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Conformity and Obedience Research Studies

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Published: Mon, 10 Jul 2017

Conformity has been defined in number of ways. Crutchfield (1955), defined conformity as “yielding to group pressure”. Mann 1969 agrees with Crutchfield, however Mann (1969), argues that it may take different forms and be based on motives other than group pressure. (Gross p 479)

Conformity is a change in belief or behaviour in response to real or imagined group pressure where there is no direct request to comply with the rest of the group norm” Zimbardo and Leippe (1991). A lot of research has been done to try and understand the situations individuals need to be in to conform and the factors affecting conformity. However there are various cultural and methodological considerations that affect the understanding of conformity research.

The first study would be Jenness in 1932. Jenness was the first person to study conformity. Jenness asked students to estimate the number of beans in a bottle. Taking individuals estimates first then placed the individuals into groups and asked them to discuss their estimates. Once the findings had been calculated he found that the students in particular groups would conform to a group average. According to Jenness in a situation where the answer was unknown they listened to their peers and would in his view conform.

His research was criticised by Sherif (1935) because the experiment was not taken out in ecologically valid circumstances. The students were not in surroundings that were familiar to them thus behaving differently. Critics have argued that the students may have conformed in order to make the results easier for the psychologist. This demonstrates informational social influence and is explained in a classic study by Sheriff.

Methodologically the first major problem encountered when testing conformity was the ambiguity of the situations the participants were placed in. This was highlighted by Mustafer Sherif (1935) when he used the ‘auto-kinetic effect’ to test conformity. The Auto-kinetic effect is a perceptual illusion where participants perceive light moving when in fact it is stationary. Participants were placed in a darkened room in which they could see a light that was stationary. They were asked to record how far the light moved and on their own they settled on individual estimates however when the participants were put in a room together with other participants they were encouraged to shout out their estimates. Sherif found that they started with different answers but then all came to agree on the same answer. Then after they split up the group into individuals again Sherif found that they gave the answer they had settled on with the group. In Sherif’s research into conformity (1935), the aim was to see if people conform to a group norm. The results of the test showed that individual responses differed to those from the group response. The post-experimental interviews said that the participants denied being influenced, they struggled to get the correct answers, and they never actually felt part of the group. The conclusions drawn from this said that the participants conformed towards the group norm because they were uncertain about their own individual responses. Sherif then argued that his results showed conformity however there was a problem with the methodology. This conformity research was criticised to be artificial and lacking ecological validity. Also, because the task was thought to be ambiguous and that there were no real answers, the participants were more likely to conform. As the answer was very ambiguous and there wasn’t an obvious answer it was argued that participants are more likely to conform as they are never completely certain of their answer. This methodology therefore affects Sherif’s interpretation of conformity as it is not very reliable

Solomon Asch (1951) was the psychologist that challenged Sherif’s methodological and in 1951 he created ‘The Asch Paradigm’ where he tested conformity rates to very unambiguous situations. In his experiment there was one participant and seven to nine other confederates who knew about the experiment. The group was asked to identify lengths of vertical lines and match up a given vertical line to one of three in another display. Each confederate gave their answer and the participant sat in the next-to-last seat. On some questions all the confederates would give the wrong answer and Asch observed the conformity rate of the participant agreeing with the wrong answer even though the answer was very obvious. Asch found that 32% of the trials, the naive subject conformed to answer given by the rest of the group, and 72% of naive subjects conformed at least once. 13 out of 50 naive participants never conformed. When he interviewed the naive participants afterward, he found that conformity existed on three levels: distortion of judgement, distortion of perception and distortion of action. Those who experienced distortion of judgement conformed because they trusted the group’s judgement over their own. Those that experienced distortion of action knew that they were right, but changed conformed to avoid ridicule from the rest of the group. Finally, those who experienced distortion of perception actually believed that they saw the group’s choice as matching the line on the card. The aim of the experiment was still to see if people would conform towards the group norm. The results showed that the individuals conformed to the group norm, even if the answers were wrong. The naive participant explained their reasons for conforming to be because they didn’t want to spoil the experiment, look stupid, their eyes must have been deceiving them, and because they felt that the group was probably right. This experiment also told us that the influence from three or more stooges gave more of a reason to conform than if there was one stooge. The conclusions for this study were that the people conformed for public compliance rather than public acceptance. Also it seemed like people with low self esteem were more likely to conform. The methodology in this experiment was a lot more accurate then Sherif’s experiment as the answers are very unambiguous and if the participants were on their own or first then they would almost certainly have given the right answer. The results from this experiment are therefore can be a better explanation of conformity than Sherif; however there are other methodological problems which make this experiment fairly inaccurate in the interpretation of conformity. However there are also ethical issues about the experiment.

The main criticisms for this experiment was that it was artificial, time-consuming, time-dependant and unethical.

The experiment lacks ecological validity due to a lack of both experimental and mundane realism. It lacks experimental realism as some participants worked out what the experiment was or at least thought the experimenter wanted them to answer the same as the others and therefore the conformity rates could be unreliable. It also lacks mundane realism as the situation does not reflect a real life situation and therefore people may act differently in real life and maybe the conformity rate would be lower.

Crutchfield (1954) criticized Asch that the type of experiment undertaken by Asch is very time consuming, as only one person can be tested at a time.  Richard Crutchfield decided to change the experimental method so that several people, usually five, could be tested simultaneously.  The same kind of problem as Asch used, was used.  Each participant sat in a booth with an array of lights and switches in front of them.  They were told to give their answers and each were told that they were last to guess and the others guesses were indicated by the lights on the panel.  However each participant was actually given the same display, which on about half the trials was actually incorrect. Crutchfield aimed to find out whether people conformed to unambiguous tasks when the pressure from others was more imagined than real. Crutchfield found that 37% conformed all of the time but 46% some of the time. The results found were really similar to Asch’s but had a lower conformity rate. This concluded that there is conformity to imagined pressure. The experiment was criticised to have specific people used that were perhaps more conforming. Also it lacked external validity. The time the experiment was done in (1950’s) was generally a more conforming time, so that could have been one of the reasons why the people conformed more. This experiment was also thought to be unethical as the participant were lied to and could have been embarrassed.

Stanley Milgram (1963) conducted an experiment on obedience that highlighted the persuasive power of authority in social psychology for the first time. His experiment exceeded all expectation and led to greater awareness of authority and how much power it credited the perpetrator of it. Participants were made to give increasing electric shocks to someone (who was an actor pretending to be receiving the shocks through wires) when the person gave the wrong answer to a question. Many of the participants continued to the highest voltage (450V). There were many reasons why participants obeyed, such as the fact that the experiment was in a professional setting (Yale University). The experimenter was an authority figure and so was trusted; and the subjects were told that anything that went wrong would not be their responsibility. It was also because the participants could not see the ‘victim’ which made it seem less real to them or it could have been because the participant had taken on a role so they felt that they were someone else.

Milgrams work has been criticised both on ethical and methodological grounds. Baumrind (1964) believed that Milgram showed insufficient respect for his participants, there were insufficient steps taken to protect them, and his procedures could have long term effects on the participants. Orne and Holland (1968) argued that the participants did not believe they were giving electric shocks and they were just playing along with their role in the study.

A famous example showing conformity was the experiment Zimbardo et al., (1973) carried out the prison simulation experiment at Stanford University. The aim of the experiment was to see the psychological effects of making an average person into a prisoner or guard. After less than 36 hours one of the prisoners had to be released from the experiment due to severe depression. Others who were acting as prisoners also showed signs of anxiety and depression. According to Zimbardo, these results showed how easily people could adapt to a new role in a new situation and behave out of character to fit that role. He quoted ‘Note that anyone ever doubted the horrors of prison, but rather it had been assumed that it was the predispositions of the guards (sadistic) and the prisoners (sociapathic) that made prisons evil places. Our study holds constant and positive the dispositional alternative and reveals the power of social, institutionalised forces to make good men engage in evil deeds’. (Gross p 500) There have been many criticisms levelled at his study, (Savin 1973) argues that the prisoners did not give fully informed consent; they didn’t really know what was going to happen to them. They were humiliated and dehumanised by the procedure when reaching the prison (strip searched and deloused). Savin also argued the point the ends did not justify the means. The study had become ‘too real’ and should never have been carried out.

Perrin and Spencer (1980) tried to repeat Asch’s study in England in the late 1970s. They found very little evidence of conformity, leading them to conclude that Asch’s effect was a ‘child of its time’. However the low levels of conformity found in Perrin and Spencers study may have occurred because they used engineering students who had been given training in the importance of accurate measurement and therefore had more confidence in their own opinions.

Bond and Smith (1996) also considered changes into conformity over time based on studies carried out in the United States. They conclude as follows; “Level of conformity in general had steadily declined since Asch’s studies in the early 1950” (Bond & Smith p 124). The conformity rate has been found to alter across time within a culture, though overall trends are far from clear. There is also variation between cultures. These differences are related to social norms.

As a conclusion, it is fair to say that people conform for many reasons, all that have is one main aim and that is to fit in with the group. Mainly, people want to be accepted in their society and because they have the need for certainty. People who are within any society or culture and its beliefs, with regards of what is expected and acceptable can be “forced” in certain situations to behave in anti-social ways. As their behaviour becomes adaptive to meet the needs of “normative social influence” without doing so could lead them to receiving social and/or cultural rejection. The researches briefly tells us how conformity works, however do psychologists tend to bother what happens after the research has been carried out on the naive participant? Some of the naive participant reported feeling quite stressed on the critical trials, which had a psychological harm on them. “Do psychologists use deception to have their researches carried out?” or should I say, “Are they justified?!”

Above all, the researches have further broadened my knowledge on how individuals react in certain situation and has taking me one-step closer in understanding the world.


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