To What Extent Are Conformity and Obedience Likely Outcomes of Human Behaviour

Conformity and obedience are forms of social influences which strongly affect our behaviour in social situations from following fashions to committing immoral acts because we are commanded to by someone who appears to be in a position of authority. This essay looks at to what extent are conformity and obedience likely outcomes of human behaviour and can individuals avoid these social influences? Conformity is a change in belief or behaviour in response to real or imagined group pressure when there is no direct request to comply with the group nor any reason to justify the behaviour change (Gross: 2010: P401).

Research has shown that when confronted by social norms individuals will often adjust their behaviour closer to the perceived norm. The Asch (1951) experiment involved subjects performing a perception task saying which of a selection of lines matched a control line in length. The subjects were unaware that the other participants in the room were confederates. During the experiment confederates would give the same incorrect answer to the question. Asch found that no one conformed on all the critical trials, and 13 of the 50 participants (26 per cent) never conformed.

One person conformed on 11 of the 12 critical trials, and about 75 per cent conformed at least once during the experiment. (Gross: 2010: P403). This is backed up by Doms and Avermaet (1981) experiment they reproduced the same result as Asch. Obedience means behaving as instructed, but not necessarily changing your opinions. Obedience happens when you are explicitly directed to do something. Most obedience is reasonable, but when it is to unjust authority, the consequences may be disastrous. Flanagan: 2008: P125) In Milgrams experiment (1963) each participant took the role of a teacher who would then deliver a shock to the student every time an incorrect answer was produced. Whilst the participant believed that he was delivering real shocks the student was actually a confederate in the experiment. As the experiment progressed the teacher would hear the learner plead to be released. Once the 300-volt level had been reached the learner banged on the wall and demanded to be released.

After this point the learner was completely silent and refused to answer any more questions. The experimenter then instructed the participant to treat this silence as an incorrect answer and deliver the shock. Most participants asked the experimenter if they should continue. The experimenter issued a series of commands to prod the participants along “please continue” and “the experiment requires that you continue”. The results of the experiment show that of the 40 participants 26 delivered the maximum shocks while only 14 stopped before reaching the highest levels.

Some participants became extremely agitated and angry at the experimenter but continued to follow his orders. The findings from both these experiments would suggest that we conform and obey to a great extent. However levels of obedience did alter when we look at different variations of Milgram’s experiment (1963) for example proximity of learner – If the teacher was placed in the same room as the learner and had to press the learner’s hand on the shock plate, obedience fell to 30%. Flanagan: 2008: P125). Moscovici in his experiment of minority influence showed that people did not conform or obey. He placed 2 confederates together with 4 genuine participants all had no colour blindness. They were shown 36 slides which were clearly different shades of blue and asked to state the colour out loud. In the first part of the experiment the 2 confederates answered consistently green for each of the 36 slides. In the second part they answered inconsistent green 24 and blue 12 times.

Moscovici found that the participants in the consistent condition yielded and called the slides green in 8. 4% of trials. 32% of the participants in the consistent condition reported a green slide at least once. Participants in the inconsistent condition yielded and called the slides in only 1. 3% of the trials. In this situation we can see that social influence occurs as a result of minority, rather than majority influence therefore minorities can influence the majority but not all the time and only when the confederates behaved consistently.

Moscovici shows that if majority influence was the only process, then opinions would never change because we all would continue to follow the majority. Yet history is littered with examples of changing attitudes, such as those towards females and homosexuals. These changes are due to minority influence. These findings to somewhere towards answering the initial question of this discussion – to what extent are conformity and obedience likely outcomes of human behaviour?

Obviously there is no definite answer and never will be as all humans are individuals with their own personality. Every person is born into society with their own particular culture, language, style of dress and behaviour. However, every person is introduced to acceptable attitudes and beliefs, and learn certain norms and values which are thought ‘appropriate’ by other members of their group. This socialisation can effect peoples decision making and choices because we as humans feel the need to have acceptance and to be part of a group – therefore to conform and obide.

In answer to the second question can individuals avoid these social influences? Social influence occurs when one’s emotions, opinions or behaviours are effected by others and can be seen in conformity and obedience. Social Influence is largely concerned with the factors that maintain the status quo by conforming to the views or behaviour of the majority or obedience to those in a position of authority. People with strong moral convictions are less likely to be influenced therefore avoiding social influence. (Flanagan: 2008).

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