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Group Conformity Studies

Group Conformity Studies

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the development and theories of social conformity.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to join me and study society. This lesson is going to be pretty interesting, because we're going to go over some really cool experiments on group conformity. They reveal the extent to which we as humans in society want to conform and be a part of groups. Group conformity is when we change behaviors or beliefs to be more in line with the sentiments or practices of a group.

And you might think that as an individual, you're strong, and-- I don't do any of that. I don't conform to groups. But what these experiments we're going to talk about show is that humans overwhelmingly conform to groups. We can't really survive on our own too well without groups, so groups are an important part of human society. So let's start by talking about Solomon Asch, who did some experiments that showed group conformity.

Now, look at these lines on the board here. We have this line, this line A, this line B, and this line C. To you, which of these lines matches? Well, obviously, these two lines match. This one and this one. But what Solomon did was he got six to eight students together, sat them at a table, told all of the students except for one to try to shift-- say that these two lines match. Say this line matches this line. Except for the one person, who then is obviously going to think, well, of course this one matches. But everybody else is going to say, well, no, this one matches.

So what Solomon actually found when he did this was about one third of the students uncomfortably said these two lines match, even though they can see that these two lines match. But one third of them-- because group sentiment was favoring this one and they wanted to avoid conflict, more than likely-- they went against their own good judgment and said that this line matched this one, when in reality, it does not.

So what's fascinating about this is Asch's study shows that we're willing to compromise our judgments and senses of right and wrong under the influence of peer groups. Everybody can see that these two lines match, but under the peer group influence, well, maybe these two lines match. And it's fascinating that people will do this just to avoid group conflict. Solomon Asch's studies showed us we're willing to conform in peer groups, but what about authority?

Well, Stanley Milgram-- a student of Asch's, actually-- was interested in this question, so he devised some experiments to test how we conform to authority. So he gave us this experiment on punishment and learning. He was interested in how punishment related to learning. Milgram tested this by getting a group of males and assigning them one by one to this role of teacher. They were going to be teaching somebody else, and this somebody else was one of Milgram's accomplices who was going to be in the next room, hooked up to an electric chair.

But the students didn't know that the electric chair wasn't real. They saw this accomplice of Milgram's go into the room, sit down in the electric chair. They applied some paste to his hands where the electricity was supposed to shock him. Milgram told the students that this was to not cause irritation and burning. He saw them sit them in the chair, strap their arms down so they wouldn't come undone when they were getting shocked. The teacher saw all this, and they thought it was real.

And then, in their room, where they were going to be doing the teaching, they saw this box. It was a shock box, and they could administer shocks-- degrees of voltage. So what they wanted them to do was to teach them sets of paired words-- bird, fly. Night, day, et cetera. So they were going to be teaching these words, and then when the person got it wrong, Milgram told them to administer a shock because they got it wrong. And he said, you should increase these shocks by 15 watts every time they get it wrong, and on and on.

So people did this. It was labeled, they knew, 15 watts was a mild shock-- mild attention. Up to 120 watts, medium shock. All the way up to 450 watts, which is extreme, dangerous shock. This was all labeled out for these teachers, and they knew this, but they did it anyway, Milgram found. So about 120, as the shocks increased, you would hear moans, and then you would hear screams, and then you would hear even banging on the wall.

And about two thirds of these teachers that Milgram recruited went all the way to the extreme, dangerous shock-- startling results, because it shows that we will conform to authority. Nobody even really questioned this shock experiment. They just did it. We conform to authority to that degree that we will even go as far as harming another person. We will follow the instructions.

And Milgram modified this experiment slightly and did it again, and this time with groups of teachers. There were groups of three, and two of them were also accomplices of Milgram's. And so he was interested in how this process, administering shocks, would be affected by having three teachers by the group. And each time, the teachers were to suggest a level to shock the person. Well, we think we should shock him this, the decoys suggested.

They gradually went up, but this time, since everybody was weighing in-- I think we should shock him this or that-- it gave the person was actually being tested, the third teacher, the option to administer low shocks that were not the higher shocks that the decoys were suggesting. But he still went ahead and shocked at the very high level of wattage. And what Milgram found, then, was that in groups, people administered a shock voltage that was three to four times higher than the level they reached doing it on their own. So the group had a fascinating impact on the level to which you will shock somebody.

And these experiments are great, because they show how people readily obey authority, even when the authority is telling us to do something that we might think is wrong. We'll wrap up this discussion of group conformity talking about groupthink. You've probably heard that term before. Groupthink is the tendency towards conformity within groups. It results in the group taking a narrow view of an issue, akin to tunnel vision. They take a narrow view.

Rather than dealing with tension and conflict in a group, a group lets one idea emerge as dominant, even if individuals within the group might think otherwise. They might think counter to the dominant idea, but they don't want to have conflict, so they let that go. They subdue their own dissensions with the dominant idea to avoid the conflict. So have you ever felt that in a group? Have you ever felt like you've got something you'd like to say, but that it would cause conflict to go against the idea that had emerged to become dominant and shared among the group? You probably have, and this is groupthink. You're experiencing that in groups.

A prominent public example of this is the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Scholars have decided, well, this might be groupthink at work here, when we got the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that's what we honed in on, rather than this broader focus. We've got to have something happen here after 9/11, and Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. Go! So that's an example of groupthink in action in society. I hope you enjoyed this discussion of group conformity and the illustration of it through experiments and this discussion of groupthink. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Group Conformity

Changing your behaviors or beliefs so that you are more in line with the sentiments and practices of a group.

Janis' Groupthink

Irving Janis' advanced the idea that the tendency towards group conformity results in taking a narrow view of an issue, akin to "tunnel vision."

Solomon Asch Study

Study of social conformity involving visual perception from the 1950's where accomplices to the study answered incorrectly, putting pressure on the subjects to do so as well. Asch found that one-third of all subjects chose to conform by answering incorrectly.

Stanley Milgram Research

Series of research studies from the 1960's to determine how people respond to authority. The premise of the study was that subjects were told they were participating in a study of how punishment affects learning. The subjects were assigned the role of a teacher and told to administer shocks for incorrect responses. Almost two-thirds of the subjects administered shocks up to potentially deadly levels at the prompting of the researcher.

People to Know
Solomon Asch

American psychologist who studied social conformity in groups.