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From the moment we are born we enter a society where it is the norm to conform and obey. From a very young age we learn that if we do not obey then we will suffer the consequences for these actions. People within society have a desire to be accepted and to belong; whether to a group or a family this social influence can change our thoughts, feeling and even our behaviour. So can we truly be an individual or are we pre-defined by a set of social boundaries?
‘Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth’ (J F.
Kennedy). Kennedy feels that by conforming you are giving up your freedom as an individual to whom/what you are conforming to. In doing this you relinquish your ability to grow and have your own thoughts and act on them; whilst conforming a person cannot flourish. Many psychologists have conducted experiments to try and ascertain what makes people conform and the effects that this has on the individual and their social environment.
Stanley Milgram’s is regarded as one of the most thought provoking psychologists in social psychology. Influenced by Solomon Asch and Gordon Allport, Milgram conducted many experiments on obedience to authority, most notably his learner teacher experiment conducted at Yale University. The aim of this study was to answer the following question: Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had a mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust? Milgram believed that everyone is capable of doing bad things if they are led to believe that they are doing it for a ‘greater good’, he tried to validate the actions of the German soldiers during the Holocaust.
These soldiers believed they were acting on behalf of someone that knew better. Where people are put into an uncomfortable situation and are unable to assess the correct way in which to deal with this situation they tend to look to someone that they believe is more knowledgeable than they are. ‘We conform because we believe that other’s interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help is choose an appropriate course of action’ (Aronson, et al., 2005). This is an example of Informational social influence theory (ISI) (Muzafer Sherif, 1935), conflicting to this is Normative Influence Theory (NI) (Bibb Latané, 1980). NI is the influence from peer pressure; people can act on NI for a number of reasons. It can be for fear of rejection, a desire for approval or to show a level of loyalty to a group.
Kaplan and Miller investigate and summarise theses different types of influence and which one dominates when in group discussions. ‘Groups and individuals often shift their preferences following discussion of an issue. Explanations for such shifts typically invoke either informational or normative influence processes. The former refers to influence based on sharing of facts or persuasive arguments about the issue, and the latter refers to conformity to implicit decision norms and others’ preferences. We investigated conditions under which one or the other influence mode predominates during discussion.
Groups discussed and made decisions on either an intellective issue (attempting to discover the true or correct answer) or a judgmental issue (deciding on the moral, valued, or appropriate position), given either unanimity or a majority decision rule. The largest shift in preference was found for the judgmental issue decided by unanimity rule. The least satisfaction with both the process and the outcome of discussion was found in groups that decided a judgmental issue under majority rule. Content analysis showed that, as expected, the intellective issue elicited more informational than normative influence, and the judgmental issue provoked more normative than informational influence. This pattern was stronger under unanimity rule than under majority rule.’ (Kaplan & Miller, 1987).
Did Milgram take his study too far? In conducting this study Milgram caused great controversy between fellow psychologists as many considered this experiment to be unethical, it was ‘harmful because it may cause permanent psychological damage and cause people to be less trusting in the future (Baumrind, 1964). The main difference between conformity and obedience is the consequence. Conformity is a choice; you choose whether to follow a group and you can choose the way that you dress. As individuals we invoke the right to freedom of choice; freedom to choose within a society full of boundaries and limitations.
When we talk about obedience there is always a consequence, no matter how big or small if we choose not to obey then we suffer the consequence or lose out on the reward. Obeying is the act of behaving in a way that we are told; this can be by parents, teachers, police or the government. Obedience is a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from another individual, who is usually an authority figure. It is assumed that without such an order the person would not have acted in this way.
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