Study on the factors that influence conformity

23 Mar 2015

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Conformity has made significant impacts in the fields of social psychology because it brought about the radical understanding of group pressure on, not only personal levels, but also on levels of a group as a whole as it is often seen portrayed in history. The term 'conformity' can be often be defined as an action that is the succumbing of a person towards a group of people. Ergo, conformity can be explained as a result of either group pressure, due to the desire of acceptance or fear of rejection, which is outlined in the normative social identity theory, or self-association and identification, which is outlined in the social identity theory, within a group. Both Solomon Asch and Philip Zimbardo have conducted experiments, respectively to the theories, in support of the theories - with both outlining the factors that influence conformity.

One factor that may influence conformity could be the social identity theory, which was proposed by Tajfel and Turner in 1979; it was primarily developed to dissect and understand the psychology behind intergroup discrimination. Essentially, it was designed to explain why and how people identify themselves, and behave, as a member of particular group. The social identity theory states that simply studying the psychology of individuals at the individual level is, perhaps, futile because it is important to broaden the horizons and study individuals when they identify themselves in terms of being a part of a group. Groups to which we belong are called our in-groups while groups to which we don't belong are termed our out-groups. The main concept of the social identity theory is that people often utilize membership of a group as a mechanism from which they derive their self-esteem; however, membership, alone, is not sufficient for an adequate self-esteem. To obtain self-esteem, people often 'deceive' themselves into believing they belong to the right group. There are four parts to the social identity theory, which include categorization, identification, comparison, and psychological distinctiveness. Categorization is the that concept that people tend to categorize, sometimes subconsciously, other people surrounding them and themselves into a variety of groups; this aids in a person's perception about their identities and others' as they create multiple categories to place people under. Identification is when humans identify themselves as members of a certain group and utilize their membership as a derivative of their self-esteems; the out-groups to which we do not belong are identified as something foreign (THEM) as we seek asylum in our in-group (US) - to which we associate ourselves with. Comparison is a key factor to the social identity theory; when people have selected an in-group, they begin comparing themselves. People are usually in favor of their in-group and tend to use positive remarks when describing their in-group while, conversely, they tend to use negative remarks when referring to their out-groups; this is, perhaps, a result of the need to increase one's self-esteem as people encompass a need to feel that they have chosen the correct in-group - resulting in the necessitated dissimilarity from other groups. Lastly, psychological distinctiveness is the idea that people contain the desire to be unique within and between social groups, or within and between their in-group and out-groups, respectively; people also have a desire to be perceived positively and more superior when in comparison to others - another factor that aids in the increase of one's self-esteem.

An experiment that depicts the social identity theory in action would be the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, which was conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971. The aim of this experiment was to unravel the effects prison settings would have on prisoners; he tried to depict the fact that guards can be extremely engrossed in a situation and all rational thought dissipates as behavior may be conducted based on the misconception that it is what is required. For the experiment, Zimbardo transformed the basement of the psychology building of Stanford University into a makeshift prison. The selected participants consisted of 24, mostly white and middle-class, male participants were presumed to be of excellent mental and physical shape. 12 participants were assigned the roles of guards; they were provided with uniforms, night sticks, and sunglasses, which dehumanized them. These participants were instructed to behave like real prison guards and were to dispense punishment, with the exception of physical contact, as if in a real prison. The other 12 participants became prisoners; they were provided with sack-like clothing, and they were each assigned a number to replace their names. These prisoners also chronically wore a chain on their ankles as a constant reminder of their place. The prisoners had to eat and sleep within the prison while the guards operated on shifts. During the first few days of the experiment, the prisoners rebelled against the guards by revolting and barricading themselves in their cells; initially, the guards had difficulty suppressing these revolts but soon developed new means in doing so. The results of the experiment were that the prisoners were ordered to perform degrading tasks such as performing strenuous exercises, washing the toilet bowl with their toothbrushes, and enduring public humiliation. They soon learned that disobedience would earn them harsh punishment; however, obedience also caused the guards to ridicule the prisoners for being too obedient. Amenities such as using the toilet or sleeping on mattresses (which were confiscated as a result of the barricading) soon became privileges. Several days after the launch of the experiment, a new participant was brought in to replace the two previously discharged participants. The new participant was also rebellious and began refusing meals; however, the guards were now adept in crushing this rebellious streak and placed him into solitary confinement frequently. The guards also gave the other prisoners a choice: give up their blankets to help their fellow inmate or keep their blankets and he stays in there. Astonishingly, the prisoners chose the former as they were now docile and viewed this newcomer as a troublemaker. The two week experiment came to an abrupt halt after only 6 days, when an outsider protested about the mental stability and harm inflicted on the prisoners. Zimbardo concluded that, when given a role to play, it is far too easy for a person to slip into character and forget who they were initially, and that, given a situation, they react according to the situation rather than through the process of rationalization; this was depicted when the prisoners started introducing themselves by their numbers instead of their names.

The Stanford Prison experiment strongly supports the social identity theory because the findings were that, given the situation, the participants were quick to identify themselves with a particular group (prisoner or guard) and compared themselves as being more superior or inferior. One major strength of the experiment would be that the experiment had a high amount of ecological validity; this would be due to the several facts with one being that Zimbardo made the process of the arrest extremely realistic as he had them arrested, had their mug shot taken, and had their fingerprints on file. Another factor that contributed to the high ecological validity would be the makeshift prison setting, though they were temporary cells, they provided the setting and atmosphere a real prison would encompass - providing for accuracy to some extent as the participants were not just placed into a lab, but rather, they were in an environment that was a very realistic prison setting. The last factor that contributes to the high ecological validity would be the fact that Zimbardo provided his participants with authentic uniforms. The prisoner's lanky clothing along with their chains created a sense of inferiority; the guards with their pristine uniforms, night stick, and sunglasses dehumanized them as it creates a sense of authority. Another strength of this experiment would be the fact that it has a high amount of control. This would be a result of the fact that the participants were randomly allocated their roles of either prisoner or guard through the process of selective and strict criteria for the participants; the random allocation signifies high control because there was no bias or foul play that would have resulted in confounding variables for the experiment. This experiment has a high amount of control also due to way with which the data was accumulated. Zimbardo did not only use one method to gather his data; he crosschecked his data using several methods of accumulation. He collected his data through the use of interviews with the participants after the experiment was halted, questionnaires about their sentiments, and observations that were either discreet or unconcealed to minimize confounding variables as behavior may alter if participants realize they are being watched. One limitation of this study would be the ethical considerations this experiment encompasses. One ethical consideration that could be brought up is the protection from harm. Protection from harm means that the participants' psychological and physiological states were not to be damaged. This, however, was violated as two participants were discharged as a result of mental instability and, surveys exhibit, many others suffered from emotional distress for years to come. Another limitation of the study would be generalizability. The participants of this experiment were only males who were around 24 years old and from the middle class of society; this creates a problem in generalizability to females or persons of other ages due to the fact that males in their early 20's may have a tendency to be more malicious towards others than females or persons of other ages are, ergo, the findings might not be capable of generalizing itself to females or older people or people from a different class in society.

As a result of Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison experiment, the social identity theory, utilized as a factor of influence in conformity, can be said to encompass both strengths and limitations. This theory influences conformity as the postulated statements within the theory manifest within the process of conformity - providing for a huge effect on conformity and plays a significant role in social psychology. One example of a strength within this theory would be the fact that the Stanford Prison experiment supports the social identity theory and the ways with which it influences conformity because results of the behaviors of the experiment can be explained by the theory. Zimbardo's experiment depicts Tajfel's social identity theory and backs it up with numerical data; this is significant because it allows researchers or learners to have hard data to turn towards if they were ever studying this experiment or replicating it. Furthermore, the Stanford Prison experiment depicts the social identity theory, as a factor that influences conformity, at play as the behaviors of the participants changed. As the experiment progressed, the prisoners and guards formed different groups, or categorization according to the social identity theory; as a result of categorization, intergroup discrimination, or horrible treatment within the experiment, occurred. This can be explained by the social identity theory because the guards and prisoners had categorized themselves as either guards, or prisoners, and each individual had identified himself with either group. The step after both categorization and identification would be comparison. Due to the circumstances, the guards were the authority in the situation, and they came to perceive themselves as superior in comparison to the prisoners because they often compared their in-group (the guards) with their out-groups (the prisoners) and often reached positive results of their group as a result of identification; ergo, according to the theory, the guards derived their self-esteem from demeaning the prisoners, their out-group, by making themselves feel better about their association with other guards, their in-group. The last and final step of the behavior outlined in the experiment would be psychological distinctiveness, where the guards tried to be unique; in the experiment, the guards achieved this by concocting various techniques of their own to psychologically torture the prisoners into obedience. Conversely, one example of a limitation the social identity theory encompasses is the fact that there may be some problems in generalizing the theory to every individual worldwide; there may be some limitations in generalizing all aspects of the theory to various cultures and their members. This may be a result of the fact that each culture holds varying principles and applying all aspects of the theory may prove to be difficult. Members of cultures, which do not stress individualism as much as Western cultures do, though they may categorize themselves into in-groups and out-groups, are more likely to have a higher rate of conformity are they are more collectivistic and hold a tendency to define themselves, largely, by group membership - ergo, resulting in the fact that they may be more submissive than the results the study yielded. This limitation is the result of the same limitation found in Zimbardo's Prison Experiment. The generalizability problem of the Stanford Prison experiment was the fact that the sample group the experimenters took were of mostly white males of the middle class who were around 24 years old. Therefore, there may be some generalizing problems of the social identity theory as, within the experiment, the males of their mid-twenties did categorize and identify themselves into two varying groups and in a way that the group that had more power did the comparison and perceived themselves as superior, resulting in the psychological torture of the second group; this is a problem in the application of the theory because given another situation in the same environment, however, with a sample of a different group of people, such as people from a very collectivistic culture, where the individual self is largely defined by membership of a group, the social identity theory may not be entirely applicable to them as a result of the fact that they may act in a different manner in the given situation, such as the fact that they may conform early on without all the unnecessary psychological torture into submission on the behalf of the more powerful group because group membership is held highly by them and the authorities might not know how to fully exercise their power. This factor does not state that the social identity theory does not work entirely, but it merely proposes that, within cultures or societies that stress collectivism and collaboration, conformity will occur at a higher rate than in cultures that stress individualism.

Another theory that is a factor that may influence conformity would be the normative social influence theory, which was introduced by Deutsch and Gerard in 1955. The normative social influence theory states that, within each individual, a need to associate oneself with a particular group exists and may lead to the fact that, given a potentially embarrassing situation for the individual, and clashes between their perception and the group's perception occur, the individual may be coerced into complying and agreeing with the group in order to fit in. This need of acceptance can be described as being derived from the development of teamwork; the odds of survival tend to increase when a group works collectively. However, in order to work efficiently as a group, the group must be in unison with decisions, beliefs, and opinions; ergo, the need of acceptance is due to the unison of opinions of the group and an individual works towards achieving that to feel a sense of belonging to the team. The main concept of the normative social influence theory is that, due to the innate need for us to be accepted within a group, when we observe other people's behaviors that are frequent and consistent, we often have a compulsion to emulate them - especially individuals with a lower self-esteem or lack of self-confidence as they tend to not believe in their own opinions and tend to be embarrassed by them. Essentially, the theory is about individuals behaving similarly to the group in order to be accepted and to evade rejection. Moreover, the theory also depicts the fact that, given a situation where an individual is placed in a group of strangers, they are more likely to yield to the group's opinion out of fear of rejection or lowering the group morale; however, this may be influenced by some factors that include the relations between an individual and the group and the quantity of members within the group. Furthermore, the normative social influence theory also outlines the fact that, the people who tend to comply, in addition to lacking self-confidence, tend to seek the approval of others within a group, and that, despite the fact that the truth is staring at them, they may submit to the group's decision with the belief that perhaps their own opinion is wrong and that the group's decision is right; however, some people may agree out of compliance - they change their behavior to suit that of the group's but not their own opinions, which they keep undisclosed. They comply to the decision publically, but they do not accept it privately.

The experiment conducted by Solomon Asch in 1951 on the subject of conformity is a study that supports the normative social influence theory. The aim of this experiment was to discover the extent to which the choices of individuals would be affected by the majority in a palpably obvious task. This experiment depicts the fact that individuals could be pressured into selecting erroneous choices due to peer pressure when the most obvious choice is staring right at them. The selected participants of this experiment were 123 male college students. During the experiment, a group was formed by placing one participant in a group of confederates; they were seated in a semi-circle format around a table with the participant always being the last or second to last person to give their answer. The participants had to do a simple line test where they had to match a line's length with another line within a group of lines. In the experiment, there was a control group - one where all the confederates answered correctly so as to allow the participants to feel at ease and not pressured. However, in the other groups, the confederates were told to answer incorrectly. The confederates were instructed to answer incorrectly of the 12 trails out of 18; they also were instructed to answer correctly, initially, and, gradually, shift into answering incorrectly so as to not incite suspicious among the subjects. Asch provided the confederates with answers carefully calibrated so as it would add peer pressure onto the subjects. The findings of this experiment were particularly interesting; the control group had a 99% of all the participants answering correctly - with the 1% being a probable experimental error. However, in the other groups, where the confederates were disputed with their answers, the participants were found to be able to suppress the urge to conform and were most likely to follow their answers. Conversely, when the confederates were unanimous about their wrong answers, the participants were more likely to be influenced by peer pressure and went along with the group and the results had over 1/3 of the participants answering incorrectly. It was concluded that it is harder to not conform if the participants were completely alone with their answers. When the participants were interviewed, the majority answered that they felt uneasy about their wrong answers but had conformed because they did not want to feel embarrassed or believed that the group was better informed than they were - with even some admitting that they thought they really were wrong and that the group's answer was right.

There are several strengths and limitations to Asch's experiment on conformity; it also supports the normative social influence theory because it depicts the fact that, given a potentially embarrassing situation for the participants, compliance occurred as most of them went with the group's opinion, despite it being blatantly erroneous. One strength of this experiment would be the fact that there was a high amount of control during the process. The participants were divided into various groups to ensure that the confounding variables were minimized. During the experiment, there was not just one group where the confederates answered incorrectly, but rather, there were several groups, each with varying number of confederates who answered incorrectly, to allow for more control from the results because, then, the experimenters could find out whether the varying independent variables affected the dependent variables. Furthermore, Asch also included a control, where all the confederates were asked to answer correctly to allow the participants to answer at ease, group which also provides for the high amount of control and for reference to the other groups where he altered the independent variables, which were the varying number of confederates answering incorrectly. This contributes to the high amount of control of the experiment because Asch repeated his procedure with various groups of variables, where the number of confederates who answered incorrectly varied, to produce the best results where the confounding variables were minimized as much as possible, and he then compared the results from these replicated procedures with his controlled one to see how the results differed. One limitation of the experiment would be due to the fact that it was done in a laboratory setting, ergo resulting in the low ecological validity of the study. The experiment asked the participants to judge the length of various lines - an artificial task indeed as people do not go around everyday judging the lengths of lines. Another factor that contributed to the low ecological validity would be the way with which the participants were placed into groups - it was unnatural; it is not natural that individuals are placed within groups of confederates, all of whom were instructed to answer incorrectly intentionally. Another limitation this experiment encompasses would be problems with generalizability. The sample the data was taken from for this study was from male college students. The participants were only males, which provide generalizability problems to females, and were only college students, which provide generalizability problems to individuals from other age groups. Females may be more questioning than males are, so they might have acted differently than males do, given an embarrassing situation where they may potentially conform. Older people have the advantage of being more experiences, rendering them wiser - therefore, they are more likely to stick with their answers than the college students had; younger people may be more naive and are more susceptible to conformity as they are quite gullible - therefore, they might be more likely to conform than the participants did. As a result of this, results from this experiment may have predicaments in being generalized to the female race and people of older or younger ages.

The normative social influence theory can be said to contain both strengths and limitations. One example of this is the fact that Asch's line experiment supports the normative social influence with numerical, or hard, data to be backed up with; this is important because it allows for references to be made, if there was ever a need, or if the experiment were to be replicated. Moreover, the normative social influence can be depicted by Asch's experiment as many areas of the experiment outline the various parts of the theory. For instance, Asch purposefully arranged the confederates and the one participant into a semi-circle with the participant always being seated either last or second to last, to give their answers; this was to stimulate the factor of whether the participant would comply with the group's decision as they compare their results to that of the group's. This is the normative social influence at play as the theory states, given a potentially embarrassing situation, individuals are more likely to conform to the group and use the group's decision as their own, which was portrayed by the experiment as 2/3 of the participants conformed to the group's answer - despite the blatant difference between the answers. Another aspect of the theory portrayed would be the need for social acceptance. When placed into a group, individuals have a tendency to crave social acceptance and to avoid rejection from the group. This was also depicted by the results of the participants' behavior and the drastic statistics of the results due to the normative social influence theory being a significant factor in conformity. Participants were found to conform even more when all the confederates were unanimous about their, though unknown to the participant, wrong answers; this can be explained by the aspect because the participants changed their answer, or conformed to the group's decision, as a result of appearing like a fool - out of the need to be accepted by the social group they were placed in. Conversely, there are also limitations of the normative social influence theory. One such example of a limitation would be the fact that there may be some difficulty in generalizing this normative social influence theory to every single human being; there may be potential individual differences in the suggestibility of applying this theory as a worldwide factor that influences conformity. This limitation manifests within the Asch experiment as the results of the experiment, where the confederates answered incorrectly to stimulate conformity, exhibited the fact that around 2/3 of the participants conformed; it is apparent that, as 2/3 conformed, around 1/3 of the participants did not conform, which displays the fact that the normative social influence, which states that individuals are more likely to conform to be socially accepted, was not generalized or applied to 1/3 of the subjects. This displays the limitation within the theory because it suggests that the normative social influence theory was not imminent in the behaviors of 1/3 of the participants, thus displaying the fact that the theory was not generalized to every single person, and that there were individual differences in the application of the theory. This does not to suggest that the normative social influence does not work, but, rather, it is to state the fact that not all individuals would subject themselves to, or have the results of, the normative social influence theory.

As a result of these two factors, the social identity theory and the normative social influence theory, conformity is influenced in similar and differing ways. One similarity of these two factors would be the fact that they both display the fact that individuals tend to conform to avoid rejection or looking like a fool in addition to having a need for belonging. This is depicted in the Stanford Prison experiment, in support of the social identity theory, as the participants each identified themselves with the particular group they associate themselves with, they then behaved in a way that suggests they wanted to avoid rejection or denunciation; the prisoners who acted out or were different from the others within their particular group were picked on by the guards, therefore, they gradually grew into submission to avoid this outcast difference. Also, the need for belonging to a particular group was also exhibited in one particular event when the other prisoners refused to give up their blankets for the one prisoner, who was not willing to conform, to be freed from solitary confinement- displaying the fact that the other prisoners conformed out of fear of rejection like that one prisoner and clustered as one group that refused to disentangle. Furthermore, the similarity is also depicted in Asch's experiment. When Asch purposefully placed the participants as the last, or second to last, person to answer the question to the line test, he found that more than half of the participants conformed to what most of the group had answered. This is the depiction of the normative social influence theory, as a factor of conformity, as the participants conformed for fear of rejection and want of acceptance by the group of, though unknown to the participants, confederates. Also, the participants' behaviors can be said to be a result of the fact that they necessitated a sense of belonging to a group by conforming to the group's answer because the participant did not want to feel left out or be the outcast, resulting in them being the eccentric ones - ergo, they conformed as a result of the need for a sense of belonging to the group.

Conversely, there are differences in the way that these two factors influence conformity. The distinction of these two factors would be the various types of conformity they encompass. The social identity theory, for instance, depicts the identification type of conformity. This type of conformity can be defined as the type of conformity where individuals conform to a particular group as a result of association or identification as their in-group; it is said that conformity rates are higher when a more striking relationship is more profound between the individual and the group. Identification was depicted by the social identity theory through the Stanford Prison Experiment. An example of an occurrence would be a couple of days after the launch of the experiment, when the prisoners and guards have had time to categorize and identify themselves with a particular group; all the prisoners had learned to be submissive while all the guards had learned to be dominant and aggressive - this depicts identification because the individuals had associated themselves with a particular group and had conformed to that group's behaviors as a result of identification due to the fact that they discovered a group to which the participants could identify as their in-group. Another type of conformity would be compliance. This type of conformity can be defined as: individuals tend to conform, when they are pressured into doing so, after acknowledging the majority's answer and lacking confidence in their own opinions, however, this type of conformity is usually done without a change of attitude - therefore, there is a clash between a person's attitude and behavior, or cognitive dissonance; this also happens more often when individuals are placed in potentially embarrassing situations. Compliance was depicted in Asch's experiment when the participants were interviewed afterwards, with many of them admitting that they had a different opinion from that of the group's but went along anyways as a result of indecision of their own answers. This can also be explained as the fact that the participants were placed in potentially embarrassing situations when their opinions could have differed from the group's opinion. This is compliance because, when placed at the very end of the line to answer, the participants had the opportunity to consider the majority's answer and lacked confidence in their own opinions, resulting in their pressured change of answer without a change of attitude; the unchanged attitude is known due to the interview performed afterwards - depicting the clash in attitude and behavior.

Various experiments, which back up both the social identity theory and the normative social influence theory with hard data really well, make for a pretty good argument for both the theories stating the fact that they are major factors in influencing conformity. Through Zimbardo's study, it can be seen that the mere categorization the participants into various groups can create intergroup discrimination and submission as they associate themselves with a particular group; also, the fact that individuals tend to favor one's in-group is quite apparent in this experiment. In Asch's study, despite having the answer right in front of the participants, most of them altered their answer to suit that of the groups in order to fit in- depicting another aspect conformity through the normative social influence theory because they fear rejection and need a sense of belonging. So, it can be concluded that, from both these theories and experiments and their results, although there may be some problems in applying Tajfel's social identity theory to cultures which promote collaboration and equality far more than Western cultures, the social identity is quite valid in being a factor that influences conformity because it exhibits the fact that individuals identify with a particular group and conform with that particular associated group; on the other hand, despite the normative social influence theory not being able to be generalized to every single individual due to some individual differences, the normative social influence theory is still quite valid in being a factor that influences conformity because it does display individuals conforming out of fear of rejection or having a need to be accepted. The social identity theory and the normative social influence theory play important roles in many interactions within conformity; they help explicate the many ways with which people derive their identity from belonging to a group and why individuals conform in order to fit in.

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