Majority Social Influence, Asch and Social Norms

Edited by Jamie (ScienceAid Editor), Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), Jen Moreau


Majority Influence

Majority influence is a type of social influence known as conformity. This is a change in belief or behaviour in light of a real or imagined pressure, without a direct request. (Zimbardo et Leippe 1991) There are two key types normative (compliance) and informational (internalization).

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This was one of the very first experiments into this field by Muzafer Sherif, and despite its flaws, it lead to later research that built up what we now know in the field of social influence.

Aim Demonstrate that people conform to social norms in an ambiguous (vague, several interpretations) situation.
Method If you look at a spot of light in complete darkness it appears to move even though it isn't moving.

A number of individual participants were taken into a dark room and asked much the light was moving. Three people with differing opinions were put together and decided how much it was moving.

A second group of people did the same as above but in reverse: asked collectively and then individually.

Results People gave varying answers individually, but after they were put together they converged to a similar number. In the case of the second group, they stuck with the group figure throughout even when asked individually.
Conclusion People's opinions are affected by others, and this influence continues, even when the people have been separated.
Evaluation The light was not actually moving and so there is no correct answer - thus increasing the likelihood participants rely on each other. There is the ethical issue of deception, since there were lead to believe the light was moving.

The results seen in Sherif's experiment are internalization and are a result of informational social influence. It is public agreement with the majority along with a change in private opinion, based on the need to be correct. A change in private opinion is known as true conformity, because the opinion expressed remains the same even, when group pressure is removed.

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Aim: Solomon Asch wanted to see how group pressure affects group tasks with an obvious answer.

Eight male students were arranged around a table as shown by the circles in the image below. Only one of them however was a real participant (shown in blue) the others were confederates of the researchers. The task was to identify which of the lines (A, B or C) was the same length as the test line (X). They answered out loud in turn and the confederates were all told to answer the same incorrect letter. The real participant was placed in his position because it would give him a chance to see what the other participant's answers were, but not right at the end as he may become suspicious.

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diagrams to illustrate Solomon Asch's line experiment
Results: Asch found that the (genuine) participants conformed on 32% of the trials and only 26% of people didn't conform.
Conclusions: Even in an unambiguous (obvious) situation there is strong group pressure to conform, especially if the decision is otherwise unanimous.
Evaluation: As with the Sherif experiment, it lacks ecological validity meaning it is not the sort of thing we would be doing on a day-to-day basis, if ever. There is also the problem that he only used young, male students, so it wasn't an experiment that represented all people, just one very specific and small group.

There are also issues regarding demand characteristics where the participants agreed with everyone else because they were aware of being in an experiment and didn't want to ruin it for the researchers. Some participants gave this reason when interviewed after taking part in the study. This is an example of compliance which is a result of normative social influence whereby someone changes the view they give in private to suit the majority, even though it's something they don't actually believe themselves. In other words, they go along with the rest, but when asked individually, they'll stick to their own conclusions. This results from the need to be liked and accepted.

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Factors Affecting Conformity

In a later study, Asch made several variations to his original experiment to see what factors influence conformity. The following are not only factors that he investigated, but factors that have been found to affect the amount of conformity or the strength of influence.

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  1. 1
    Group size.
    The size of the group is an important factor. The larger the group, the more conformity there is; but only to a point. After about 5 or 6 people, Asch found that adding more people to the group, had very little impact on the amount of conformity, possibly because people start to work out the true nature of the experiment.
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  2. 2
    This idea deals with majority size and the presence of an ally. If the majority is unanimous, conformity is much more likely, but if there is even one other person disagreeing with the majority (even if it isn't the same as your own opinion), then the levels of conformity drop dramatically, specially if there is someone who continually disagrees, as investigated by Allen and Levine (1969).
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  3. 3
    Decision Making.
    The method of making a decision was another factor investigated by Asch. When the participants make their decision by writing it down, conformity fell, this is because the decision is more private and the participant is more removed from it. If a decision is made anonymously and by writing it down (as voting is) the levels of conformity are zero since nobody will know what you have written.
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  4. 4
    Personal Character by Age.
    The final factor that plays an important role is personal characteristics. Bernt (1979) found young adolescents (12/13 to 15/16) were the most likely age group to conform.
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Social Norms

A social norm is the accepted or expected behaviour in a given group situation. For example, when you watch a performance of some kind, you are generally expected to sit, remain relatively silent, and applaud at the end. These group norms exist as a way of maintaining harmony in a group and levels of acceptable behaviour. There are often social consequences to anyone who upsets these norms.

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Recent edits by: Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), Jamie (ScienceAid Editor)

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