g. from 20cm to 80cm). The participants were then tested in groups of three. However Sherif manipulated the composition of the group by putting together two people whose estimate of the light movement when alone was very similar, and one person whose estimate was very different. Each person in the group had to say aloud how far they thought the light had moved.
Sherif found that over several trials of the movement of light, the group had a common estimate. On the other hand this showed that people would always tend to conform rather than make individual judgments they tend to come to a group agreement. In spite of this he repeated the study (using the same people) with the whole group present in the same room; he discovered that everyone’s answer was based on the estimate given by the first person he asked for the answer. This study shows that in an ambiguous situation people will tend to look to others for the answers instead of relying on their own independent answers.
Criticisms of his study are that the group that he used had only three people and the people may have not seen themselves as a group and there was no right or wrong answer because it was an ambiguous task and Sherif also told them that he was going to move the light so they were more likely to change their minds anyway. In conclusion the results show that when in an uncertain situation, a person will look to others who know more or better for help thus meaning they adopt the group norm. They want to do the right thing but they might not have the right information. In addition to this, watching other people can provide this information; and this is known as informational conformity.
Zimbardo’s experiment was designed to show conformity to social roles, this is an example of normative influence. Volunteers were given power and asked to act as guards over other volunteers who were prisoners. The aim of his study was to see the psychological effects of making ‘normal’, ‘good’ people into prisoners or guards. He had 24 middle class, male college students as volunteers; they were mentally sound in tests and no criminal records, were paid $15 per day and divided into prisoners or guards by the flip of a coin. The procedure of his study was that the prisoners were arrested at their homes at the start of the study, blindfolded and taken to Stanford University Psychology Department basement, which had been converted into a realistic prison! From then on the volunteers were treated as prisoners by the other volunteers who were guards. The study was stopped after six days because the guards became sadistic and the prisoners became extremely stressed.
He found that the behaviour of the ‘normal’ students who had been randomly allocated to each condition, was affected by the role they had been assigned, to the extent that they seemed to believe in their allocated positions. The study therefore rejects the dispositional hypothesis. The experiment had to be stopped after just six days instead of the planned 14 days, mainly because of the pathological reactions of the participants. Five prisoners had to be released even earlier because of extreme emotional depression.
As a result of this is that even though the simulation was finished after only six days instead of the projected fourteen days all of the remaining prisoners were happy by the news, but most of the guards seemed to be distressed by the early end to the study and this showed that they had become too involved in their role that they now enjoyed the extreme control and power which they put into effect. Zimbardo referred to this as the ‘pathology of power’. In conclusion to his study, he found that people will willingly conform to the social roles that they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards. The “prison” environment was an important factor in creating the guards’ violent behaviour (however none of the participants who acted as guards showed cruel behaviour/ mentality before the study). Therefore, this means that the roles that people play can shape their behaviour and attitudes.
Asch conducted a study to investigate the question of whether people conform in highly unambiguous situations. He did this by setting up a situation in which seven people all sat looking at a display. They had to say out loud which one the three lines A, B, or C was the same size as the stimulus line, X. All but except one of the participants were confederates (accomplices) of the experimenter, and on some “critical” trials the confederates were told to unanimously give the same wrong answer. The only genuine participant in the trial gave their estimation last. By doing this, there was group pressure on the genuine participant to give the answer that would make them fit in the most.
He found out that the performance of participants exposed to group pressure was compared to the performance in a control condition in which there were no confederates. He also found that on the trials (where the confederates gave the same wrong answer), the real participant gave the same wrong answer on 37% of the trials. In the control condition, there was only an error rate of 0.7% therefore, the correct answer was obvious and everyone was expected to give them. However Asch’s participants were put in a difficult and embarrassing position among a group of strangers that may have less to higher levels of conformity. He only tested conformity on a trivial level and did not test the participant’s deep rooted beliefs. And he didn’t actually establish why there was so much conformity.
In conclusion to his study is that a majority can influence showed that a minority even in an unambiguous situation where the correct answer is obvious. Asch showed that group pressures tend to conform in terms of majority influence thus causing them to become much stronger than they had been thought before. However, on about 2/3 of the trials, the valid participant gave the correct answer, so many people managed to resist majority influence.
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