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Conformity and minority influence


Social psychology is about how individuals are influenced by others, so it would appear that the area of social influence should encompass the whole of social psychology. However the term is usually used to refer to the way that the judgements and attitudes of one individual are influenced by those of others, and has tended to focus on the areas of conformity and obedience. This may be due to the interest in these particular areas in the 1950s when, after the war, psychologists were setting up experiments to measure aspects of behaviour, which had been observed, often to destructive effect, during the war. These were notably conformity, compliance and obedience to authority figures.


Although we are often encouraged to think for ourselves, there are many forces at work to prevent us from doing so. To what extent are we influenced by factors like conformity and obedience in our everyday lives?




Research studies into conformity


Conformity can be defined as changing behaviour as a result of group pressures even though no direct request has been made to comply with the group.


The most significant study in the history of research into conformity is that of Solomon Asch (1951).

Asch’s work was influenced by the studies of Muzafer Sherif (1935). The key difference between the two studies is that Sherif used a very difficult perceptual judgement task (judging the apparent movement of a small spot of light in an otherwise dark room). In contrast, the judgement that had to be made by participants in Asch’s study was clear and unambiguous. They were asked to compare the lengths of lines drawn on a card, a task that under normal circumstances resulted in almost 100% accuracy.


Rather than being seen as a single study, Asch’s study was really a whole series of investigations that used the same basic method (or paradigm).


Factors that influence conformity


As well as being important to be able to describe the Asch experiments in detail, you should also be familiar with findings that help us to isolate the factors that affect conformity. Some of the key ones are:

  • Group size (i.e. size of majority)
  • Unanimity (whether a dissenter is present in the group)
  • Task difficulty/ambiguity

Further studies have investigated whether such factors as gender and personality are associated with different levels of conformity.


Explanations of conformity


In an attempt to explain why people conform, psychologists have identified a number of different types and sources of influence.


Informational versus normative influence

In looking for explanations of the findings of research on conformity behaviour, a popular theory was proposed by Deutsch and Gerrard (1955) in which they differentiated between informational and normative influence. They argued that the Sherif paradigm was mainly an example of informational influence — individuals using the majority as an aid to reaching a decision (basically a form of social comparison). In the Asch study, however the influence is normative — pressure to suspend one’s own judgement through, for example, fear of ridicule. An important difference between these two forms of influence is the extent to which conformity results in a change in the persons privately held beliefs. In the case of informational influence, there is much more likely to be acceptance of the majorities point of view (internalisation). However with normative influence it less likely that there will be a change in the individuals privately held opinions. He or she is merely ‘going along with the crowd’ (compliance).


The usefulness of distinguishing between informational and normative influence has been confirmed in a number of research studies:

  • Informational: Di Vesta (1959) showed that there was more conformity when the critical trails were preceded by many neutral trials in which the confederates give the correct answer. What this is doing is making the participant feel that the other group members are more competent and therefore a more reliable source of information. Also, increasing the task difficulty makes participants more susceptible to informational influence, because it makes people more uncertain of the correct answer.
  • Normative: Deutsch & Gerard (1955) increased the extent to which the group members relied on each other by giving rewards (tickets to a popular play) to groups that made the fewest ‘errors’ in a conformity task (they used a variant of the Crutchfield procedure). Setting a goal like this made the groups much more interdependent and as a consequence conformity was almost twice as high as when no goal was set.


Self categorisation

More recently Abrams and Hogg (1990) have suggested that self-categorisation can be used to explain conformity. Categorisation is concerned with the way that we identify people as having some sort of group membership (Asian, Italian, young or old etc.). We also do this for ourselves, and having given ourselves a particular group membership, we will do our best to behave (and think) in a way that confirms and consolidates this identity. Because belonging to a group is such an important part of how we see ourselves (our self-concept), there are strong pressures to conform to maintain membership of the group.


An interesting consequence of self-categorisation is the fact that, because we belong to many different (and often quite diverse) groups, the same person may conform to a variety of group norms, depending on which group is most salient (important) at the time.

Self-categorisation can also explain cases of non-conformity. Independence is behaviour that is not influenced by norms (Crutchfield, 1955). In such cases, the person is not influenced by what other people are doing because he or she does not see ‘others’ as a salient dimension for maintaining the self-concept — there is no desire to belong. On the other hand anti-conformity (opposition to group norms) suggests that the person is making a definite statement about not belonging. This is different from just being unconcerned about membership, as the independent person might be.


Also, not conforming to one group does not mean that the person will not be influenced by all groups. Thus when we consider so-called ‘non-conformists’ who adopt the traits of a minority group (e.g. ‘hippies’, ‘goths’, ‘bikers’), although they may be non-conformist to the majority view, there is still strong conformity within the subculture (see Jahoda, 1959).


Evaluating studies of conformity


Asch’s research studies have been very influential in determining how psychologists investigate and think about conformity. A number of studies were directly influenced by Asch’s work, for example by Crutchfield (1955). He investigated conformity in a range of different tasks (including social opinions) and also when participants were not in face-to-face contact


Crutchfield improved on Asch’s procedure, removing the need for confederates and enabling a number of participants to be tested at the same time.


A number of questions have been raised about the ethics of Asch’s research and these are dealt with in detail below.


Critics of Asch have suggested that his research lacks ecological validity. How often are we faced with making a judgement like the one he used where the answer is plain to see. Asch replied that he wanted to investigate a situation that was different from that used in earlier research (e.g. Sherif) where the participants could be in no doubt what the correct answer was. In so doing he could explore the true limits of social influence.


Another criticism made of Asch’s research is that his findings might not apply outside of the historical limits of 1950’s America. (“Were Asch’s findings a reflection of the times?”) Support for this comes from studies in the 1970s and 1980s that show lower conformity rates (e.g. Larsen, 1974, Perrin & Spencer ,1981). However other studies have shown results close to those of Asch’s 1950 study (e.g. Larsen, 1979). One problem in comparing these studies is that sometimes very different types of participants are used. Perrin & Spencer used science and engineering students who might be expected to be more independent by training when it came to making perceptual judgements.

Other studies have undertaken replications of Asch’s studies, comparing conformity in different cultures. In these studies, rates of conformity have sometimes been lower than those found by Asch. Smith & Bond (1998) in reviewing 31 different studies suggest that the variation in findings could be explained in terms of cultural differences. In collectivist cultures such as those in many parts of Africa and Asia conformity is likely to be greater because people are more aware of and place a higher value on the group than in individualist cultures (e.g. Britain and the US).


Moscovici (1976) has argued that minority influence processes are very much ignored in Asch’s investigations. These are especially important in view of the fact that innovation and change is normally the result of active minorities, not the passive acceptance of the status quo.


Minority influence

One of the most striking findings from using the Asch paradigm was the extent to which conforming responses are reduced if the participant is no longer isolated. Adding just one person who shares the individual’s judgement makes it much more likely that the participant will resist the pressure to conform from the majority. Resistance, however, is only one option for the individual (and his or her supporter) in such circumstances. They could go further than mere resistance and actively seek to change the majority’s viewpoint, attempting to convince them that they are wrong and that he or she is right. The French psychologist Serge Moscovici was one of the first researchers to study the conditions under which minorities can become an effective source of influence.


Explanations of minority influence


Moscovici (1976) argues that cases of minority influence and especially the influence of innovators such as Galileo and Freud, cannot be accounted for in the way that social psychology has traditionally explained majority influence. Minorities do not have the sanctions that can be used by majorities (punishment or rejection), they are few in number and often ridiculed at the outset. In other words they possess neither normative nor informational influence.


Moscovici proposes a dual process theory to explain the two forms of social influence. Majority influence, according to Moscovici can best be explained in terms of public compliance (the person is more concerned with the reaction of the group than to the issue itself). Minority influence is the result of the majority being persuaded to examine the minority’s viewpoint. This may start a process of conversion where attitudes begin a genuine shift. Because it is a genuine conversion, minority influence is longer lasting. In contrast, public compliance as a result of majority influence may not change the individual’s private viewpoint and they will revert to this once released from normative influence.


Their source of impact results from what Moscovici calls behavioural style, the most important aspects of which are consistency. Only if minority members are consistent, i.e. agree amongst themselves (at least publicly) and continue to do so over a period of time, will they be able to make the majority begin to question their position and open the way to being influenced.


Moscovici et al (1969)


Activity: Twelve Angry Men


Nemeth (1986) has offered a cognitive explanation of minority influence. To explain the effect of a consistent majority, she suggests that a minority within a group that consistently disagrees has the effect of changing what the majority pays attention to and encouraging new ways of thinking. Majority influence tends to produce convergent and unimaginative thinking as people merely imitate the ideas of others. The presence of a dissenting voice may encourage people to think more laterally and creatively. In the case of juries, for example, attending to the minority view can result in paying closer attention to the details of the case and finding new ways of interpreting the evidence. This is exactly what happens in ‘Twelve Angry Men’.




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