Social psychology is the study of everyday life – the self, one’s relationships, social influence, and how people view and behave toward others. Its overarching themes center on the principles of situationism, meaning that situations have a powerful influence over behavior, subjectivism, meaning that everyone sees the world through a filtered perception, emergence, or the idea that phenomena are constructed rather than fundamental, and the fact that phenomena are multidimensional – they are the result of many factors. This 101 series examines various introductory topics in social psychology.
Social Psychology 101 is divided into the following chapters of content:
Social Psychology 101: The Mechanisms of Social Influence
Social Psychology 101: Persuading Others
Social Psychology 101: Attraction, Love, & Relationships
Social Psychology 101: The Mechanisms of Social Influence
Social influence refers to the ways in which individuals change their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as a result of the presence or actions of others (Stangor et al., 2022). It is a fundamental aspect of human social interaction and is present in all types of relationships, from friendships to romantic partnerships to larger groups such as communities and societies. One of the most well-known and studied forms of social influence is conformity, which occurs when individuals change their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to align with those of a group (Stangor et al., 2022). Another essential form of social influence is obedience, which occurs when individuals follow the orders or directives of an authority figure, even if those orders go against their own values or beliefs (Stangor et al., 2022). Social influence can have both positive and negative effects on individuals and society. On the positive side, social influence can lead to greater cooperation and teamwork, as well as the adoption of beneficial behaviors and beliefs. On the negative side, it can lead to the spread of harmful or dangerous behaviors and the suppression of individuality and critical thinking.
It is important for individuals to be aware of the ways in which social influence can impact their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and to be mindful of the potential consequences of conforming or obeying without careful consideration. At the same time, it is also important to recognize the value of social influence in promoting positive change and fostering a sense of community and belonging. This article will explore the social phenomena of conformity and obedience, as well as examine the types of power people wield to influence others.
Figure 1: Wearing a uniform, such as to school or work, is an example of social conformity (Dewar, 2022).
There are two main motivations for why a person might conform to a group’s way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. Normative conformity occurs for the purpose of achieving group acceptance, maintaining group cohesion, and gaining the benefits of a social group, such as high social status (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). In other words, normative conformity helps people to be accepted and prevent isolation or rejection by others (Stangor et al., 2022). For example, a person may buy expensive clothes to fit in with their friends or peers. On the other hand, informational conformity to the perceived norms of a group occurs for the reasons of knowledge-gaining or disambiguation of a confusing situation (Cialdini, 2001). People experience informational conformity when they change their opinions or behavior to conform with people whom they believe to have accurate information (Stangor et al., 2022). For example, a patient may seek the advice of a doctor or other medical professional when deciding on a course of treatment, trusting in their expertise and knowledge to make the best decision for their health.
Factors of both normative and informational conformity often play a role in a person’s behavior around others. The bystander effect is a phenomenon that occurs due to these interacting factors. This effect refers to the tendency for an individual to be less likely to help in a critical situation when in the presence of other people (Fischer et al., 2011). If everyone around an individual ignores the critical situation, the individual may believe that the group knows something they do not. This is how informational conformity prevents helping actions. Further, if they choose to take action alone, they may decide that they are risking acceptance by the larger group. This is where normative conformity comes into play, leading to the individual to choose not to take action and instead conform to the ways of the group.
Figure 2: The bystander effect occurs when people are reluctant to help others in a critical situation because they are in the presence of others (Bongberg, 2022).
In 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted the iconic Obedience to Authority Study, now commonly known as the "Milgram Experiment," that shed light on the human tendency to obey authority, even when extreme behavior is requested. In the study, participants were all assigned the role of the teacher, while a confederate pretending to also be a participant in the study was assigned as the learner (Milgram, 1963). The teacher would present questions to the learner and be directed to electrically shock the learner when they got the answer wrong, increasing the shock level with each turn (Milgram, 1963). These shocks were fake, but to the participant, they were meant to seem real, as the confederate was an actor who made it seem as though he was really being shocked and in pain. If the teacher had any qualms about continuing with the procedure, the authority figure known as the researcher, who was said to be from Yale and in a white lab coat, would order the teacher to continue (Milgram, 1963). The results of the study demonstrated that 67% of participants continued shocking the learner all the way to the maximum shock level, at which point the learner would stop yelling and screaming and pretend to fall unconscious (Milgram, 1963). This groundbreaking study demonstrated how influential a person with perceived authority can be in eliciting extreme behavior from others.
While situations can be powerful in dictating one’s likelihood to obey authority, not all participants continued to obey in Milgram’s study, so individual differences in variables can affect this likelihood. The personality traits of conscientiousness and agreeableness have been linked with a higher willingness to obey, and political orientation and social activism have also been shown to relate to obedience (Bègue et al., 2015). Situational factors can also moderate one’s obedience to authority. For example, an individual’s proximity to the authority figure plays a role. Obedience is much more likely when the authority figure is in the room with the individual, compared to when the authority figure is giving orders over the phone. (Miller et al., 1995). The perceived legitimacy of the authority figure is another important factor. When the authority figure is thought to be a Yale researcher, obedience is much higher than when the authority figure is supposedly conducting research from an institution like the Bridgeport Community Center (Mantell, 1971). Further, one’s emotional distance from the victim will affect the likelihood of obedience. For example, obedience will be much higher if the individual cannot hear or see the victim than when they are holding the victim’s hand (Miller et al., 1995). In all, personal and situational factors come together to impact how obedient a person will be to authority.
Figure 3: The participants of Milgram's study were influenced to continue shocking the learner by the researcher's perceived expert authority (Greenwood, 2018).
Two types of powers are wielded by people who want to influence others: normative power and informational power. Normative powers include reward power, or creating positive outcomes for people, and coercive power, or creating negative outcomes for people (Gaski, 1986). Reward power is often seen with bosses and teachers who reward students and workers on tasks, and it works best when someone has a strong desire to obtain the reward at hand. Coercive power involves dispensing punishments, such as bullying or intimidation, and it may be used by bosses or friends, but it only works if the individual being influenced does not leave the group entirely (Stangor et al., 2022).
Informational powers include legitimate power, or power vested by a held position, referent power, or power through admiration and identification, and expert power, or power through providing knowledge and accuracy. Legitimate power comes from the influenced individual’s belief that the person has a lawful right to demand conformity, and it may be held by teachers, politicians, policemen, and judges. Referent power is held by those who others identify with, are attracted to, or have respect for. A person who wields referent power may be a member of a significant reference group, a charismatic leader, or famous (Stangor et al., 2022). Expert power comes from people’s belief that a person has superior abilities or understanding, and doctors, teachers, lawyers, and computer scientists tend to hold it. People are influenced by expert power because of their desire to obtain valid, accurate information (Stangor et al., 2022). While normative power is more likely to produce public conformity instead of personal internalization, informational power tends to produce private acceptance of the information (Stangor et al., 2022).
Figure 4: Oprah Winfrey is an example of a celebrity who holds referent influential power, as she is perceived by many as a trustworthy reporter and is able to endorse many books through her book club (Hoffower, 2020).
When humans interact, social influence is bound to occur. It is critical to be aware of how social influence can affect one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Normative and informational conformity, obedience to authority, and persuasion by those who wield influential power can have positive or negative effects, but it is important to be conscious of one’s own view of these influences to maintain personal freedom. Personal freedom is important because it allows individuals to make their own choices, pursue their own goals and interests, express themselves, and live their lives in a way that is meaningful and fulfilling to them.
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Cialdini, R. B. (2001). The science of persuasion. Scientific American, 284(2), 76–81.
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Cover Image: Cherry, K. (2021). Meet the social psychologist behind the conformity experiments [Illustration]. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/solomon-asch-biography-2795519
Figure 1: Dewar, G. (2022). School uniforms: What does the research tell us? Parenting science. [Photograph]. https://parentingscience.com/school-uniforms-what-does-research-tell-us/
Figure 2: Bongberg, M. (2022). What is the bystander effect? - Avive AED [Illustration]. https://avive.life/blog/what-is-the-bystander-effect/
Figure 3: Greenwood, J. (2018). How would people behave in Milgram’s experiment today? [Photograph]. https://behavioralscientist.org/how-would-people-behave-in-milgrams-experiment-today/
Figure 4: Hoffower, S. L., Hillary. (2020). Oprah Winfrey built a $2.6 billion fortune off of her beloved talk show. From a $25 million private jet to multiple island homes, here’s how the media mogul makes and spends her fortune. [Photograph]. https://www.businessinsider.com/oprah-winfrey-net-worth-career-2018-8