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Conformity involves a change in behaviour or opinion in order to fit in with a group. This may be family or peers (a membership group) or it may be pop and sports stars (a reference group). This group can be either a majority or a minority group. (S-cool Student Site) Two processes have been identified in causing people to conform (Deutsch and Gerard (1955)), these are normative influence which often comes from peer pressure such as fear of rejection and wanting approval and informational influence which is the fear of looking unintelligent and believing others know better especially with something unfamiliar or difficult.
There have been many studies done by psychologists into why people conform two examples of which are Zimbardo et al (1973) and Moscovici et al (1969) which are described as follows: Zimbardos aim in his Stamford prison experiment was to examine conformity to social roles and expectations in other words to see the effect of making ‘good’, ‘normal’ people into prisoners and prison guards. The procedure for the experiment was that twenty-four middle class male students who were mentally sound in tests and without any criminal convictions were paid fifteen dollars a day and divided into prisoners or guards by the flip of a coin.
The prisoners were arrested at their homes, blindfolded and taken to the psychology Department of Stanford University that had been converted into a realistic prison. From there the prison regime was established, the three guards were given khaki uniforms dark glasses and wooden batons, the prisoners were issued uniforms and put into cells. They were informed that no physical aggression was permitted. The participants were then left to their roles of either prison guard or prisoner.
The findings of the study were that the prison guards became more and more verbally and physically aggressive. The prisoners rebelled against the guards after only one day and fire extinguishers were used to control the prisoners. The prisoners became depersonalised and suffered emotional depression, one prisoner had to be released after only one day and two more on the fourth day. The study was abandoned after only six days instead of the planned fourteen.
Zimbardo believes that the study demonstrated the powerful effect roles could have on people’s behaviour. The participants were ‘playing the role’ that they thought was expected of them in particular the stereotyped view of how prison guards behave. In other words they were conforming to an ‘unofficial script’. The prison environment played an important part in how the guards behaved as none had shown sadistic tendencies before the study.
The study has been criticized because of the lack of informed consent the participants had and the humiliation and distress experienced by the prisoners. Zimbardo was also criticised for acting the role of ‘prison superintendent’. In Zimbardos defence he only found out himself late on that he had the backing of the police to do the arrest and there was no time to tell the participants. He also couldn’t really tell them what was going to happen without it becoming unrealistic.
The study was stopped early and the participants had no lasting effects from the study, after extensive debriefing and follow-ups years later. Infact they revealed they had learned an important lesson in that we can all be overwhelmed by social influences. Zimbardo himself now acknowledges that he shouldn’t of acted the role of superintendent but still believes that there should still be an independent monitor in this sort of research so that not only are the participants protected valuable information can also be acquired.