What Is Conformity And Obedience Psychology Essay


According to Saks Krupat, social influence is a process in which an individuals attitudes, beliefs or behaviours are modified by the actions of others. There are various types of social influence, some more subtle than others. Sometimes these influences are unintended, or go unnoticed by the individual. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

What is conformity?

Conformity is used to show an agreement to the majority, brought on by a wish to fit in, or be liked. David Myers (1999) described conformity as a change in an individual’s belief or behaviour because of real (involving the physical presence of others) or imagined (involving the pressure of social norms/expectations) group pressure. Group pressure can manifest in many ways e.g. bullying, persuasion and criticism. Therefore, conformity is a majority influence. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

What is obedience?

Obedience is another form of social influence; this is where an individual responds to a direct order. The order usually comes from an authoritative figure, for example a police officer. Obedience is the basic structure of social life and authority is a requirement of communal living, but you must remember that not all acts of obedience are aggressive. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

Solomon Asch did the most famous conformity experiment in 1951. Asch’s aim was to investigate to see the extent in which social pressure from a majority could affect an individual to conform. After advertising for participants in a Psychology laboratory assessment Asch selected fifty men all in the same age group for the first round of experiments. All participants were advised that they would be taking part in a vision test using line judgement.

The experiment: Asch showed two cards to seven people seated around a table, on the first card was the test line. The other card had three lines with varying lengths; the participants one by one said aloud which of the lines one, two or three matched the test line. There were eighteen trials and unbeknown to the participants Asch had confederates (accomplices) within the group. Their role was to give unanimously the same wrong answer in twelve of the trials; this was to see if the participant who went last would agree and conform. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

The results: Asch found that in thirty-two percent of the trails, those where the confederates gave the wrong answer the participant conformed with the view of the majority. Asch also discovered that seventy-two percent of the participants conformed once. However, some participants were confident in their answer and twenty-five percent of the participants did not conform. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

After the experiment, Asch interviewed the participants and found that conformity occurred at three levels.

Distortion of Perception – this is where the conforming participants did not realise their estimates had been distorted by the majority. The participants actually thought that the line acknowledged by the confederates was in-fact the correct answer.

Distortion of Judgement – most of the conforming participants thought that their perception was wrong, and therefore agreed with the majority.

Distortion of Action – some conforming participants did not undergo a distortion of perception or judgement. They agreed with the majority for fear of being ridiculed or worse, excluded from the group.

Asch found that there were two main reasons for why people conformed. Normative influence this was a desire to fit in with the group, and informational influence, this is where the individual believes the group more informed than they are.

Perrin & Spencer (1980) shows that Asch’s experiment had poor reliability. They replicated Asch’s original study, this time the students were British, from the fields of engineering, mathematics and chemistry. They found that in three hundred and ninety-six trials there was only one incident of conformity. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

Asch’s study did not demonstrate real life conformity, judging line lengths was artificial and not likely to happen in everyday life, therefore the study was low in ecological validity. The study was also alpha bias and ‘a child of its time’ McCarthyism was prominent in 1950’s America where conformity was a social norm. This did not change until the 1960’s with the era of individualism. Finally, what about the ethical issues as the participants were deceived? They were advised the experiment was about vision testing not conformity, then there was the psychological stress especially if the participants wanted to disagree with the majority.

In 1973, American prisons were reporting brutality. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo wanted to see if this was due to the guard’s sadistic nature or the prison itself. Zimbardo devised a laboratory experiment and converted a basement in the psychology department at Stanford University into a mock prison, with barred doors, windows, bare walls and small cells. With Zimbardo playing the role of the superintendent, he placed an advertisement offering $15 a day for fourteen days where participants would be either guards or prisoners. Zimbardo picked twenty-one male students from the seventy-five applicants and checked them for both physical and psychological normality. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

The participants were randomly chosen a role to keep the experiment as real life as possible. The guards were issued with a khaki uniform a whistle, handcuffs, baton and dark glasses; this was to make eye contact impossible. The guards made the rules with the exception of one, no physical violence. The prisoners were arrested at their homes without warning and taken to their local police station; they were treated just like any other criminal. They had their photographs and fingerprints taken, blindfolded and then taken to the psychology departments at Stanford University. This is where the de-individuation began.

The experiment: On arrival at the prison, the prisoners were stripped naked, deloused and given bedding. They were given a uniform that consisted of a smock bearing their prison number, a tight nylon cap and a chain around one ankle. There were three guards to the nine prisoners, each guard working an eight-hour shift with the rest on call. At first, everything was fine with both prisoner and guard adopted their roles. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

Within hours a few of the guards started to harass the prisoners, they began to behave in a sadistic manner and enjoyed it, it did not take long for the other guards to follow. They taunted the prisoners with insults; giving them pointless jobs and making them line up three times a day for a role count. The relationship with the guards and prisoners continued to change over the next few days, as the prisoners became more dependent the guards became more contemptuous.

As the contempt grew the prisoners became even more submissive, this made the guards more aggressive and demand complete obedience from the prisoners. Eventually the prisoners rebelled, barricading themselves in their cells. After only six days, Zimbardo stopped the experiment having fears that the participants may become physically or mentally damaged. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

The results: After the researchers had gathered all the data, the participants were recalled for a follow up interview. Here is an excerpt from the actual interviews with Zimbardo and the guards.

Most of the participants said they had felt involved and committed and that the research had felt “real” to them. One guard said, “I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle and I kept thinking I had to watch out for them in case they tried something.” Another guard said, “Acting authoritatively can be fun. Power can be a great pleasure.” And another: “… during the inspection I went to Cell Two to mess up a bed which a prisoner had just made and he grabbed me, screaming that he had just made it and that he was not going to let me mess it up. He grabbed me by the throat and although he was laughing, I was scared. I lashed out with my stick and hit him on the chin although not very hard, and when I freed myself I became angry.” (McLeod, 2008)

Many criticisms have arose since this study; Savin (1973) criticized Zimbardo on the ethics of his study and stated the following:

Although the participants signed an agreement drawn up by Stanford University, participants did not give full consent.

It was felt that when the participants arrived at the prison, the initial procedure was humiliating and dehumanizing.

Savin also thought that the study should never have taken place as it became too real for some.

Zimbardo did respond to the criticisms as follows:

The participants were offered several therapy sessions with Zimbardo and his colleagues to help them with any feelings.

Zimbardo maintained contact with the participants during the year after the experiment ended to help with the persistence of any negative effects. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

It is very hard to criticise Zimbardo’s experiment on ethical grounds, especially when those published by organisations like the British Psychological Society did not exist. Zimbardo himself did agree that he should not have been the principal researcher and play the part of the superintendent, especially as he too became trapped within the role. As for obtaining full consent, if Zimbardo had explained every aspect of the experiment to the participants it would not have been real life. However, he did deceive the participants.

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Moscovici et al (1996) devised an experiment to see why people yield to a minority influence. The experiment consisted of six subjects estimating the colour of thirty-six slides. All the slides were blue, Moscovici added filters to vary the brightness. All the participants were checked to ensure that they had good eyesight. Unbeknown to the participants Moscovici had two confederates, they consisted the minority. Moscovici assessed the minorities influence in two ways, consistent and inconsistent. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

In the consistent experiment, the minority said the slides were green on all of the one hundred and twenty-eight trials.

In the inconsistent experiment, the minority said that the slides were green twenty-four times and blue twelve times in the forty-four trials

The results: Moscovici and his colleagues found that in the consistent trials 8.42 percent agreed with the minority and 32 percent said green at least once.

In the inconsistent trials, they discovered that only 1.25 percent agreed with the minority, Moscovici did not divulge the number of participants that agreed more than once.

In 1985, Moscovici identified two characteristics that the minority needed if they were to use social influence on the majority, behaviour and consistency. With these two characteristics, it is possible for the minority to influence the majority. (Cardwell et al, 2000)

It is a shame that Moscovici did not release figures for how many participants yielded in the inconsistent studies. Was this because none of the participants yielded? Again, as Zimbardo Moscovici did deceive the participants, but did this cause them any psychological harm. Other than this there is very little to criticise.

In conclusion, Asch and his line study has proven that if you have a majority who agree with their answer this could cause others to change theirs without realising, or even doubt there judgeability when it is clear to see that the majority are wrong. However, this simply could be because they just wanted to fit in and be liked. Zimbardo and the mock prison experiment should never have happened, and it would be very difficult to replicate today. Even though Zimbardo’s research has been widely criticised, it has shown people do conform to certain roles in certain situations. Finally, as with Asch’s line study on majority influence, Moscovici proved that even with a minority of just two it was possible to influence the majority.


Cardwell, M. Clark, L. Meldrum, C. (2000). Psychology for A Level. 2nd ed. London: Collins. p107 -115.

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Zimbardo – Stanford Prison Experiment. [online] Available from: http://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html [Accessed 4th May 2013].



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