Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Conformity & Obedience #2

Conformity Factors
The variables that can affect conformity include:-

  • Zeitgeist
    As demonstrated by the research of Stephen Perrin & Christopher Spencer (1980) and Nigel Nicholson, Steven Cole & Thomas Rocklin (1985), conformity can also be affected by  (the spirit of the times).
    Peter Smith & Michael Harris Bond (1993, p124) were in no doubt that “Levels of conformity in general had steadily declined since Asch’s studies in the early 1950s”.

    Graphic copyright © 2000 Psychology Press Ltd

  • Culture
    Smith & Bond’s 1993 meta-analysis was of 20 studies using the Asch ‘lines’ methodology. Across these studies they found a mean 31.2% of conformity errors. Samples of their results are in the graphic above…
    The Indian teachers in Fiji were the highest in conformity and the Belgian students the lowest, apart from Perrin & Spencer’s 1980 study in England. The meta-analysis included Williams & Sogon’s (1984) study of Japanese students.In a further meta-analysis of another 133 Asch-type studies, Rod Bond & Peter Smith (1996) found that individualistic countries, such as the United States, where emphasis was placed on individual fulfilment, were less conformist generally (25.3% of trials) than collectivistic cultures like China, Asia and much of Africa (37.1%) where group needs were usually prioritised over individual needs. Heejung Kim & Hazel Rose Markus (1999) elaborated on this by showing that a failure to conform to majority influence is perceived positively as ‘uniqueness’ in individualistic cultures but is regarded as deviant in collectivistic ones.
  • Personal characteristics
    Smith & Bond found a significant difference in conformity between students (28%) and non-students (37%). However, the researchers were unable to say whether the students learn to be more independent and critical in their thinking or whether their higher level of intelligence makes them more confident in their judgement.
    Jerry Burger & Harris Cooper (1979) found that an individual’s desire for self-control affected how likely they were to conform. The researchers asked participants to rate a set of cartoons in terms of their funniness in the presence of a confederate who was expressing his own opinion. Participants who previously had measured high in terms of their desire for personal control were less influenced by the confederate.
    Correspondingly, those with a high need for social approval and having low self-esteem were more likely to conform. The work of Kaoru Kurosawa (1993) confirms this as he found those low in self-esteem showed more majority influence than those high in it in an Asch replication with 4 confederates.
  • Gender
    From a meta-analysis Alice Eagly & Linda Carli (1981) found that some studies show females to be more conformist? Eagly (1978) attributes this to their social roles making females more concerned with interpersonal goals.
    However, Frank Sistrunk & John McDavid (1971) argue that many conformity studies are biased because they use male task judgements – creating ambiguity for the female participants. They state men will conform more on female task judgements – again because unfamiliarity causes ambiguity. The work of Christina Maslach, Richard Santee & Cheryl Wade (1987) supports this. Using an equal number of feminine-relevant and masculine-relevant stories, they found no gender difference in conformity via majority influence. Kurosawa also found no gender differences in conformity to majority influence.

This is a concept developed by Irving Janis (1972) which explains conformity in small, often tightly-knit groups who perceive no need to take in views from outside the group.

Janis’ research was initiated primarily by his teenage daughter challenging him, as a psychologist, to explain how a group of experts could have made decisions that led to the ‘Bay of Pigs’ disastrous, American-supported 1961 attempt to invade Cuba by reactionary forces opposed to the revolutionary Marxist-Leninism of Fidel Castro. (The invasion failed and the Americans became obliged to pay a ransom of $53M in food and medicine for 1,113 captured prisoners.) Janis found 4 factors in particular that tend to increase conformity and lead to bad decision-making by such tightly-knit groups:-

  1. Acceptance by the group is critical to the group. People in groups do not like to be ostracised. They want to be liked and, therefore, tend to do things to be accepted as one of the group. Clearly normative influence.
  2. When the group feels under pressure to reach a decision, they reduce this sense of stress by reaching a decision quickly and with little argument.
  3. Groups often work in isolation with the result that there are no external challenges to the way they are thinking. Because of this, inherently they tend to believe that they are right and, therefore, do not need external influences because they are either wrong or would support them anyway. A kind of False Consensus Effect.
  4. There may institutional conformity. The way to progress up a promotional ladder in institutions often includes conforming to expectations. This embodies – sometimes erroneously! – the principle that a good soldier makes a good commander.

There are 2 approaches to explaining obedience: situational explanations and dispositional explanations.

Situational explanations
From his work on obedience experiments, Stanley Milgram was very much of the view that obedience results from situational factors. In 1974 he wrote: “Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of communal living, and it is only the man living in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others.” For Milgram obedience permeates society. From an early age children are taught to obey their parents as part of their primary socialisation. Then, at school and going into work, as part of their secondary socialisation, older children and young adults are expected to obey experts and authority figures.

Milgram’a Agentic Shift Theory states that, when somebody accepts the command of another person, they surrender their own autonomy and enter an agentic state: “being another person’s agent”. This frees them from being responsible for the consequences of their actions – that responsibility rests with the person issuing the orders. That person should, of course, be a legitimate authority – ie: they have the right (legal and/or moral) right to issue orders and that right is recognised by the person receiving the orders. For example, a soldier is expected to obey orders from his commanding officer; if, by obeying those orders, something goes wrong, then the commanding officer is held responsible.

Legitimate authority is often symbolised by a uniform – eg: a police officer – or is contextual – eg: students are required to obey teachers in the school but would not expect to have to obey those same people in a totally different context such as hanging out with their friends in town on a Saturday afternoon.

According to Milgram, there are 2 ways to mitigate the moral strain people may experience if they are ordered to do something contrary to their own moral standards:-

  1. Use graduated commitment. This is starting with small requests/demands, then increase the size/severity of the demands incrementally. It’s easier to overcome resistance to a small demand than a big one. Then gradually, without people realising it, the demands become steadily but slowly more extreme.
  2. Use terms which minimise the brutal consequences of the obedience such as ‘final solution’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘collateral damage’.  As Milgram puts it: “Euphemisms come to dominate language as a means of guarding the person against the full moral implications of his acts.”

Resistance can also become by using ‘Just World’ thinking – or as Melvin Lerner (1980) puts it: people deserve what they get in a just world. According to Leon Festinger (1957), cognitive dissonance is a clash between 2 contradictory attitudes held by the same person. In the Milgram experiments, the cognitive dissonance – the desire to obey vs reluctance to harm another – led to huge moral strain. This could be reduced by seeing the ‘learner’s’ suffering as deserved.

Dispostional explanations
These attribute the cause of behaviour as coming from within the individual – either their biology or their personality.

Florence Miale & Michael Selzer (1975) proposed the ‘psychopathic personality’, arguing that Milgram’s experiments made giving shocks in a Psychology laboratory a socially acceptable expression of violent and psychologically disordered impulses. However, Milgram had been at pains to point out that most of his participants gave lower voltage shocks when allowed.

A dispositional explanation with rather more credibility is Theodore Adorno et al’s (1950) authoritarian personality. The researchers established this ‘personality type’ from use of the Fascism Scale (F-Scale)

Adorno et al administered the test to a sample of 2,000 Americans. Respondents were asked their strength of agreement or disagreement with statements so that researchers could determine their attitudes towards religious and ethnic minorities, their views on politics and economics, and their moral values. About 1/10, equally balanced between male and female, were interviewed in more depth under the supervision of Adorno’s co-author, Else Frenkel-Brunswik . This sub-sample consisted of one group which had expressed the most prejudiced and authoritarian views and one group which had expressed the least such views. The males were equally balanced between high and low scorers in authoritarianism but the females were divided between 25 high and 15 low. The groups, matched on age, political and religious affiliation, and national or regional background, were compared to see which other factors seemed to give rise to the authoritarian personality.

The study was severely criticised by Roger Brown (1965) who thought the structure of the test invited acquiescence responses – ie: the respondents agree with one item because they’ve agreed with other items.  Robert Rosenthal (1966) pointed out that the interviewers knew both the hypothesis and the interviewees’ test scores. Therefore, there was more than a possibility of researcher bias influencing the process and, therefore, the results.

personality type submissive to authority figures

prone to unquestioning obedience  And hostile to those who don’t obey.

treats those beneath with contempt  Adorno et al identified disguised sadism as an element in the Authoritarian Personality.

stereotypic thinking

intolerant of ambiguity Adorno et al postulated that the authoritarian personality projects their own unacceptable sexual and aggressive impulses onto minority groups and, thus, finds them threatening.

rigid beliefs in conventional values

childhood maltreatment by father leads to Repression and Displacement    Frenkel-Brunswik (1942) found that authoritarian-type personalities were likely to have been strictly treated as a child and punished for disobedience.
Adorno et al’s theory was that the maltreated child would repress the hostility towards his father. Consequently the child seems to idolise his parents and in later life acts in a submissive way towards authority figures.
However, there is still much hostility towards the parents lying below the surface which is displaced onto non-threatening minority groups as prejudice & discrimination.
The idea that the Authoritarian Personality developed from children’s upbringing has been criticised as an explanation of Germany’s embrace of the Nazis. Extreme anti-Semitism developed during the Nazi era (1932-45), a relatively short period and one deemed far too short for a large-scale change in German parenting styles.
It should be noted here that Adorno had a background in Psychoanalitic Theory which may have influenced him placing undue emphasis on unresolved childhood conflicts with parents having an unconscious influence on behaviour.


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