AQA A-level Psychology – Social Influence


Chapter 2: Memory

  • The multi-store model of memory: sensory register, short-term memory. and long-term memory. Features of each store: coding, capacity and duration.
  • Types of long-term memory: episodic, semantic, procedural.
  • The working memory model: central executive, phonological loop, visuo-spatial sketchpad and episodic buffer. Features of the model: coding and capacity.
  • Explanations for forgetting: proactive and retroactive interference and retrieval failure due to absence of cues.
  • Factors affecting the accuracy of eyewitness testimony: misleading information, including leading questions and post-event discussion; anxiety.
  • Improving the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, including the use of the cognitive interview.

Chapter 3: Attachment

  • Caregiver-infant interactions in humans: reciprocity and interactional synchrony. Stages of attachment identified by Schaffer. Multiple attachments and the role of the father.
  • Animal studies of attachment: Lorenz and Harlow.
  • Explanations of attachment: learning theory and Bowlby’s monotropic theory. The concepts of a critical period and an internal working model.
  • Ainsworth’s ‘Strange Situation’. Types of attachment: secure, insecure-avoidant and insecureresistant. Cultural variations in attachment, including van Ijzendoorn.
  • Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation. Romanian orphan studies: effects of institutionalisation.
  • The influence of early attachment on childhood and adult relationships, including the role of an internal working model.

Chapter 4: Psychopathology

Chapter 5: Approaches In Psychology

Chapter 6: Biopsychology

Chapter 7: Research Methods

Chapter 8: Issues and Debates In Psychology

Chapter 9: Topics In Psychology

  • Relationships
  • Gender
  • Cognition and Development
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating Behaviour
  • Stress
  • Aggression
  • Forensic Psychology
  • Addiction

Types of conformity

The three types of conformity we will focus on for social psychology are Compliance, Internalisation and Identification.

Our lives are filled with many social influences many of which we are aware of but also some which we are not. When an individual conforms, they choose an action that is favoured by the majority of the group. The reasons why people conform vary and this is what conformity is about; trying to understand why people go along with the group.

Possible questions for types of conformity include:

  • What is mean’t by conformity? (3 marks)
  • What is mean’t by compliance, internalisation and identification? (3 marks)
  • Give an example of compliance, internalisation and identification (6 marks total, 2 marks each)


Compliance is one explanation for conformity and is the weakest form. Individuals may choose to go along with the group to try and gain the groups approval or to avoid their disapproval. When an individual is exposed to the views and actions of the majority, they engage in a process of social comparison where by they concentrate on the behaviours of others so they can adjust their own actions to fit in with them. One reason for this is because fitting in with the majority is seen as desirable and thus motivates conformity. When compliance occurs, this may not result in any chance in the person’s underlying attitude, only in the views and behaviours they express publically.


Internalisation is another form of conformity and is the strongest form. Internalisation occurs when individuals go along with the group because they accept their viewpoint. When a person is exposed to the views of other people from within the group, they are encouraged to examine their own beliefs to see if they or others are correct. When examining the groups position closely, they may convince themselves that the group is right and their own viewpoint is wrong. This is more likely if the group is seen to be trustworthy and the individual has previously agreed with their viewpoints. This can lead to the acceptance (i.e. internalisation) of the groups viewpoint both publically and privately.


Identification is another form of conformity which has traits of both compliance and internalisation. Identification is stronger than compliance but weaker than identification. An individual might accept influence from a group because they want to be associated with it, but also internally accept the attitudes and behaviours as true. The distinction is the purpose of accepting the behaviour is so they can identify with that group and be accepted i.e. this is how youngsters are believed to be commonly embroiled in smoking. A child may start smoking because “that’s what all the cool kids do” and they want to be seen as one of the “cool kids”. This may also be temporary and the individuals behaviour may change when they are out of the group.

Explanations for conformity

There are two explanations for conformity we will focus on for social psychology. These are Informational social influence and Normative social influence. 

Possible questions on explanations for conformity include:

  • Explain what normative social influence is (4 marks)
  • Explain what informational social influence is (4 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate normative and informational social influence explanations of conformity (12 marks for AS and 16 marks for A-level)

Informational Social Influence

Informational social influence occurs when an individual accepts information from others as evidence about reality. Humans have a need to be accepted but also the need to feel confident that their perceptions and beliefs as right. Individuals may initially rely on objective tests (comparing against facts) however in the absence of any facts, ambigious situations (where the correct course of action is not clear) or if there are other people who are perceived to be experts present, we may rely on others and conform in behaviour publicaly and privately. Due to this, the individual changes their behaviour in line with the group as well as their attitudes. This is therefore an example of internalisation occurring.

Normative Social Influence

Normative social influence refers to conformity when people may go along with the group majority without them personally accepting their point of view. This type of conformity is known as “compliance”. Humans are social species and are believed to have a fundamental need for social companionship while fearing censure and rejection. It is this that underpins the basis for normative social influence i.e. the need for approval and acceptance and avoid rejection or disapproval. An important element for normative social influence to occur is the individual must feel like they are being observed or under survellience by the group. When this happens, the individual generally feels the need to conform to the majority position publicaly however they may not internalise these viewpoints or carry over the same behaviour to private settings or over prolonged periods of time (Nail 1986).

Variables affecting conformity

The three main variables affecting conformity that we will look at are group size, unanimity and task difficulty (as investigated by Asch).

Possible questions on variables affecting conformity include:

  • Outline Asch’s study into conformity and the findings (6 marks)
  • Explain the role of group size as a variable affecting conformity (4 marks)
  • Explain the role of unanimity as a variable affecting conformity (4 marks)
  • Explain the role of task difficulty as a variable affecting conformity (4 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate research into conformity (12 marks for AS and 16 marks for A-level)

How group size affects conformity

Ash’s research into how group size affects conformity has found that as the majority group size increases, so does conformity. Group size only affects conformity to a certain point however. Asch found that one confederate in a group saw conformity at 3%. With two confederates in a group, conformity was 13%. When there was only one real participant and three confederates in a group, there was a 33% conformity rate. When Asch increased the group size to 15 confederates, there was no increase in conformity. The highest conformity rate was when there were 3-5 participants.

A meta-analysis by Bond and Smith of 133 studies similar to Asch’s found conformity peaked when there were 4-5 confederates.

Campbell and Fairey argued the effect of group size was dependant on the type of conformity task itself. When the task was related to personal preference, an increase in group size led to greater conformity because the participant wanted to fit in (identification). However, when the task involved an actual correct answer, only up to two other confederates were needed for optimum conformity.

How unanimity affects conformity

Asch also looked at unanimity affects conformity. Unanimity means when there is an agreement by all those involved. When all the confederates gave the same incorrect response, conformity was as high as 33%. Asch then investigated how important unanimity was by introducing confederates that would go against the majority and give the correct answer.

Asch placed a confederate second-to-last just before the real participant gave their answer. This confederate was instructed to give the correct answer. The other confederates were instructed to give an incorrect response out loud. Asch found that conformity rates dropped to 5.5% under these conditions. If the confederate went against both the real participant and other confederates, conformity still dropped to 9%.

Asch concluded that breaking unanimity through simply having a different point of view was enough to reduce conformity regardless of whether they supported the real participant or not.

How task difficulty affects conformity

Asch also investigated how task difficulty affects conformity rates. His research found that as task difficulty increases and the correct answer becomes less obvious, conformity also increases. This suggests that as individuals look to others for guidance on what the correct response is, informational social influence becomes the dominant force. Asch demonstrated this by increasing the task difficulty of his line experiment. He did this by making the lines very similar to one another in length. The results found that conformity increased in most circumstances except in individuals who were deemed to have high levels of self-efficacy. Lucas et al (2006) found that the influence of task difficulty is moderated by the self-efficacy of individuals who were confident in their own abilities even when task difficulty was very high. This demonstrated how situational variables such as task difficulty and individual differences such as self-efficacy play a key role in determining conformity in individuals. 

Solomon Asch Line Study (1956)

Solomon Asch was a pioneering researcher when it came to understanding aspects of social psychology such as conformity. During the 1950s, Asch conducted a series of line studies that demonstrated the effects of social influence on conformity. Asch showed how people were willing to go against compelling evidence from their senses in order to conform with the majority group consensus. This came to be known as the “Asch effect”; a term used to describe the tendency for us to sometimes do what others do rather than what we feel to be right.

Below is the original video outlining Asch’s study which has been replicated by others with similar results.

Solomon Asch gathered male student volunteers to take part in a laboratory experiment for what they believed to be was a test of vision.

Participants were shown a stimulus line and then 3 other lines labeled A, B or C. They were then asked one by one to say out loud which of the 3 sets of lines they were shown matched the stimulus line.

All except one student were confederates which were primed to give the same incorrect responses. The real participant always answered last or second to last in their response after observing the other confederates answer. In total, 123 American students were tested.

The findings from Asch’s line study showed that in control trials where no confederates were used, participants gave incorrect responses 0.7% of the time. In critical trials over one third (37%) of real participants conformed to the majority groups incorrect answer. 75% of real participants conformed at least once in the experiments. Normative social influence was the reason given by most participants as the reason for conforming to the majorities incorrect view.

Evaluating Solomon Asch’s Line Study For Strengths and Weaknesses

  • The use of students in this study is not representative of the wider population and older age groups. Due to this, the study lacks external validity as we cannot say for certain the results would be similar when using mixed age groups or ranges which would be more indicative of real world settings.
  • The study also involved males only and could be argued to be gender biased. We cannot say conclusively that females would respond similarly or if the participants were mixed, the results would be the same as the all male group. Therefore the study lacks generalisation to the real world population.
  • A strength for Asch’s line study was it was conducted in a laboratory setting. This enabled Asch to have control over all the variables and be certain that the confederates were the ones influencing the responses.
  • Another strength for using a laboratory setting for Asch’s study was it enabled researchers to more easily replicate the study. This helped researchers check the reliability of the results which have been found to be consistent and show the study has validity.
  • A weakness of Asch’s study is it lacks ecological validity as it was conducted in a laboratory setting. This means the setup and environment was not realistic of real world situations as all the participants were in an artificial environment and aware of being monitored. This may have resulted in very different behaviour compared to what they may have done in the real world as the study lacked mundane realism.
  • All the students were American students and due to cultural differences between countries, the behaviour may not accurately generalise to the behaviour of other men their age in the exact same situation. This is because culture can mitigate for behaviour and vary between collectivist cultures to individualistic. This may mean conformity may be higher or lower in other countries.
  • Another weakness for Asch’s line study is the potential for demand characteristics. As the study was a laboratory study with participants well aware of being monitored; they may have adjusted their behaviour and displayed demand characteristics and answer how they think researchers wanted them to answer. This would mean the results are invalid and not indicitive of how people would respond in real-life situations.
  • Asch’s study also raised ethical concerns as deception was used. The real participant was unaware the other people were confederates and misled on the actual aim of the study. This could be argued to be vital to measuring conformity however as without the deception, their real behaviour may have been impossible to measure.

Conformity To Social Roles As Investigated By Zimbardo 1973

In 1973, Philip Zimbardo conducted his famous Standford Prison Experiment. He asked the question, what would happen if ordinary people were placed in a simulated prison environment with some of them desginated as guards and some as prisoners? Philip Zimbardo, Craig Haney, Curtis Banks and Carlo Prescott set out to answer this question.

Zimbardo’s prison study was setup in the aftermath of the Attica Prison riots in New York where 9 hostages and 28 prisoners died following a protest over inhumane conditions in the prison. Zimbardo’s prison experiment aimed to observe the interaction between two groups in different social roles in the absence of an obvious authority figure.

Possible questions on conformity to social roles includes:

  • Outline Zimbardo’s study of conformity to social roles and its findings (6 marks)
  • Outline how one study of conformity to social roles was conducted (4 marks)
  • Outline the findings of one study of conformity to social roles (4 roles)
  • Outline and evaluate Zimbardo’s research into conformity to social roles (12 marks for AS and 16 marks for A-level).

The Standford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo 1973)

A mock prison was set up at Stanford University in the basement of the psychology department. Male student volunteers were psychologically and physically screened and 24 of the most stable students with no criminal tendencies were identified and randomly allocated to play either the role of a “prisoner” or “guard”.

The volunteers allocated as “prisoners” were unexpectedly arrested at their home and on entry to the “prison”, they were deloused and given a prison uniform and assigned an ID number.

The guards referred to the prisoners only by their assigned ID numbers throughout the experiment. Guards wore khaki uniforms, reflective sunglasses (preventing eye-contact) and issued handcuffs, truncheons and keys.

The prisoners were allowed certain rights such as 3 meals per day and 3 supervised visits to the toilet. They were also allowed to be visited 3 times per week. Each cell was allocated 3 prisoners from a total of 9. The study was originally planned to last two weeks.

The prisoners and guards settled into their roles over the first few days with the guards becoming more and more abusive and tyranical towards the prisoners as time went on. Dehumanisation was apparent with the guards taunting prisoners and waking them up at night to carry out demeaning jobs such as cleaning the toilets with their bare hands. Some guards even volunteered for extra hours without pay.

Prisoners were seen to become submissive and did not question the guards behaviours with some even siding with the guards against other prisoners who rebelled. Prisoners began referring to one another by the ID numbers instead of their actual names and de-individuation was apparent.

5 of the prisoners were released early due to them displaying extreme behaviours such as crying, anxiety and rage. The study was stopped after only 6 days after it became apparent the significant harm that was being caused by the aggressive behaviour of the guards and the submissive behaviour of the prisoners.

Evaluating Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study 1973

  • Individual differences played a key role as not all the guards were sadistic and brutal with some opting to be fair or not exert control over the prisoners at all. The behaviour between the prisoners was not identical either which makes generalising the findings difficult.
  • The study was recreated by the BBC (BBC Prison Study, Reicher and Haslam 2006). Upon recreating Zimbardo’s study, the BBC prison study found the guards did not identify with their roles and the prisoners challenged their authority which undermines Zimbardo’s findings. Haslam and Reicher point out this shows the guards were choosing to behave this way rather than simply conforming to the social role itself.
  • Zimbardo’s study provided real world applications such as improving the conditions in young offender institutes. However Zimbardo believes the study was failure as the condition of prisons in the US are according to him, worse than ever.
  • Demand characteristics have been blamed for the behaviour observed in Zimbardo’s study too. Banuazizi and Movahedi (1975) presented the procedure for Zimbardo’s study to a large sample of people and the vast majority of them were able to guess the true nature of the study (that people would conform to their assigned roles). Participants also predicted the guards would likely be hostile while the prisoners would behave passively. This highlights the fact that Zimbardo’s volunteers may simply have been “acting up” in their roles.
  • Zimbardo’s study also raised serious ethical concerns considering the level of distress the participants experienced. Some reacted by crying, rage and anxiety and even Zimbardo acknowledged the study should have been ended sooner. The ethical concerns are the study could have long-term psychological effects on participants although Zimbardo offered debriefings for several years after. In the studies defense, it was approved by the Stanford ethics committee.
  • This study offers us insight as to why some of the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib as they may have been subject to situational factors making abuse more likely. It also offers us the possibility to reduce this with training and procedures for greater accountability. The role of free will has not been factored in as not everyone conforms so freely as the BBC study demonstrated and this appears to be completely ignored in determining behaviour by Zimbardo which undermines his study.

Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment 1963

Stanley Milgram’s experiment into obedience in 1963 was a landmark study into why people obey authority. It was published just 6 months after the execution of Adolph Eichmann for his part in the murder of millions of jews in the Holocaust. During his trial and just like many other war criminals brought to justice, he maintained he was “only obeying orders” given to him.

Possible questions on Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiement include:

  • Outline what Milgram did in his study of obedience and the findings (6 marks)
  • Explain the role of proximity as a variable affecting obedience (3 marks)
  • Explain the role of location as a variable affecting obedience (3 marks)
  • Explain the role of uniform as a variable affecting obedience (3 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate research into obedience (12 marks for AS and 16 marks for A-level)

Stanley Milgram wanted to try understand why people obey when the action is inhuman or destructive and set out to investigate whether ordinary people would obey a legitmate authority figure even when required to injure an innocent person. Milgram’s experiment was interested in trying to understand the circumstances under which people may act against their consciences and inflict harm on others.

What did Milgram do?

Milgram placed an advert in the local paper looking for male volunteers. From the volunteers who applied, 40 were eventually selected to be a part of Milgrams experiment. They ranged from different backgrounds, occupations and age (20-50 years old).

The volunteers were deceived as they were told they were taking part in a study on memory and learning. They were invited to attend at the prestigious location of Yale Universities psychology laboratory.

Volunteers were invited individually and on arrival were introduced to an experimenter in a white coat and another middle aged man who they were led to believe was another volunteer named “Mr Wallace”. In truth Mr Wallace was a confederate.

The volunteer was told Milgrams experiment was about how punishment affected learning and one person would be the teacher while the other would be the learner. The real volunteer and Mr Wallace drew lots to decide which role they would play however this was rigged with so the real volunteer would always be the teacher and Mr Wallace (the confederate) was always the learner.

They were placed in a room with a shock generator and the real participant who was the desginated teacher, was instructed to apply shocks of of increasing levels to the learner every time a question was answered incorrectly by them. The real participant was given a shock of 45 volts to convince him this was authentic and the confederate (Mr Wallace) was strapped to the chair in the room next door. The voltages increased from 15 volts all the way up to 450 volts in increments.

In truth, the learner received no electric shocks unknown to the real participant and he was instructed to give mostly incorrect answers. Each time he was “shocked” by the real participant for an incorrect response, varied recorded responses were played. At 150 volts the learner would begin to protest and refuse to take part further in the study complaining of heart problems. At 315 volts, he would scream loudly and from 330 volts and upwards, he would not respond at all.

If the teacher (real participant) objected or displayed resistance to continue, they were given a series of verbal “prods” by the experimenter to continue the experiment.

You can view the video below which shows you Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment with actual footage from the study.

What were Stanley Milgram’s Findings?

Milgrams study found that out of 40 participants, 62% of them (25 people) went on to give the maximum shock of 450 volts. 100% of the participants went up to at least 300 volts.

Only 5 participants stopped administering shocks at 300 volts. Some participants even began to show signs of distress such as laughing nervously or sweating while others showed no signs of distress focusing on only administering the shocks. Some participants also argued with the experimenter however still continued to obey.

Prior to carrying out his experiment, Milgram had asked psychiatrists, students and other colleaugues to predict how far participants would go. The majority of the opinion was only 1 person out of every 1000 would go beyond 150 volts.

14 out of the 40 participants did manage to resist the pressure to obey and chose not to continue above 300 volts which is important to note.

Explanations For Obedience

The Agentic State

One explanation for obedience is the Agentic State. Stanley Milgram proposed “Agency Theory” which suggests people are socialised from childhood to obey rules and this involves giving up some free will and autonomy. When an individual feels they have complete control they are autonomous and see themselves responsible for their own actions. However, when an individual obey’s an authority figure they enter the “Agentic State” where they no longer see themselves as responsible for their own behaviour but an agent of the authority figure whose orders they are following. In this individuals eyes, they see the authority figure as responsible for the consequences and they become deindividuated. People may enter the agentic state because normally the concern around maintaining a positive self-image restricts behaviour, however the fact that responsibility shifts to the authority figure means perception of self is no longer relevant.

In Stanley Milgram’s electric shock study, the agentic state was maintained due to the gradual commitment made by the individuals from giving earlier electric shocks. As the shocks voltage got higher, people continued as they felt obliged to continue as they had already complied with the smaller reasonable shocks prior, thus binding them into the agentic state.

Legitimacy Of Authority

Legitimacy of authority is important for a person to enter the agentic state. The agentic state can only be achieved if the person giving the orders has legitimate authority to do so. People are socialised from an early age to accept a hierarchy of power exists within society with authority figures having power in social situations. For example, the police have power in regards to the law, doctors with health and teachers in respect to education. From early childhood and social interactions even within the family, we are taught that we are acceptable if we obey those who have authority over us. We obey authority figures because we are taught to trust them or because they have the power to punish us. Milgram believed that there was generally a shared expectation that most situations would have an appropriate authority figure controlling the situation. Therefore the person giving the order must be perceived to have the social power to give orders within the context of what is happening for them to be seen as a legitimate authority figure. Milgram demonstrated the importance of this as obedience was high at 65% when his shock experiment was conducted at the prestigious Yale University. When the setting was altered to an office in downtown New York, obedience dropped to 48%. The change of setting effectively reduced the perceived legitimacy of authority from the experimenter. It can also be reasonably assumed that the change of setting also influenced the degree of trust participants had towards the experimenter.

Legitimacy of authority can be signalled by the use of a uniform. In Bickman’s 1974 field experiment, 92% of pedesterians obeyed a strangers order to give them money for a parking meter when they were dressed as a security guard. This dropped to 49% when the same person was dressed in civilian clothing.

Evaluating The Agentic State

Milgram proposed people shift back and forth between the agentic state and the autonomous state. A criticism of this however is the idea of rapidly shifting states fails to explain the very gradual and irreversible transition Lifton (1986) found when studying German doctors working in Auschwitz. Lifton found that ordinary doctors who originally cared for only the wellbeing of their patients had turned into men and women capable of carrying out vile and lethal experiments on helpless prisoners. Staub (1989) proposed that rather than the agentic shift being responsible for the transition that was found in many Holocaust perpetrators, it was the experience of carrying out acts of evil over a long period of time that changed the way in which individuals thought and behaved.

There are othe possible explanations for the sadistic behaviours people display beyond just the agentic state which Milgram conceded was possible. Some social scientists believe Milgram had detected some signs of cruelty among his participants who then used the experimental situation to express their sadistic impulses. This was given further support by Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment as within just a few days of playing the role of guards, they began to inflict increasing levels of cruelty on increasingly passive prisoners.

Fennis and Aarts (2012) argued that the process of the agentic shift was not confined to just authority, but may extend to other forms of social influence. For example, they suggest the reason for the agentic shift is because of the persons own experience of personal control i.e. they feel like they are less in control of their behaviour.

Under such circumstances, people may show an increased acceptance of external sources of control to compensate for this. Fennis and Aarts conducted a series of studies in both laboratory and field settings and demonstrated how a reduction in personal control resulted in greater obedience to authority and also bystander apathy. Therefore this may be a better explanation for obedience which undermines Milgram’s agentic shift theory.

Evaluating Legitimacy Of Authority

Although there are positive outcomes to obeying legitimate authority figures, it is also important to note that legitimacy can also serve as the basis for inflicting harm on others. If person authorise another person to make judgements for them about what is appropriate conduct, they no longer feel like their own moral values are relevant for their behaviour. The consequence of this is, when directed by perceived legitmate authority figures to take part in immoral actions, people are concerningly willing to do this. Looking at history, there is various examples of unquestioning obedience to authority regardless of how destructive the actions are. In military training, this extreme sort of obedience to legitmate authority figures is fostered into soldiers and further reinforced by the structure of military authority.

Tarnow (2000) provided support for the power of legitimate authority through studying aviation accidents that had occurred. Using data from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a review of serious aircraft accidents in the US between 1978 and 1990 was conducted using the flight voice recorder (this is the “black box” in aeroplanes) where flight crew actions had contributed to the crash. Tarnow found an excessive dependence on the captains authority and expertise and said nothing, even when crew noticed the captain taking a particularly risky approach. The NTSB report found such a lack of monitoring accounted for 19 out of the 37 accidents they investigated.

Possible questions on explanations for obedience:

  • Outline the role of the agentic state in obedience (4 marks)
  • Outline the role of legitimacy of authority in obedience (4 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate two explanations of obedience (12 marks for AS and 16 marks for A-level).

Situational Variables Affecting Obedience

Situational variables such as proximity, location and uniform can all affect obedience rates according to Milgram.


Proximity between the teacher and learner has been found to affect obedience as well as the proximity between the authority figure and teacher. Milgram found when the experimenter left the room and gave orders over a telephone more people were able to resist with only 20% of participants going all the way to 450 volts.
When the teacher and learner were in the same room and the teacher could see the distress the learner was going through due to the consequences of their actions obedience rates declined to 40%. When the teacher was tasked with forcing the learners hand on to a shock plate obedience declined to 30%.
The closer people were to observing the consequences of their actions the lower the obedience rates as more people resisted. When people are able to feel detached from the consequences of their actions i.e. not being able to see them first hand, the higher obedience is.


The location and environment has been found to affect the amount of perceived legitimate authority the person giving orders has. In Milgrams original study, it was conducted at the prestigious Yale university which added to the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure giving orders. Milgram recreated his obedience study in a run down town office block in Connecticut and found obedience rates fell to 47.5%. This suggests that the perceived legitimacy of the authority figure was lowered due to the location and its context i.e. a rundown office block suggests the experimenter giving orders had less perceived authority than a researcher at at a well respected university.


Uniforms can impact obedience rates with those wearing them being perceived as having legitimate authority and people more likely to obey their orders. In Milgrams obedience study the researcher wore a white lab coat which is believed to have added to his perceived authority. Research has supported this assumption with Bickman (1974) finding that when a research assistant dressed in normal civilian clothing ordered people to pick up rubbish, loan money to a complete stranger or to move away from a bus stop, up to 19% of people obeyed. This decreased to 14% when the uniform was a milkmans uniform, possibly due to people believing he did not have the legitimate authority to make such an order however it increased to 38% when the assistant was dressed as a security guard. Bushman (1988) found supporting evidence also; a female assistant dressed in a police-styled uniform asked people passing by to loan a stranger money for a parking meter with obedience rates as high as 72%. This lowered to 48% when dressed as a business woman or 52% when dressed as a beggar highlighting the power of uniforms in obedience.

The Authoritarian Personality

The authoritarian personality is a dispositional explanation and is based on the idea that obedience is caused by the internal characteristics of an individual. The Authoritarian personality type was proposed by Theodor Adorno, Nevitt Sanford, Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Daniel Levinson as an explanation for people who held rigid, intolerant and conservative beliefs and were characterised by absolute obedience to authority and the domination of those of lower social standing. Adorno et al believed this personality was shaped in early childhood by parenting that focused on hierarchical and authoritarian parenting styles. Under such conditions children learn to obey authority and acquire the same attitudes through a process of social learning and imitation. To test for an authoritarian personality, Adorno created the “F-Scale” questionnaire which comprised of 30 questions assessing nine personality dimensions.

The Authoritarian Personality Evaluation

In developing the F-scale, Adorno studied over 2000 American students from mainly white middle-class backgrounds. They were interviewed in regards to their political views and early childhood experiences. Adorno found that people who were brought up by strict parents who used harash, physical punishments when they were children were likely to grow up to be very obedient. Under these conditions, children quickly learn to obey and develop a respect for authority. 

Zillmer et al found Nazi war criminals scored highly on 3 of the personality dimensions of Adornos F-scale questionnaire but not all 9. This only gives limited support for the authoritarian personality suggesting it has limited validity. Elms (1966) et al found that the participants who took part in Milgram’s obedience study and were the most obedient were rated by the F-scale as more authoritarian than participants who resisted which supports the link between the authoritarian personality type and obedience. Those who were more obedient also reported to be more distant to their fathers during their childhood which supports the possibility of the authoritarian personality having been learnt through social modeling. However we cannot say this for certain as we cannot infer cause and effect with correlational data when other variables may be affecting personality type such as innate temperament. Altemyer (1988) found that participants who were more willing to give themselves electric shocks were also identified as having an authoritarian personality type lending support for this explanation.

Elms and Milgram carried out interiews with a subsample of participants from Milgram’s obedience study. They found that of those who were fully obedient and went all the way up to 450 volts also scored highly on tests of authoritarianism and lower on scores of social responsibility than those who defied the experimenter, thus supporting Adorno’s claims.

Possible questions on the authoritarian personality include:

  • Explain what is meant by the authoritarian personality (2 marks)
  • Explain the dispositional explanation for obedience (4 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate one research study relating to the Authoritarian Personality explanation of obedience (6 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate the Authoritarian Personality explanation of obedience (12 marks for AS and 16 marks for A-level).

Explanations Of Resistance To Resistance To Social Influence

Social support and locus of control are two explanations of resistance to social influence, conformity or obedience.

Possible questions for resistance to social influence include:

  • Explain the role of social support in resisting social influence (6 marks)
  • Explain the role of locus of control in resisting social influence (6 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate the role of social support and locus of control in resisting social influence (12 marks for AS, 16 marks for A-level)

Social Support

Social support and dissent is one explanation for how people resist pressure to obey or conform. If a person see’s other people refusing to obey or conform and go against the social norm of the situation, this then makes it easier for the individual to also resist social influence as they would have increased confidence in their own view. Other people also resisting means they would also feel less like a minority for behaving against the social norm as they have social support for resistance as a group through the presence of allies.

There is research evidence which shows social support also aiding resistance to conformity in groups. Asch conducted a variation of his famous line study by placing a confederate 2nd to last before the real participant was able to give their answer and instructed this confederate to give the correct answer. The other confederates before gave an incorrect response out loud. Results found conformity dropped to 5.5%. If the confederate went against both the real participant and the other confederates conformity still dropped to 9%. Asch concluded that breaking unanimity through simply allowing the participant to have social support for a different point of view was enough to reduce conformity regardless of whether they supported the real participants view or not. Social support allows individuals to consider the possibility of different ways of thinking about the situation and opens them up to the possibility of considering the majority view may be wrong and giving confidence to go against this.

Social Support Evaluation

Although social support appeared to be a factor for resistance in Milgrams research, this was a laboratory study and participants knew they were being observed. It is possible the behaviours displayed by participants, whether shocking them or resisting was due to demand characteristics as they felt this is what was expected of them as they knew they were party of a psychological study. In addition to this the setting for the study lacked ecological validity as it was not a natural setting or real world situation. Therefore the behaviours of social support observed in a laboratory may not translate to the real world and the findings of social support research may have limited external validity to real world settings. Another major criticism is research into social support suffers from gender bias. For example Milgrams study only showed the effect of social support with men and not women and therefore we may not be able to generalise the findings to women or conclude that resistance occurs between genders involved.

Research has found that response order is also an important factor in gaining social support. For example Allen & Levine (1969) compared two conditions where in one condition a confederate answered correctly first followed by all the other confederates answering incorrectly. The real participant always answered last. In the second condition the confederate answered second to last before the real participant answered and all the other confederates answered incorrectly. They found support was significantly higher for the confederate in the first condition than the second and they concluded this was because an initial first response produces a commitment to the correct answer which endures even if others disagree highlighting how response order can affect resistance to social influence. Another study conducted by Allen and Levine (1971) found that social support caused resistance to social influence even if the support appeared invalid. One condition involving a visual task saw a confederate who wore thick glasses (implying visual impairment) provide support against the majority opinion. Even when this study was recreated using a confederate without any visual impairment, they found both instances helped resist conformity however it was more effective when the ally was deemed to offer valid social support. This highlights that any form of social support, whether it is deemed valid or not can help resist conformity but it was most effective when it was deemed credible.

Locus Of Control (Rotter 1966)

One explanation for those who resist social influence can be attributed to individuals with a high internal locus of control (LOC). Locus of control (Rotter 1966) refers to how much a person believes they have control over themselves and their world. Individuals with a high internal LOC are more confident and self-assured in their beliefs and more aware of how their own actions affect them. As they more aware of this internalised control they have over themselves they are less likely to be led by conformity or through obedience thus resisting social influences. Individuals with a high external LOC externalise the control they have believing it is down to luck, fate or chance. They tend to be less confident in their own views and passive which means they more easily led by others as they believe situations to be out their control anyway. Such individuals are less likely to resist social influence or display independent behaviour.

Milgram et al investigated the backgrounds of the participants who were most resistant to authority figures in his shock study and followed them up with interviews. It was found the most resistant participants were also assessed as having a high internal locus of control and scored highly on a measure of social responsibility. Oliner et al found similar findings when investigating why certain groups resisted social pressure during Nazi Germany and protected Jewish people. Comparing them to people who did not do this they found those who “rescued” people had a high internal locus of control as well as scoring high for social responsibility. This supports the idea that LOC and social responsibility are credible explanations for why people may resist social pressure.

Locus Of Control Evaluation

A lot of the research into locus of control has been based on student groups and may therefore lack population validity. It is difficult to therefore generalise the findings of locus of control research to the wider population as people who are of an older age may be inclined to behave differently due to their life experiences and knowledge. They may even be more confident in themselves at this point which could drastically alter the results.

Locus of control (LOC) as an explanation for conformity is less conclusive. Williams et al studied 30 university students over various conformity based tasks. Assessing them using Rotters locus of control scale, they were found to have little difference between them according to Rotters LOC scale however display differences in conformity. The main difference noted between them was how assertive they were with those who conformed less having greater assertiveness skills than those who conformed more. Therefore “assertiveness” may be a better explanation for why people resist social influences than locus of control, especially in regards to to conformity based scenarios.

Spector used Rotters LOC scale to assess 157 university students. Those found to have a high external LOC were found to conform more than those with a lower external score however this was only in situations of normative social pressure where people felt they needed to fit in. Situations of informational social influence (where people were unsure how to behave ) did not result in conformity by either group. This suggests people with a high need for acceptance i.e. students who may wish to be seen to fit in among peer groups are more likely to conform than those with less need for acceptance who were more able to resist. This suggests LOC may only be limited to explaining social influence resistance during situations where individuals feel they need to fit in and not necessarily neutral situations where they do not stand to lose anything from resistance.

A major weakness with LOC is it does not explain why some people have a high internal or external LOC. The explanation is therefore incomplete and oversimplified as it does not fully account for these personality differences in people and suggests something more complex occurring in peoples development which distinguishes their perceived control in their lives.

Research into LOC provides us with a real world understanding and possible real world applications. Twenge et al (2004) found that significantly more young americans were showing a higher rate of external LOC in samples of children between 1960 and 2002. Twenge believed the consequences of this was negative as external LOC was linked with poor educational performance, depression and also higher rates of violent crimes, divorces and mental health problems. This does provide us with real world applications as if high external LOC is linked with such negative consequences, developing ways to increase perceived control through CBT programmes should help address this.

Minority Influence Including Consistency, Commitment and Flexibility

Minority influence is when a smaller group or individual is able to change the view of the majority group into the same opinion as the minority through a process known as conversion. Conversion results in both the belief and behaviour being privately and publicly accepted as the standpoint is internalised which is the deepest form of conformity. For conversion to take place, the minority group must adopt particular behavioural traits involving commitment, consistency and flexibility. Minorities influence the majority through informational social influence and providing arguments and information in favor of their views. This therefore takes longer to effect change as it requires time for people to question and examine their own believes unlike majority influence which is based on compliance and causes more instant conformity.

Possible questions for minority influence include:

  • Explain what is meant by minority influence
  • Explain one criticism of the role of consistency in minority influence (4 marks)
  • Explain one criticism of the role of committment in minority influence( 4 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate research into minority influence (12 marks for AS, 16 marks for A-level).


Minority influence is most effective when the group maintain a consistent unchanging stance as this shows confidence and appears unbiased. According to Hogg & Vaughn (2002) consistency causes the majority to reassess their own viewpoints as doubt and uncertainty creeps in, more so as the minority persist in their viewpoint despite majority opposition, social pressure and rejection forcing the majority to take notice. When a minority group is consistent within itself and their arguments for change they are more likely to be influential than a group that is fragmented and changing their stance on issues as this never builds up enough support or credibility.


Commitment also forces majority group members to take the minority more seriously as it shows perseverance and confidence at great cost. Over time this may convert majority group members to join the minority as their commitment to their cause is longer lasting.


Flexibility is also a key behavioural trait for minority influence to change majority opinion according to Mugny (1982). As the minority group generally have little or no power as they are in the minority, showing themselves to be flexible shows the majority they are able to cooperate and be reasonable which is more persuasive than a group that is rigid, narrow-minded and difficult to work with. In contrast a minority group which is too flexible in their own beliefs and standing may show themselves to be inconsistent in them so a moderate level of flexibility is seen as important for minority influence to be effective.

Minority Influence Evaluation

Moscovici (1969) provided support for the role of consistency in minority influence through a separate laboratory study involving 32 groups of 6 females. The groups were asked to identify the color presented to them which was always blue but varying shades. However two group members who were confederates always answered incorrectly either all the time or most of the time to measure the impact consistency would have on the majority. Results found when the confederates were consistent in their responses and stated the slides were green, 8% of the majority agreed also. This was also seen to be higher when the group members were asked to write down their responses rather than state them out loud. Moscovici concluded the reason more people didn’t conform in his original study was possibly due to the pressure to conform being greater however when allowed to give an answer in secret more were likely to agree with the minority. When confederates gave inconsistent answers varying from blue and green their influence dropped to 1.25%. This supports consistency as an important element for social influence to occur from minority groups.

A criticism in this study is all the participants were female and results gained from just one gender may not translate to males due to gender bias in the findings. It may be argued that a group of men would be less likely to be persuaded due to differences in how they are socialised compared to women. Generally research suggests women are more conformist than men and the results for a mixed group may also be different between men and women. Therefore this study lacks external validity to real world settings where both genders interact daily.

Wood et al (1994) conducted a meta-analysis of over 97 minority groups and their influence. Of those who remained the most consistent they were seen to have the most level of influence supporting consistency as a valuable trait for minority influence to occur. However these findings are correlational and we cannot be certain of cause and effect between one behavioural trait (consistency) and the level of influence. It may be other unknown factors affect influence too which are unaccounted for.

Nemeth (1987) provided support for the role of flexibility being important for minority influence to occur. Groups of three participants and one confederate had to decide the level of compensation to pay a ski-lift accident victim. When the confederate who was acting as the consistent minority refused to change their position from arguing for a lower amount, this had no effect on the majority. When the confederate was willing to be flexible and compromise to a slightly higher amount this also influenced the majority to lower their demands. This supports the need for minorities to be flexible to influence majority groups.

Research into minority group influence has real world applications and can help us understand how terrorism radicalises people to join their cause. Consistency and persistence is evident in many groups with continuous suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists to overthrow the Israeli government. Commitment is another feature evident in terrorist groups as they show themselves as willing to sacrifice their lives for their own cause forcing people to take notice and take them more seriously. Minority influence however does not always lead to change despite commitment, consistency and flexibility being evident and many groups including terrorists may be seen as deviant due to their beliefs or measures they take. Therefore minority influence may create a potential for change but not necessarily lead to it directly.

The Role Social Influence Processes In Social Change

Social change can occur through either minority influence or majority influence. Below we will first look at Mocovici’s theory which highlights social change through minority influence through Conversion Theory. Secondly we will explore how majority influence brings about social change through conformity, similar to the concepts highlighted previously.

Possible questions you may be asked on the role of social influence process in social change are:

  • Explain how social influence leads to social change (6 marks)
  • Outline one or more examples explaining how social influence has led to social change (6 marks)
  • How might psychologists bring about social change in unhealthy eating habits (6 marks)
  • Outline and evaluate the role of social influence processes in social change (12 marks for AS and 16 marks for A-level)

Moscovici’s Conversion Theory – Social Change Through Minority Influence

Moscovici’s conversion theory attempts to explain how social change occurs through minority influence. Firstly a minority group draw attention to a particular issue they wish to have addressed for it to gain public attention. The majority group do not like conflict and as this issue invariably differs from there own the majority would therefore look at the issue to decide their own opinion on it due to the cognitive conflict it creates. If it brings something that they can relate to or agree with this can initiate social change by putting it on the public agenda. If the group bringing the issue is also seen as credible this is likely to create a deeper conflict and therefore the majority are forced to examine the minorities argument in greater detail which could lead to a move towards the minority position publicly or privately for some.

Consistency in a viewpoint is also seen as key to bring about social change from minority groups. When a minority group is consistent within itself and their arguments for change they are more likely to be influential than a group that is fragmented and changing their stance on issues. An example of this is the suffragettes who used educational, political and various tactics to draw attention to the issue of only men having voting rights and women being denied this. Over time, this consistent message and view came to be adopted by the masses, highlighting how a minority can bring about social change. Another explanation looks at the Augmentation principle. This suggests that if a group puts themselves forward at considerable risk to themselves or their members then they are likely to garner greater support. People seen to be willing to “suffer” for their cause are seen to be more influential than others who are seen to do so for their own benefit. Examples of such movements exist through leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King who put themselves forward for their causes at great personal risk which ultimately lead to greater support and recognition from the majority and effecting social change such as independence for india or equal rights for ethnic groups. As more people shift over to the minority opinion this then makes it easier for others to do so as the pressure to conform is less. This is known as the snowball effect as the minority opinion spreads and becomes more widely adopted leading to a tipping point where it leads to wide-scale social changes.

Moscovi’s Conversion Theory Evaluation

Research into minority group influence has real world applications and can help us understand how terrorism radicalises people to join their cause. Kruglanski stated terrorism could be seen as a movement for social change as such groups tend to be weaker than the majority and unable to take them on directly. Consistency, persistence and commitment is another feature evident in terrorist groups as they show themselves as willing to sacrifice their lives for their own cause forcing people to take notice and take them more seriously which supports the Augmentation principle. However such minority influence however does not always lead to social change and terrorists may be seen as deviant due to their beliefs or measures they take. Therefore minority influence may create a potential for social change but not necessarily lead to it directly. Conversion theory as an explanation for social change is also supported by Mocovici’s research into minority influence and how it influences majority group opinion which he argued could be applied to societal changes too. Mocovici conducted a laboratory study involving 32 groups of 6 females. The groups were asked to identify the color presented to them which was always blue but varying shades. However two group members who were confederates always answered incorrectly either all the time or most of the time to measure the impact consistency would have on the majority. Results found when the confederates were consistent in their responses and stated the slides were green, 8% of the majority agreed also. This was also seen to be higher when the group members were asked to write down their responses rather than state them out loud. Moscovici concluded the reason more people didn’t conform in his original study was possibly due to the pressure to conform being greater however when allowed to give an answer in secret more were likely to agree with the minority. When confederates gave inconsistent answers varying from blue and green their influence dropped to 1.25%. This supports consistency as an important element for social influence to occur from minority groups and how it may influence the majority to bring about social changes on a wider scale.

A criticism in this study and its findings is all the participants were female and results gained from just one gender may not translate to understanding how social change occurs due to gender bias. It may be argued that a group of men would be less likely to be persuaded due to differences in how they are socialised compared to women which research suggests are more conformist.Therefore this study lacks external validity to real world settings where both genders interact daily and social change may be influenced by factors such as the gender group the minority represents. Supporting evidence for minority influence causing social change comes primarily from the study into the suffragettes movement for women which campaigned for women’s right to vote. Having started in 1903 their efforts finally paid off in 1918 when the vote was given to women and subsequent research has investigated how this occurred. Findings have been consistent with Moscovici’s claims as the suffragettes used a variety of methods ranging from political, educational to even aggressive tactics to bring attention to their cause. This then enabled more people to consider their viewpoint with some joining them while others dismissed them. Consistency was also seen to be key here as regardless of the consequences they maintained their stance even at the expense of long prison sentences or even death. This relates to the Augmentation principle well as it showed they were willing to put themselves at risk for their own cause ensuring they were taken more seriously. This supports the conditions in which Moscovici proposed for social change through minority pressure. Further support for how social influence processes bring about social change through minority influence comes from the environmental group Greenpeace. Originally formed in Canada in the 1970’s and ridiculed, they have slowly over time through minority influence changed peoples beliefs attracting popular support and becoming the voice for environmental issues. This highlights how minority influences can change majority attitudes to bring about wide-scale social change through a consistent message. Martin & Hewstone (1999) found minority influence led to more creative and novel judgements than majority influences supporting the idea that it is the minority which have greater effect in drawing attention to issues and being a social force for innovation and social change.

Burgoon (1995) also argued deviant behaviours from minority groups alerted and aroused the majority leading them to take notice and consider the minority views more deeply. This suggests it is the violation of social norms by minority groups which leads to systematic processing which begins the process of social change. Nemeth (2009) agreed arguing the “dissent” of minority groups to established norms is what causes majority group members to open their mind and consider other options. Therefore the resistance minority group presents acts as a catalyst and starting point for potential social change.

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