Conformity and Obedience

Conformity and Obedience. In order to answer the question it is first necessary to define conformity and obedience. According to Woods, (2001 p. 107): ‘ We often adjust our actions or opinions so that they fit in well with those of other people. This is known as social conformity …… ’ And Gross, (2001 pg. 392) stated that: Obedience is affected by direction (from somebody in higher authority). This essay will explore circumstances in which we are likely to conform; or obey others. This will be done by drawing on research carried out by Milgram, Asch, Crutchfield and Zimbardo.
There are many ways in which we conform; some are useful others are not. For example, if we did not conform and adhere to the Highway Code there would be absolute chaos on our roads and lives would be at risk. At the other end of the scale we have the horrific example of ‘blind’ obedience in relation to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s – 40’s. In this situation Hitler’s soldiers obeyed and carried out their orders without question because their orders came from a legitimate authority. (Mcilveen & Gross, 1999, pp. 79-80).
In 1963 Stanley Milgram carried out a psychological experiment to try to discover why so many people co-operated and committed such atrocities in the concentration camps. This experiment involved groups of two people one – a confederate – played the part of a student trying to remember different words. The other person who was the subject played the role of a teacher and gave him the test. The teacher was told to ‘shock’ the ‘student’ every time he missed a word. Milgram thought that most people wouldn’t shock another human being and especially not all the way up to deadly levels of electricity.

However, I transpired that 63% were obedient to their instructor (since he was the one in a position of power) and went all the way up to 450v which was lethal (Hayes, 2000 pp. 50-51). Experiments carried out by Solomon Asch (1995) showed how easy it is to make people conform. In one of his experiments Asch used groups of 6-8 people who were told they were participating in a study on visual perception. He presented these subjects with 2 cards. On one card was a single ‘standard’ line; on the other were 3 ‘comparison’ lines. Participants were asked to judge which of the comparison lines were equal in length to the ‘standard’ line.
Each of Asch’s groups only contained one real subject – the rest were confederates. Asch instructed each of the confederates to give the same wrong answer. There was a 75% conformity rate of the participants, meaning that they gave the same answer as the confederates, showing that people do not want to ‘appear different’ (Gross, 2001 pg. 382). However, researchers discovered that if the participants were alloed to give their answers away from the group, then conformity decreased. If people were allowed to give their answers in private, then it is found that they will be less likely to be swayed by other people’s opinions.
Again, in experiments, researchers like Asch (1955) have discovered that if the task is ambiguous or the problem made harder, then conformity levels are likely to increase. Under conditions where the problem is less obvious, then people are likely to go with the majority of the group (Gross, 2001 pg. 383). An experiment carried out by Crutchfield (1954) found that pressure to conform can also occur without face to face communication. In this particular study each participant was placed in a separate booth facing a screen which displayed questions and what they believed were answers of the other participants.
The questions were simple and the answers obvious. In around half the cases the answers were incorrect. Each participant was led to believe they were the last to answer having seen the other answers. Crutchfield in fact placed the answers there. This experiment suggests that in certain situations people will conform to avoid being the ‘odd one out’ and labelled as a social outcast. In addition, the fear of rejection by peers helps to assure that conformity is guaranteed. Crutchfields’ experiment found that 37% of the participants conformed all the time which shows that conformity can occur even without face to face contact.
Both these experiments show that people will go with a group norm and conform to other people who they might not even know (Mcilveen & Gross, 1999 pg. 73). Clearly, there are several reasons why we conform i. e. we don’t want to be seen as troublesome or a nuisance – the psychological term being ‘compliance’. Perhaps we simply wish to be accepted into a group ‘normative influence’ (Gross 2001 p. 386). We may also feel that we are amongst people who are more knowledgeable than us and that we have no right to argue, which is termed ‘information social influence’ (Mcilveen & Gross, 1999 pg. 4). It could be argued that conformity studies are often designed to illustrate the dangers of conformity, and the following study could be seen as an example of this. ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ was carried out in 1973 by Zimbardo. It involved taking at random 24 men who responded to a newspaper advertisement asking for volunteers to take part in a psychological study on prison life. A mock prison was created and the volunteers were given ‘roles’ of either guards or prisoners.
This experiment found that the guards conformed to the roles expected of them in that they took charge of the prisoners and treated them cruelly and the prisoners conformed to their roles in that they allowed this to happen and did not say that they wanted to stop the experiment. Some even asked for parole instead of requesting that the experiment be terminated. The level of conformity in this study was exceptionally high to the extent that the ‘prisoners’ became very distressed and the experiment had to be aborted on day 6 – it was planned to last 2 weeks (Class notes, March 2005).
Research also shows that levels of conformity are likely to increase if the status of the people in the rest of the group is high. Low status people are likely to conform more to high status people, especially if those people are in some form of authority (Mcilveen & Gross, 1999 pg. 77). Without doubt all societies require a certain level of conformity in order to function as a society. If social norms are not adhered there would be confusion and disorder. However, what research has shown is that anyone is capable of conforming/obeying under the right circumstances or situations.
It is also evident that the circumstances in which we conform or obey can be seen as positive or negative and although it is not always the case, it is usually a positive social influence. In the UK today we live in a society which places great value on the individual: ‘…….. there is a great emphasis on individual responsibility to contribute to society. ’ (Alcock et al, 1999 pg. 41) we are expected to contribute, conform and obey. Following like sheep may be regarded s weak, however, the fact remains that many of us conform i. e. religion, fashion, politics.
In addition to these factors it is important to mention that non-conformity also has its place in society because if there were total conformity there would be no change, no improvement, or new ideas. For many, life may well be a struggle – battling with the desire to be an ‘individual’ and also having to ‘conform’ to how society expects them to be, think and do. It could be argued that conformity and obedience are necessary elements of society as conformity and obedience helps create a stable society. From an early age we have been instructed to obey and conform as we grow up we continue to be exposed to these pressures i. . our parents demand obedience, friends require us to be ‘part of the crowd,’ teachers demand homework, our religion tells us what to believe and the government expects us to obey the law and pay our taxes. Culturally too we are expected to conform i. e. arranged marriages, customs, traditions and dress. In conclusion, with regard to the experiments that have been discussed in this essay it is important to remember that they are just that – experiments, and it is difficult to know for certain what would actually happen in the ‘real world. References. WOODS, B. Basics in Psychology. 2nd edn. London. Hodder & Stoughton Educational. GROSS, R. 2001. PSYCHOLOGY. The science of the mind & behaviour. 4th edn. London. Hodder & Stoughton Educational. MCILVEEN, R & GROSS, R. 1999. Social Psychology. 2nd edn. London. Hodder & Stoughton Educational. HAYES, N. 1994. Principles of Social Psychology. East Sussex. Psychology Press Ltd. ALCOCK, P. , ERKSINE, A. , MAY, M. 1998. The Students Companion to Social Policy. Oxford. Blackwell Publishers Ltd.


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