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Social Influence Conformity Compliance And Obedience Psychology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2638 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Social influence refers to the ways in which external factors trigger change in an individual. It guides the way we form our thoughts and organize our overt behaviour and actions. Conformity, compliance and obedience are all forms of social influence that strongly affect our everyday lives. This paper looks into the three different concepts of social influence, focusing particularly on the factors that affect the extent of influence and the various researches that has been done on them. On top of that, I will also be examining the differences and similarities that they share. In conclusion, I found that while conformity stands distinctly apart, compliance and obedience, share various similar influencing factors that are almost interchangeable.

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Social influence is a phenomenon that involves a change in behaviour, actions or perspective as a result of a stimulus in our environment. It is widely evident in our everyday world, from how we adhere to unwritten social norms that systemize our lives to obeying instructions given by an authority figure. Social influence’s effect is especially conspicuous in the long history of humankind, particularly World War II, where individuals were observed to commit immoral acts because they struggle to act in sync with their personal judgments when faced with external pressure. The changes that precede social influences can be intended or unintended, instant or delayed, explicit or implicit. Because of the large generalization of social influence, they have been categorized into three different groups, conformity, compliance and obedience.

Conformity refers to the act of changing a particular belief or behaviour to fit in with one’s social environment. Before we go into details of conformity, it is important to understand the main factor that influences conformity, social norms. Social norms are the expected behaviour within a specific culture or society. Once a particular way of doing things is established as a norm, people will start conforming to it as it give the impression of being the ‘right’ thing to do.

Research shows that when a person is confronted with social norms, one will often adjust their behaviour to closer approximation of the perceived norm (Asch 1951, as cited in Bond & Smith, 1996). Contrary to popular belief, conformity is not personality-driven but highly situational (Goldberg 1952). In his experiement, Goldberg further observed that conformity usually occurs in the initial stages of exposure and any additional exposure thereafter does not affect the influence. The results from his experiment also demonstrated that the more disagreeable the subject initially was to the particular social norm in question, the greater the conformity, as the compromise in this case will be larger.

Conformity exists in two categories, normative conformity and informational conformity. Therein lay distinct differences between these two types of conformity. To start off, normative conformity is usually triggered by a need to fit in while informational conformity usually occurs when a person is looking for guidance in an ambiguous situation. While a person involved in normative conformity usually conforms for fear of being rejected by a group, a person involved in informative conformity usually conforms because he is unsure of the situation, and thus, do not have his own concrete set of viewpoint in that particular situation to begin with. Lastly, while normative conformity usually ends in compliance where the changes are evident in overt behaviour and actions (explicit), the influence of informational conformity usually results in internalization (implicit), where a person adopts the views and opinion of the group for his own.

A famous experiment done to test conformity is the autokinetic effect experiment done by Sherif (1935). The aim of the experiment was to test for informational conformity by placing participants in an ambiguous situation. They were first individually tested before being tested in groups of threes. Results show that the answers given in a group coincide with the rest even though the answer initially given in the first test was greatly different.

Asch (1951), however, did not think that the autokinectic experiment was accurate enough as there was no correct answer in the experiment. Hence, he created another experiment that has an obvious answer to investigate the extent to which an individual would conform to the social pressure from a majority group. Participants in this experiment were placed with other confederates who gave the wrong answer on purpose. The results obtained from this experiment showed that 75% of participants conformed at least once while only 25% of them did not conform. Interviews held after the experiment revealed that participants went along with the rest of the group for fear of being ridiculed. Some of them said that they genuinely believe the group’s answers were correct. This experiment illustrates both normative influence (desire to fit in to the group) and informational influence (belief that the group is better informed).

Studies have shown that conformity varies across different cultures. People from Western cultures are classified as individualist while people who are from Asian cultures are classified as collectivities. While the former places greater emphasis on self-development, the latter usually put the needs of family and other social groups above their own. Because of this difference, people who are from Asian cultures tend to conform more (Smith & Bond, 1998).


Moving on, compliance is a direct response from an individual who gives in to the request of another. The request in question can be either explicit, as in the form of a direct verbal request, or implicit, as in the form of an advertisement that promotes the qualities of a product without explicitly asking one to purchase (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).

A good everyday example would be drivers complying with traffic rules set by public authorities. If the drivers do not comply with these regulations, there would be complete chaos on the road. Apart from authority, there are various factors that affect compliance. One of which is the extent to which they like the requester, which indicates that people are more likely to comply when they know or like the other person. Apart from that, people are also more inclined to comply when they have made an initial commitment that is consistent with the request in question as people have a desire to be consistent through their deeds and attitudes. External factors like social proof also supplement compliance by informing the individual that many others, perhaps some that are role models, also observe that behaviour. Lastly, people are more inclined to observe compliance when the opportunity is scarce, as scarcity increases the perceived value. Reciprocity takes advantage of the desire to repay the other person. Thus, when a person feels like he owes the other person a favour, he would be more inclined to comply.

A few strategies were observed to increase compliance level. One of such strategy is the door-in-the-face technique, which involves the delivery of a desired request only after a more extreme request that is likely to be rejected. This phenomenon occurs because of reciprocal concession (Cialdini et al, 1975) which argues that a person will accept the preceding request due to the desire to assuage the guilt by agreeing to the preceding request. Conversely, the foot-in-the-door approach involves the presentation of a trivial request, typically one that is highly agreeable, before being setting forth bigger requests (Freedman & Fraser, 1966, as cited in Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). The preceding requests are usually consistent with the initial one. In the case of foot-in-the-door approach, the target is very likely to agree with the following requests as they feel inclined to follow through with the commitment even though the consequences aggravate dramatically (Fox & Hoffman, 2002). This phenomenon is reflected in the Milgram experiment (1963) where the participants were instructed to administer trivial shocks that gradually accelerated to more hazardous ones.


Last but not least, obedience refers to a social influence in which a person follows explicit instructions that were given by an authority figure. In the long history of humankind, the effect of obedience is brazen. Millions of people were killed during World War II, but Hilter could not have done that single-handedly. It was a result of obedience where orders were given by an influential authority figure, which urged them to act in a way they otherwise would not have.

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From this, we can deduce that the most prominent feature of obedience is the presence of an authority figure. The dreadful phenomenon in World War II triggered the scientific experiment done by Milgram (1963), where people were instructed by a perceived authority figure to administer electrical shocks to ‘students’ whenever they made mistakes on a memory task. The electrical shocks administered started off trivial before building up to volts that bordered on hazardous. Whenever the subjects expressed concern, the experimented simply responded with a pre-planned answer such as “the experimenter must continue”. The results obtained from this experiment shows that around 65% of subjects exhibited obedience by progressing to the dangerous voltage level. This was indeed a shocking revelation as it demonstrates how individuals struggle to act in accordance to their personal beliefs when the instructions come from an authority figure whom they assume know better.

Milgram (1963) states that there are various factors that affect the magnitude of obedience. Firstly, it was observed that prestige and obedience are positively related – when the experiment was moved to somewhere less prestigious as opposed to the original location (a university), obedience level dropped. Secondly, surveillance was also observed to affect level of obedience – participants were less likely to follow orders when the authority figure is not physically present. Next, buffers that prevent the participant from being fully aware of the impact of their actions also increase the level of obedience – it was observed that when a wall is situated between the teacher and student, they are more inclined to obey. Next, it was also observed that authority magnifies level of obedience – when the experimenter was not dressed in a lab coat, obedience level was noticed to fall. Lastly, when a person feels more responsible for his actions, e.g. had to physically force the learner’s hand onto a shock plate, he is less likely to yield to instructions.

The reason why authority extends such a large influence on us is evolutionary. This is largely evident in our childhood where we were taught to do as our parents or teachers say. We have been conditioned since young to obey authority through operant conditioning, where the result of disobeying is negative reinforcement.


While these three classifications of social influence vary in a number of ways, they share some distinct similarities. Firstly, all social influences occur in social settings where at least one stimulus to influence is present. They are also predominantly situational orientated; even though personality plays an important role in determining the concluding result, a bigger emphasis is placed on the circumstance at hand. This includes factors such as the source of influence, consequences, task difficultly and etc.

With that being said, personality, like in all psychological processes, does interact with social influence to determine the concluding behaviour. Using the five-factor model of personality (Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, Extraversion and Openness to experience), research has shown that people who fall under the Agreeable category are more prone to succumb to social influence while Conscientiousness and Extraversion demonstrates lesser relation (Parks and Guay, 2009). That aside, it has also been observed that a certain set of personalities also apply to the individual undertaking the influence attempt (Buss 1987, as cited in Caldweel & Burger 1997). Through an experiment, Caldweel et al. reports that there is a correlation between personality and frequency of use of influence techniques. Such characteristic includes emotional stability and independence (Brandstatter & Farthofer, 1997).

Compliance & Obedience. Both compliance and obedience share the same foot-in-the-door approach, which involves the target to agree to a desired request by first setting them up to agree to a modest request. Another similarity that both compliance and obedience share is that the changes are mostly explicit. In other words, while a behaviour or action may reflect the influence of compliance and obedience, it might not be extended to an individual’s personal beliefs, opinions and values. Both compliance and obedience are also a form of decisional shortcut – it is often deemed as the most convenient of action which requires least thinking as one simply does what he is told. Last but not least, the most prominent similarity that obedience and compliance share is that they both involve an insistence that the subject comply with the demand. The only difference is that while obedience is an order, compliance is presented in a less an aggressive form of a request.

Compliance & Conformity. The concept of compliance is similar to conformity, except with a few distinct differences. Firstly, while the goal of conformity is to influence one’s behaviour or beliefs, compliance involves a request to achieve a specific task. Secondly, while conformity usually involves social norm, compliance usually involves authority or other individuals such as friends or acquaintances. Last but not least, the impact of compliance is often limited to overt action and behaviour while the influence of conformity usually extends to the personal beliefs and values of an individual.

Conformity & Obedience. While both conformity and obedience share the same psychological need to be approved and accepted, they have very distinct differences. Firstly, conformity usually occurs because of social group influence while obedience involves a hierarchical structure. Conformity also usually results in a modeled act while obedience often results in an act that was explicitly demanded. While conformity is usually triggered by implicit pressure, obedience is usually triggered by explicit pressure. Lastly, people in conformity usually deny its influence while the presence of an authority figure in obedience is usually acknowledged.


Social influence is a phenomenon we experience everyday. Because of some prominent differences, social influence has been grouped into three different categories: conformity, compliance and obedience. While they share various similarities when compared against each other, and even among each other, they hold several distinct qualities. While conformity is triggered by social norm, obedience involves an authority figure. Compliance, on the other hand, involves an explicit request that is less aggressive as opposed to that of obedience. In conclusion, while the concepts of compliance and obedience are similar, conformity stands distinctly apart because of its unique stimulus and result (social norm and internalization respectively).


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