What Ways Does An Individuals Behaviour Change Psychology Essay


This essay will explore whether an individuals behaviour truly changes when they are part of a group through the consideration of various perspectives, methods and underpinning epistemological assumptions and will take the viewpoint that an individual’s behaviour does change when s/he is part of a group, however it is necessary to consider the context, such as societal and cultural factors and the importance of experience, interactions, social norms and values as one branch of social psychology, or one form of experimentation cannot fully predict or explain group and individual behaviour. The most prominent debates, theories and studies in relation to group behaviour will be discussed from a multi-perspective position, mainly exploring the social and cognitive aspects of group behaviour, as well as the methodology of experimentation and how group behaviour is measured. This will ensure that a reductionist approach to the subject is avoided. Key factors involved in group behaviour include; obedience, conformity, groupthink, social identity theory (Tajfel, 1979), prejudice, stereotypes and schemas, which will be discussed and evaluated alongside relevant research throughout the essay. This is due to how these factors influence how an individual’s behaviour changes under group influence, for example how Asch’s line test portrayed the effects of majority influence (Asch, 1952).

A group has been defined by some theorists as two or more individuals who perceive themselves as being members of the group or social category (Turner, 1982; Brown, 2000). Group behaviour refers to a situation in which individuals interact in small or large groups, within these groups there may be certain norms, values which are internalised within the individual (Vygotsky, 1978), communication patterns and status differentials. The majority of research conducted in the area of group behaviour is mainly based in the experimental psychology perspective; however critical and qualitative psychologists argue there is a lesser focus on the study of behaviour in context which ideally involves the acknowledgment of the impact of society and culture on group behaviour (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997; Gergen, 1973; Himmelweit & Gaskell, 1990; Renshon & Duckitt, 2000), social roles, environments, experiences, relationships, and a movement away from laboratory based measurements. Within mainstream psychology there is still a focus on the cognitive and affective aspects of behaviour, whilst individual level processes which are fundamental in social and group processes are not always acknowledged. According to Nafstad & Blakar (Nafstad & Blakar, 2012); “A full-fledged social psychology cannot be based on experimental laboratory research alone”. This is because it is necessary to concentrate on methodological approaches for future research as much of the quantitative experimental psychology involved in addressing and measuring group behaviour does not acknowledge core social aspects such as social life, social behaviour and human development as social beings.

One key area within group behaviour is obedience. The study of obedience entails the tendency to comply with orders from an authority figure and where group behaviour is concerned obedience entails an individual adapting their actions in order to comply with the group’s wishes or rules. Concerned with the atrocities committed during Nazi Germany, Milgram explored the effects of obedience under the influence of authority (Milgram, 1974). Participants, who witnessed the confederate being strapped into a chair with electrodes in another room, were given the role of ‘teacher’ whilst a confederate of the experimenter was given the role of ‘learner’; The teacher was expected to administer an ‘electric shock’ for every wrong answer in what they were lead to believe was an experiment about learning, the shocks increased at 15 volt increments and when the participant refused to administer the shocks, they were given standard instructions (prods) by the experimenter, who wore a lab coat, therefore acting as an authority figure within the group. 65% of participants administered the full 450 volts, suggesting that obedience is related to situational pressures.

In order to attempt to explain why individuals would behave in the way they did during the experiment, Milgram proposed the agency theory. The agency theory according to Milgram consists of two states; the autonomous state, in which individuals make decisions on their own ideas and beliefs, and the agentic state, in which in which individuals give up responsibility and defer the responsibility to those of a higher status. Although the agency theory does attempt to explain rare occurrences such as the obedience in events such as the Mai Lai Massacre and Nazi Germany, there may be other explanations for the obedience, as suggested by French and Raven (French & Raven, 1959) who suggested there are five different types of power; legitimate power, reward power, coercive power, expert power and referent power. It is also important to note that the agency theory is more of a description of how society works, rather than explaining why individuals obey authority figures against their better judgement in some situations. The theory of groupthink could also be applied in order to explain the phenomological behaviour in Milgram’s study, as groupthink entails group decisions which are often irresponsible, dangerous, made under extreme pressure and dominated by a powerful leader, therefore Milgram’s theory alone by not be sufficient in exploring individual and group behaviour.

There are several ethical issues within Milgram’s study such as the lack of debriefing, the distress caused to the participants and deception about the nature of the study. Also, despite Milgram carrying out several variations of his original experiment, the experiment has methodological flaws. Due to the laboratory setting of the experiment there was a distinct lack of ecological validity as the obedience portrayed in compliance with an authority figure does not necessarily represent and cannot be generalised to real life social interactions.

It has been suggested that Milgram’s experiment became caught up in the broader processes of psychologisation (De Vos, 2009). This is due to the power of science and the authority of experimentation which is suggested in the study, specifically where the experimenter acts as an authority figure within the peer-group, urging participants to continue with the experiment. Also, it has been argued that the experiment dramatizes people’s capacity for violence (Brannigan, 2004) and only demonstrates a short-term measure of obedience (Stainton Rogers et al, 1995). Taking these points into consideration, the need for a multi-perspective view of group behaviour can be reiterated as a concentration on laboratory experiments alone does not fully account as an explanation of group behaviour and obedience, this is further evidenced by the suggestion that Milgram does not make a concise conclusion concerning the study.

“We are led to no conclusions about obedience, really, but rather are exhorted […] to be impressed with the power of your situation as an influence context” (Parker, 2000). Further replications of Milgram’s original study were conducted in order to address some of the issues which were presented within the experiment, such as ethical issues (Burger 2009) and methodological flaws (Meeus and Raaijmakers, 1995), therefore taking a further qualitative stance on the original study. A solely experimental approach to the study of obedience within individual and group behaviour may not necessarily be useful, although the phenomenon of obedience is portrayed in Milgram’s experiment, no true conclusion or explanation is drawn due to a lack of acknowledgement of social, political and cultural factors, and a reliance on quantitative and experimental social psychology.

Another area of study within individual and group behaviour is conformity. Conformity is the influence on an individual which may alter their beliefs or behaviour in response to the pressure of a group in order to internalise or fit in with a group. According to Man (Man, 1969) there are three types of conformity; these are normative, which is a desire to be liked by the group, informational, which is a desire to be correct and identification which is conformity to a social role.

Asch’s well known line study explores normative conformity due to the participant’s attempts to avoid rejection from the group and informational conformity due to the participants desire to be correct. Asch suggests that an individual will attempt to internalise with a group and display the effects of majority influence (Asch, 1952). The experiment consisted of a participant who was given a selection of lines and was asked to judge which was most similar to a comparison line in the presence of others, who were actually confederates of the experimenter who were instructed to purposely give incorrect answers. 5% of participants conformed to all of the trials, 33% conformed to over half of the trials and 25% did not conform at all. Several variations of the original experiment were conducted; when one confederate was present none of the participants conformed, however when more than three confederates were present strong conformity occurred. This suggests the effects of majority influence and pressure on the individual to act in a manner in accordance to a group, the desire to be liked and avoidance of rejection from the group.

Asch’s line study distinctly lacked ecological validity due to its artificial laboratory setting, which suggests that the experiment had low ecological validity and may be difficult to generalise to a real-life situation. A replication of Asch’s original experiment in which the participants were British engineering, mathematics and chemistry students suggested low reliability within the original study, out of the 396 trials, a participant conformed with the incorrect majority on only one trial.. Asch’s experiment has been referred to as a ‘child of its time’, due to the social, political and historical context in which Asch’s experiment was conducted, as conformity was a social norm during Post-World War Two era, whilst the notion of ‘individualism’ was rejected (Perrin and Spencer, 1980). The lack of reliability in the study may be due to a change in what is socially acceptable rather than a methodological flaw, and therefore it is of importance to acknowledge social norms and values whilst studying group behaviour as well as the notion that group behaviour cannot be based within experimental psychology alone (Nafstad and Blakar, 2012).

One prominent theory which may be applied to real life examples of group behaviour is Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1979). Social Identity Theory details how membership to a group gives an individual a sense of social identity, these groups are important in enhancing an individual’s self-esteem and pride, therefore individuals may attempt to increase the status of their own group, or simply discriminate against an ‘out-group’ through social categorisation. Discrimination against an out-group occurs through prejudice and stereotypes which occurs through three cognitive processes; social categorisation, which is the decision about which group you belong to, social identification, which is more overt identification with the in-group, and social comparison which is comparison to the out-group which is believed to be inferior, this in turn increases the self-esteem of the in-group (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Although it can be argued that Social Identity Theory can provide a concise and full explanation for the formation if in-groups and out-groups, it does not clearly define how the process occurs and also is not a predictor of behaviour (Hogg, 2000). Therefore, although Social Identity Theory can explain some aspects of group behaviour, it may not be applicable to real world phenomenon as it cannot provide full explanation for real-life group behaviour such as acts of terrorism.

In real-world research, such as a psychological approach to terrorism, it has been suggested that it is necessary not to allow cognitive biases to ‘cloud the analysis of political situations’ (Abrahms, 2006; Scheier, 2007). Therefore, experimental psychology alone may not be useful in analysing and explaining real-life situations. However, Zimbardo (Zimbardo, 2002) argues that ‘terrorism is all about psychology’ as it is key to understanding the motives, values and ideology of terrorists; therefore it is clear there is debate as to how real-life examples of group behaviour should be studied.

Although many of the most prominent studies in the area of group and individual behaviour are based within experimental psychology, there is a tendency for discursive, critical and qualitative psychologists to argue that there is a need for the exploration of social norms, values and experiences, rather than the notion held by experimental psychology which simply acknowledges that these factors have an ‘affect’. When considering the experiments and debates which are discussed within the study of group behaviour, in order for future research to attempt to provide a more concise explanations of group behaviour it may be appropriate to concentrate on people on an individual level within context as well as their actions in a group situation, for example acknowledging their experiences, relationships, values and social roles in order to draw conclusions as to why individuals act in accordance to a group instead of simply displaying extreme phenomena such as in the cases of Milgram and Zimbardo. It has been suggested that current mainstream social psychology is primarily characterised by the study of the interactions between the individual and groups through experimental study and as a result of this, context such as social and cultural levels have not been represented to their true extent (Doise, 1982/1986).


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