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Social Influence

Conformity is another core topic in social psychology. In this assignment you will read about several classic studies in social psychology, including Asch’s conformity study and Milgram’s obedience experiments. You will also read about social impact theory, which integrates much of the social influence literature and on which I have done some research.


If you’re like most people, you probably don’t think that other people influence you very much. While reading this assignment, however, you may be surprised at how socially influenced people really are. You are influenced by people who live near you, people you work with, and things you read and hear on TV every day, often without your even realizing it. Sometimes we are influenced by others because we look to their behavior as a guide for what we should be doing; this is called informational social influence. Other times we are influenced based on a desire to be liked or to go along with the group; this is called normative social influence. In this assignment we’ll talk about three main forms of influence--conformity, compliance, and obedience.
Muzafer Sherif did one of the first conformity studies in the 1930’s. He used the autokinetic effect—the fact that when a person looks at a single stationary point of light in the dark, the light seems to move—to see how much people would be influenced by those around them. The autokinetic effect is different for different people; some people tend to see small movements, whereas others see large movements. Sherif asked people in groups of three to make estimates of the distance the light was traveling. Though people’s initial estimates were different, they began to converge over trials, evidence of conformity.
Solomon Asch, a student of Sherif’s, followed up on this study some years later using non-ambiguous stimuli. He thought that if the judgments people were asked to make had an identifiable correct answer, people wouldn’t conform. He was surprised, however, to find that 2/3 of the people gave what they knew to be the wrong answer, just to go along with a crowd of strangers! Asch’s findings relate to the distinction between public compliance and private acceptance. Most of the people in his study probably did not privately accept the incorrect answers, but they did publicly comply. A later meta-analysis showed that people are more likely to conform to a larger majority, if they are women, if the other people are from the same group as them, if the situation is more ambiguous, and if they are from more collectivist cultures.
Social impact theory (SIT), proposed by Bibb Latané, ties together these and other findings in the social influence literature. Social impact theory is a meta-theory rather than a process theory. Meta-theories explain what occurs in many different types of situations, though they may not explain the exact process through which that change occurs. Cognitive dissonance is an example of a process theory. It describes a specific process (notice inconsistency, feel dissonance, try to reduce dissonance). SIT doesn’t give the steps through which influence occurs, but instead offers three important variables that predict how much influence will occur. It says that influence will be proportional to the multiplicative effect of the strength (persuasiveness, credibility, etc.), immediacy (closeness in space or time), and number of others doing the influencing. The multiplicative part is important because if there is no (0) strength for example, immediacy and number won’t matter. If three very unbelievable people try to convince you of something, you won’t be convinced, even though there are three of them. SIT explains why important groups have more influence (a strength variable), people with high-self-esteem are less persuaded (strength), and neighbors are more influential than those far away (immediacy).
SIT also predicts that there will be decreasing effects of number. For example, two people will be more influential than one person, but the second person won’t add quite as much additional influence as the first person did. By the time you get to 100 people, adding one more probably won’t make much difference at all. In other words, the first few people have the most social impact.
SIT attempts to explain all types of social influence situations. It covers normative and informational influence situations, obedience, and compliance. Look back at the factors the text says are important for informational influence—one of these, expertise, is an important strength variable. Other evidence comes from research conducted in diverse influence situations, including stage fright, bystander intervention in emergencies, and tipping in restaurants.
When people influence each other continuously, dynamic social impact theory predicts that four markers of culture will emerge. These are clustering (people become more similar to those closest to them in physical space—the people they see most often—think back to your “propinquity maps”), correlation (people become more similar to their neighbors on different dimensions as a result of influence, leading to correlations among attributes), consolidation (the majority viewpoint becomes more popular over time), and continuing diversity (despite influence, pockets of different viewpoints or attributes remain). One example is language—there are regional differences (clustering) in language, it’s correlated with food preferences and dress preferences and other attributes (correlation), more popular languages grow and others become less popular (consolidation), but everyone doesn’t speak the same language (continuing diversity).
So why do people conform to others? Stanley Schachter’s (remember him from the two-factor theory of emotion) Johnny Rocko study described in the text offers one explanation. Deviates may be communicated with initially, but eventually they are rejected. One way to avoid this happening is to find allies. Groups of deviates are able to resist pressure much more easily than a single one. The section on minority influence discusses how groups of deviates may in some cases even persuade the majority.
There are 6 influence techniques identified by Cialdini. Make sure you know and understand those.
Moving on, take a moment and imagine that you are a participant in a research study on memory and learning. You arrive at the lab and meet your co-participant, a 47-year old man. You are randomly determined to be the "teacher" and the other participant the "learner". Your job is to teach the other person a list of words, using electric shocks to punish him when he gets one wrong.
The learner is strapped to a chair in the next room and hooked up to the shock machine. You are seated in front of the shock generator, which has 30 switches in 15-volt increments, from 15 to 450 volts. The shocks are labeled from "slight shock" through "danger: severe shock" to "XXX" at the highest levels. Your job is to begin shocking the learner at 15 volts for his first incorrect answer, increasing 15 volts for each subsequent wrong answer.
You start off fine, with the learner getting the first few answers right. Then he starts missing a few. When you get to 75 volts, you hear the learner say "UGH!". As you increase the shocks, the learner continues to complain, more and more emphatically. You look toward the experimenter for a cue on what to do, but he calmly tells you that it is essential that you continue the experiment.
What do you do?
1. What do you think is the maximum level of shock that most people in the United States would continue to (15 volts to 450 volts)?_______
2. What is the highest level you think YOU would continue to? ______
3. What percentage of people in this situation do you think would go all the way, shocking the learner up to the maximum 450 volts (0 to 100% of people)? ______
The paragraph above describes one of Milgram’s famous obedience experiments. Milgram gave a questionnaire similar to the one above to people before his study (the main procedure of which is described above). His respondents believed that almost no one, only the 1% most sadistic of people, would continue to shock the learner up to 450 volts. What percentage of people did you believe would go all the way? Milgram was shocked by his results—a full 2/3 of people obeyed the experimenter to the point of shocking the complaining learner all the way up to 450 volts! Be sure to pay attention to the method, results, and explanations for Milgram’s study. This is probably the most talked about study in social psychology, both in terms of its findings and in terms of the possible ethical issues involved in letting people believe that they were causing extreme pain to another person. Ethics boards today might not allow another study like Milgram’s to be done.
Some of the factors that Milgram found to influence obedience in his studies included the proximity of the victim (the closer the victim, the less likely the participant was to send shocks), the power of the institution (people were more likely to obey when the study was conducted by Yale University than when conducted by “Research Associates of Bridgeport”, and the presence of the authority figure (the closer to the participant the more obedience). Note how these effects fit the predictions of social impact theory. Additional research has shown that these effects occur across cultures and time. We also discussed some reasons for these effects in class.
Objectives
1. Identify informational social influence vs. normative social influence.
2. Describe the methods, results, and significance of Sherif’s and Asch’s conformity studies.
3. Identify the types of influence situations predicted by social impact theory and the three factors that are important in the theory. Describe what it means to have decreasing effects of number and that influence is a “multiplicative function.”
4. Explain dynamic social impact theory and what it predicts.
5. Describe how people try to get deviates to conform.
6. Identify and give examples of Cialdini’s influence techniques. 710. Discuss the methods, results, and significance of Milgram’s research on obedience. Identify factors that led people to obey.
7. Distinguish between injunctive and descriptive norms and explain which are more effective and why.
8. Explain what factors seem to increase conformity (e.g., what types of people are more likely to conform).


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