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Experiments on social influence help to determine whether a person behaves in accordance to one’s social context or one’s personality. They emphasise the importance of the implied, real or envisaged existence of others. Individuals spend most of their time in social gatherings and they can exert an influence on group members or the reverse may occur.
Indeed, most people’s attitudes reflect the belief systems of their respective groups. To effectively understand human behaviour, one must fully appreciate the role that social context plays in influencing it. Experiments on social context can demystify antisocial behaviour because they provide a theoretical basis for deviations from the norm.
How research helps in the understanding of social behaviour
One classic piece of social influence research is the Asch conformity as carried out by Solomon Asch. He was one of the most important contributors of the antisocial behavioural discipline because he demystified the concept of group conformance (Turner 1991). In his analysis, the experimenter used two types of cards for all the participants. One card had a standard line while the other card had three different lines.
Subjects were supposed to match the lines on the second card with the standard line. This was a relatively simply test that had a clear answer. However, the subjects were placed in the company of others and answered after all the confederates (5, 6 or seven in number) had responded. It was found that twelve out of the eighteen subjects changed their minds when the perceived members of the team did the same.
When these participants were asked to identify the correct line privately, they gave the right answer. This experiment illustrated that members of a group will be under pressure to conform to other’s people’s opinions even when they know that the opinions they hold are wrong.
Ash’s study was critical in illustrating the importance of normative social influence. His subjects deliberately gave a wrong answer because they wanted to adhere to group norms. At the time of the experiment, it was necessary to follow the instructions of members of the group. Their feelings and expectations were imperative in bringing out these outcomes.
In fact, conformance was so important to the subjects that they were willing to support an answer that they knew was obviously wrong (Bond & Smith 1996). Similarly, one may apply this information to groups that engage in antisocial behaviour. A young man may participate in a violent activity, group rape or robbery owing to the type of social influence found in Ash’s experiment.
He may know that the activity is immoral, but may choose to engage in it simply to conform to group expectations. Such subjects seek group rewards or want to evade social punishment. This public conformity may explain why certain people act appropriately in private and inappropriately in a group especially when the action they are doing is undoubtedly wrong/ immoral.
Asch’s work also provides useful insights on self categorisation. This theory posits that sometimes people may justify their antisocial behaviour in groups by depersonalizing themselves from the situation (Koelen & Van den Ban 2010). They may claim that their behaviour was in tandem with the group, and this was the right thing to do.
Participants may hold the expectation that when in a group, one is expected to hold the same attitudes or beliefs as the group. They depend upon the choices of others to gauge whether their own actions are correct.
The Milgram experiment was yet another classic piece of work on social influence and can also provide tremendous insights on antisocial behaviour. It was carried out amongst a group of volunteers who were made to believe that they were playing the role of a teacher. A confederate was placed in an adjacent room, and was expected to learn a series of words from the teacher.
For every wrong response, the teacher was to administer an electric shock to the learner. However, confederates did not receive actual shocks. The experimenter simulated sounds and noises that sounded like electric shocks. The confederates also pretended to be in pain by screaming and banging on the wall after a certain voltage level.
They were supposed to tell the teacher about a heart condition that they had. If the subjects wanted to stop at a certain time, the experimenter would urge them to continue using a succession of four sentences, which stressed the critical importance of continuing. If the ‘teacher’ felt that he still wanted to stop after the four sentences, then the experiment would end (Wu 2003).
However, others who asked about the confederates were assured that the shocks would not cause permanent harm to the ‘learners’. The results revealed that 65% of the subjects were willing to reach the maximum voltage even though they appeared to be uncomfortable doing so. Some questioned the ethics of the experiment and even refused payment.
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Unlike Asch’s trials, which simply dwelt on group influence, this research was crucial in understanding the role that authority plays in affecting people’s behaviour. Asch’s work compared moral values with social beliefs or opinions. However, Milgram contrasted authority with one’s moral beliefs. His study was critical in illustrating how authority can undermine moral principles and thus lead to antisocial behaviour.
Therefore, the concept of obedience to authority was under analysis here. More than half of the participants in the study were willing to forfeit their personal principles in order to obey authority. These findings illustrate how antisocial behaviour can occur among seemingly normal or ordinary people.
Participants of this study believed that they were not expected to question authority. Similarly subordinates in other settings may commit immoral or antisocial crimes simply because they respect authority. They may be aware of the destructiveness or immorality of their situations, but may willingly participate in those wrongs because of submission to authority.
The Milgram experiment also shows that individuals sometimes do not reflect on their beliefs when acting on behalf of an authority. This is reflective of the agentic state theory. In this school of thought, Milgram asserted that when people subject themselves to the authority of others, they may regard themselves as mere instruments’ of their superior’s wishes rather than individual entities (Milgram 1974).
As such, most people will not feel responsible for any actions when they engage in antisocial behaviour. In addition, this experiment is also a continuation of the theory of conformism that was started by Asch. Engaging in antisocial behaviour may sometimes be a form of reference to a group. In this case, the group is the authority figure.
Conformity often occurs when the concerned person feels that he or she is not capable enough to make a certain decision. In such cases, the person will depend upon the group as a reference for behaviour (Hayes 2000). This especially occurs when an individual is in a crisis situation like the one in the concerned experiment.
Such an analysis is especially relevant in understanding how some people may be prompted to behave in a manner similar to the one viewed in the Nazi concentration camps. The persons carrying out those actions revealed that social influence can be dominant enough to lead to sadistic or inhumane acts as seen in the genocide.
Milgram proved that more often than not, people agree to belong to a system. When in that system, they have the choice of either sticking to their moral judgements or submitting to the rules of the system, which are represented by figures of authority. Loyalty may be regarded as a moral standard that shapes people’s behaviour.
Therefore, when one makes a choice between these divided allegiances then one may or may not act in a deviant manner. The subjects in the experiment were more loyal to the rules of the system, which was the experiment, than their own belief systems and this perpetuated aggressive or violent behaviour. This experiment is highly useful in illustrating that the agentic state of an individual can lead to antisocial behaviour.
One may belong to a corporation, and may be persuaded to carry out criminal/ unethical behaviour after receiving instructions from one’s supervisor. This study is useful in identifying the situations that cause obedience to unethical instructions, and can thus allow stakeholders to either minimise those conditions or eradicate them completely.
Phillip Zimbardo also carried out another famous study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. His major aim was to find out how situational factors lead to deviant behaviour. The researcher created a fake prison at the basement of Stanford University and took 24 students into the setup. The experiment was supposed to last for a period of 2 weeks.
Unlike Milgram, Zimbardo did not use confederates or actors as prisoners. All the participants were assigned roles as guards or prisoners. No prisoner was allowed to leave the premises while the guards could do so after an eight-hour shift. The experiment never went up to the intended two weeks as the prisoners were immensely stressed while the guards became sadistic and abusive.
Zimbardo found that regardless of having two choices; being hostile or civil towards the prisoners, the guards chose to be hostile. Most of the prisoners took on a position of submission and depression. Some of them seemed to be highly anxious and even began crying. The researcher himself participated in the study; played the role of a prison warden.
However, he stopped being objective in the analysis when he allowed the guards to act so brutally. It was Zimbardo’s girlfriend who warned him about the dangers of the experiment, and urged him to stop. After the experiment, it was found that certain situations can prompt seemingly passive individuals to act in a deviant or antisocial manner.
When people are given positions of power, they yield to its influence and forget about the importance of their own moral values. The subjects who played the role of guards started to behave in a manner that was not typical of them. Many of them transformed from being passive to aggressive and even violent. Conversely, the subjects who played the role of guards became silent and passive.
This analysis was important in understanding the importance of social conformity. Most people will behave in a certain way owing to their understanding or society’s definition of the position. Police officers, teachers, parents, waitresses, prisoners or prison guards all fulfil certain social roles. Persons in these roles are expected to exhibit certain kinds of behaviour.
The guards in the mock prison embraced their social roles and disregarded the fact that they might hurt their fellow participants. This was particularly surprising when Zimbardo himself acted inappropriately. Furthermore, the participants had not shown any signs of psychological malfunctions prior to the survey.
Besides, none of the participants volunteered for the role as this would have denoted that certain elements of their personality came into effect. All were randomly assigned those positions without prior consultations. He acknowledged that he had gotten so carried away by his social role, as a warden, that he lost all objectivity of the analysis.
Unlike Milgram’s study; this experiment had no specific authority. However, it did prove some of the findings in Asch’s study; that group expectations can replace an individual’s moral imperatives. In this case, no one voiced their expectations about what the prison guards or prisoners should do or say. This behaviour was deduced from expectations on those social roles.
No form of coercion or force was exerted upon the participants, yet they found it within themselves to act so sadistically. This study shows that social influence can occur in non immediate settings. The persons concerned in the Zimbardo experiment did not seek immediate social rewards or refrain from immediate punishment. They were allured by the temptations of the powerful positions they were in (Zimbardo 2007).
All the experiments discussed above on social influence also prove that conformity can be manipulated. Once a dissenting opinion is voiced by even one member, then that is sufficient enough to cause doubt about a certain act. Variations of the Asch and Milgram experiments have shown that people will be willing to abide by their own moral standards if they realise that other persons in their own position would be willing to do the same.
Additionally, if a person heard about certain opinions from an in-group member, then he or she would be more likely to adhere to those same opinions than if the view came from a perceived outsider. Social influence can be moderated and this may minimise antisocial behaviour in subjects.
Zimbardo, Asch and Milgram also demonstrate that social forces play a vital role in one’s deeds. Antisocial behaviour may arise out of the need to conform to societal expectations, direct group expectations or even a member of authority. These researches point out that sometimes, one’s personality or value systems can be overridden by certain social forces.
Therefore, psychologists or other stakeholders may prevent or treat antisocial behaviour by minimising the occurrence of these group influences. It is particularly interesting to note that most of the deviant behaviour took place regardless of the anonymity of the participants.
The subjects had no particular relationship with the researchers in all three social influence studies yet they still engaged in antisocial behaviour. One might conclude that peer influence among known associates and friends may exert an even heavier social influence on the deviant person.
Social influence is a concept that can affect people in various capacities. It is so powerful because it has a two-way function. It offers rewards to the person engaging in the antisocial behaviour because it facilitates acceptance. It also offers rewards to the group because it elicits fewer negative sentiments from them. Social influence can thus impede or heighten antisocial behaviour based on these understandings (Guetzkow 2000)
The studies carried out on social influence illustrate that it highly affects individual behaviour. These researches show that a person’s behaviour is firmly rooted in one’s social context. Sometimes this may come in the form of one’s peers, group, roles or authority figures.
Bond, R & Smith, P 1996, ‘Culture and conformity: a meta analysis of studies using Asch’s line judgment task’ Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 119, pp. 11-137
Guetzkow, H 2000, Groups, leadership and men, Carnegie press, Pittsburgh
Hayes, N 2000, Foundations of psychology, Thomson, London
Koelen, M & Van den Ban, A 2010, Health education and health promotion, Wageningen Academic Publishers, Melbourne
Milgram, 1974, Obedience to authority: an experimental view, HarperCollins, London
Turner, J 1991, Social influence, Open University Press, NY
Wu, W 2003, ‘Compliance: the Milgram Experiment’ Practical psychology, June, pp. 23
Zimbardo, P 2007, ‘When good people do evil’ Yale Alumni magazine, February, pp. 8