This section provides revision resources for AQA GCSE Psychology and the Social Influence chapter.
The revision notes cover the AQA exam board and unit 8182 (new specification).
First exams for this course are in 2019 onwards.
As part of your GCSE Psychology course, you need to know the following topics within this chapter:
What is conformity?
Social influence describes how other people affect our opinions, feelings and even behaviours.
Conformity is one form of social influence that occurs when an individual thinks or acts similar to those around them.
The individual may be aware that they are conforming or this may be an unconscious process whereby they do not realise that their thinking and behaviour has changed because of others influencing them.
This form of social influence is sometimes referred to as majority influence.
Fashion is a good example of conformity as people conform to the latest trends.
When an individual conforms and goes along with the majority in public, this does not necessarily mean they have changed their private attitudes or beliefs (attitude conversion) although exposure to majority positions on subjects can cause this.
If an individual goes along with a majority view or behaviour but does not agree internally, this is usually a form of compliance.
Conformity may, therefore, be characterised by public compliance rather than private acceptance and internalisation of the views or behaviours expressed.
Dispositional factors affecting conformity
Dispositional factors are the individual or personal characteristics of a person that may affect how they behave or conform.
There are a number of factors identified but we will focus exclusively on how personality factors affect conformity and how expertise affects conformity.
How personality affects conformity
Research has found that some personality characteristics increase the tendency to conform.
These include low self-esteem, low status in a group as well as low IQ levels.
Such factors may lead to insecurity in social situations and such individuals may assume others have a better understanding of how to behave.
Such individuals may be more likely to look to others for guidance and follow what they do (informational social influence) so that they are accepted and liked (normative social influence).
How expertise affects conformity
A person is less likely to conform in situations where they have a high level of expertise because they are likely to be more confident in their own opinions and experience of what to do.
This would then explain why older people are less likely to conform than younger people.
Through age and experience, we may come to feel more certain about our own understanding and knowledge base, so we feel less pressure to conform.
Expertise affects conformity due to informational social influence.
Asch’s study of conformity (1956)
Solomon Asch was a Polish-American psychologist and is famed for his study into how conformity and peer pressure works.
Aim: To investigate if people would conform to the opinions of others and knowingly give an incorrect answer.
Study design: A laboratory experiment was conducted in which there was control of extraneous variables.
Procedures were standardised to ensure the study could be easily replicated and findings checked for reliability.
Participants consisted of American male students.
Method: Groups of 7 to 9 people were shown a set of 4 lines: a standard line and 3 other comparison lines.
They were asked to say out loud which comparison line was the same length as the standard line. The correct answer was always clear.
There was only one real participant in the experiments with the rest confederates. The real participant was told the experiment was to investigate visual judgements while the confederates were all told to give the same incorrect response for 12 out of the 18 sets of lines.
The real participant was always among the last to answer so they could hear other peoples responses first before giving their own judgement.
This was done in an attempt to place pressure on them to conform to the majority’s incorrect viewpoint.
Results: Participants were found to give the incorrect answer in line with the confederate group 36.8% of the time.
Participants also conformed to the incorrect majority at least once 76% of the time.
Only 24% of participants resisted the pressure to conform and gave the correct judgement in every trial.
Conclusion: The results demonstrated how people conform to fit in with the group despite knowing they are giving an incorrect judgement.
Evaluating Asch’s Conformity Study
Strengths of Asch’s conformity study
- A strength of Asch’s line study was that it demonstrated the extent to which people conform within social situations. When Asch’s line study was repeated without confederates and the pressure to conform, the error rate was less than 1%. This rose to 36.8% when performed in a group setting demonstrating how people will conform due to normative social influence to fit in and be accepted by a group of people.
- Another strength of Asch’s study was it was conducted within a laboratory setting where high levels of control over variables were achieved. This allowed researchers to limit extraneous variables and alter specific factors (such as group size) to ascertain responses were due to conformity. For example, Asch found that as he increased the group size, conformity rates increased. Asch also found that when participants could give their responses anonymously they were less likely to conform. This demonstrates how social factors evidently affect conformity rates.
- Another strength of Asch’s conformity study was it was conducted in a laboratory setting with standardised procedures. This made replication possible to check for reliability and subsequent recreations of Asch’s line study have confirmed the validity of the findings.
Weaknesses of Asch’s conformity study
- Asch’s line study was conducted in a laboratory setting which lacks ecological validity. This means the environment was artificial and unnatural which may have caused them to behave in a way that may not generalise to natural settings. As a consequence of this, the results may not reflect how conformity could occur in everyday settings and the findings may not generalise and lack external validity.
- The task itself (judging and comparing the lengths of lines) is a contrived task which lacks personal significance to most people involved. In everyday life, conformity related behaviour is likely to be about decisions that are more important to individuals and so the results may not predict how people respond to real-life situations involving conformity.
- Another weakness of Asch’s study is it was culturally biased. For example, the participants were all American and cultures such as the USA and UK are examples of individualistic cultures that emphasise the needs of the individuals. Collectivist countries such as China place greater value in meeting the needs of the group and cross-cultural research as found conformity rates are higher in collectivist cultures compared to individualistic ones. This would mean that Asch’s findings can not generalise to all countries as culture is likely to be a mitigating factor that influences conformity levels and this will vary.
What is obedience?
Obedience is when people follow the orders of an authority figure.
With this type of social influence, an individual has the choice to either comply with the order given by the authority figure or defy them and face potential consequences.
Research into obedience to authority came from the need to understand the situational conditions under which people would suspend their own moral judgements in order to carry out an order from a malevolent authority figure.
Stanley Milgram conducted a landmark study into obedience after Adolph Eichmann was executed for his part in the murder of European Jews during the Holocaust.
Eichmann claimed at his trial that he was merely “following orders” much like many other war criminals when brought to justice. Psychologists have since then tried to understand why people will follow orders even when they know it will cause us to do things which are wrong.
Milgram’s Obedience Study (1963)
Stanley Milgram set out to explore whether ordinary people would obey a person in authority even when required to injure an innocent person.
He was interested in seeing under which circumstances people might be induced to act against their consciences by inflicting harm on other people.
Before conducting the experiment he asked 14 Yale University senior psychology students to predict the outcome of the experiment.
All the students asked believed that only a tiny fraction of the participants (teachers) would be willing to inflict the maximum voltage of 450volts.
Milgram also asked colleagues, Harvard University graduate Chaim Homnick and 40 psychiatrists from a medical school with the majority predicting the experiment would end before reaching the final 450volts.
Many believed that obedience rates would be tiny and most would refuse to continue beyond the 300-volt mark when the learner refused to answer.
They believed only 3.73% would be willing to continue all the way.
Milgram’s study recruited 40 participants for each variation of the study conducted. Different versions of the study were created to calculate the effects on obedience.
Participants were told that the study measured how punishment affected learning (the ethical issue here would be deception).
There were two experimental confederates: an experimenter, and a 47-year-old man introduced as another volunteer participant.
The two participants (one of which was the confederate) drew lots to see who would be acting as the “teacher” or the “learner”.
In reality, this was rigged so that the real participant would always be the teacher and the confederate always played the role of learner.
The “teacher” was required to test the learner on their ability to remember word pairs.
Every time an incorrect response was given, the teacher would be required to administer an electrical shock that increased in strength for the next incorrect response.
The shocks started at 15 volts and increased in 15-volt increments all the way up to 450 volts.
In one variation of the experiment, the learner who sat in the other room gave mainly incorrect answers and received his fake shocks until the voltage reached 300-volts.
At this point, he would pound on the wall and then give no response to the next question.
This behaviour would be repeated at 315-volts and from this point onwards they would say or do nothing.
If the teacher (real participant) asked to stop or question what was happening, the experimenter had a series of “prods” to repeat, such as saying, “it is absolutely essential that you continue” or “you have no other choice, you must go on”.
- In the image above the “teacher” is labelled L.
- The “learner” is labelled S.
- The “experimenter” is labelled V.
Findings from Milgram’s study
Contrary to the expectations of most academics, psychiatrists and colleagues, 65% of the participants continued all the way to 450-volts.
This was even despite the shock generator being labelled “Danger, severe shock at 420-volts” and “XXX at 450-volts”.
All participants in the study reached at least 300-volts with only 12.5% (5 people) stopping there once the learner first objected.
This study demonstrated how ordinary people are obedient to authority, even when requested to behave in an inhumane way.
This showed us that it was not evil people that committed atrocities but just ordinary people who obey orders.
This may mean that many crimes against humanity may be the outcome of situational factors rather than dispositional factors.
An individuals capacity for making independent decisions is suspended when they find themselves in a subordinate position within a powerful social hierarchy.
Milgram’s Agency Theory Of Obedience (1963): A Social Explanation Of Obedience
Milgram’s Agency Theory (1963) suggests we are more likely to obey orders when we enter an “agentic state’.
Normally, we feel as if we are responsible for our own actions with the freedom to choose how we may behave.
This is known as an autonomous state.
An agentic state is when we believe we are acting on the behalf of an authority figure so we are therefore no longer accountable for our own actions.
We see the responsibility for our behaviour laying with the authority figure giving us the orders to carry out.
Milgram called this move from an autonomous state to an agentic state the “agentic shift”.
Milgram argued that we are taught to enter the agentic state as children because we are taught to respect and follow the orders from authority figures within society. We, therefore, think this is normal to do with little thought and this can lead to blind obedience.
Evaluating Milgram’s Agency Theory Of Obedience
Milgram’s Agency Theory is supported by his study into obedience (1963).
In this infamous study, 65% of his participants were prepared to give what they believed to be potentially fatal electric shocks to another person when an authority figure told them to do so.
Milgram argued they were acting in an agentic state on behalf of the authority figure (an experimenter in a laboratory coat) because they were being paid to perform a role and informed the experimenter will take responsibility for their actions.
If they had been informed that they would be responsible for their own actions, it is unlikely that so many people would have followed the orders.
Not everyone blindly follows orders, which suggests that some people are less likely to enter the agentic state than others.
Milgram’s theory focuses on social factors that affect obedience however other psychologists have argued that dispositional factors such as personality are more important in determining how obedient someone will be.
Dispositional factors affecting obedience
Dispositional factors are internal factors about a person that affect obedience levels.
These can be high or low self-esteem, confidence levels or even intelligence levels.
These characteristics all affect whether a person is likely to obey or not.
For example, in Milgram’s obedience research, the people that tended to disobey the experimenter were often found to be more confident and articulate.
How dispositional factors affect bystander behaviour
Similarity to the victim
When a bystander feels there are similarities between them and the person in need of help, research suggests they are more likely to offer assistance.
If people are the same gender, similar age levels, or have other characteristics in common, people find it easier to empathise with those in need of help because they think they are similar to us.
This means we are able to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine how they are likely to be feeling in the situation.
By assisting them, we are then likely to feel better because our distress about their situation is reduced.
How expertise affects bystander behaviour
Bystanders are more likely to help others if they feel they have the skills or expertise required to be able to help them based on the situation.
For example, if someone was in trouble while swimming, someone who is an excellent swimmer (or lifeguard) would feel more confident in their ability to help due to their knowledge and experience.
People who are not able to swim may be less inclined and it is through this, expertise becomes a factor in whether bystanders choose to help or not.
Bystanders may still feel concern and distress observing someone else in trouble however when other people are present, they may believe that someone else might be more capable of helping, or is more able to help better or more easily than themselves which prevents them joining in.
Piliavin’s Subway Study (1969)
Aim: Piliavin’s subway study investigated whether the appearance of a victim would influence whether people helped or not.
Study design: A field experiment was conducted in which there was limited control over extraneous variables.
Participants were male and female passengers who were travelling on the 8th Avenue subway train in New York City.
They were unaware that they were part of a psychological study (this raises ethical issues of deception and lack of informed consent).
Method: An actor pretended to collapse in the train carriage with his appearance altered.
In 38 of the trials his appearance was altered to be that of someone who was drunk; he smelt of alcohol and had a bottle of alcohol wrapped in a paper bag.
In 65 trials he appeared sober and carried a walking stick.
Researchers recorded how often and how quickly the “victim” was helped.
Results: When the actor was carrying a walking stick, he was helped within 70 seconds 95% of the time.
When he appeared drunk, he received help within 70 seconds 50% of the time.
Conclusion: A person’s appearance will affect whether or not they receive help and how quickly this help is given.
Evaluating Piliavin’s Subway Study 1969
Piliavin’s subway study was important because it helped us understand why some victims are less likely to receive help compared to others due to the cost of helping.
If someone is drunk for example, they may be seen as unpredictable and therefore helping them may put ourselves at risk of harm.
This study also demonstrated how vulnerable members of society such as children, pregnant women or senior citizens were more likely to receive help because bystanders perceive them to be deserving of help and present less risk of harm.
Another strength of Piliavin’s study was that is was conducted in a natural setting with real people who were unaware they were involved in the study.
This means demand characteristics were eliminated and people acted as they would in a real example.
This study, therefore, has high ecological validity and could help explain bystander behaviour even in real-life situations.
Piliavin’s study has limitations however as it was conducted in America and could be argued to be culturally biased.
For example, America is an individualistic culture where people are expected to help themselves and deal with their own problems.
In collectivist cultures, there is a greater emphasis on reciprocal support and helping others and research suggests that altruistic or “helping behaviour” is not the same across individualistic cultures and collectivist cultures.
This is a weakness of Piliavin’s research as it cannot be generalised to explain all bystander behaviour across different cultures.
There is also some research evidence to suggest that people living in rural areas are more helpful in emergency and non-emergency situations than those living in cities and urban environments.
This would mean that Piliavin’s study may not reliably predict bystander behaviour outside of cities or towns.
Another criticism is Piliavin’s research ignores individualistic characteristics such as personality variables.
For example, some people may have a stronger belief that it is their duty to help others or greater experience or expertise in doing so compared to others.
These variables would make it more or less likely for bystanders to help which is ignored by Piliavin’s study.
Piliavin’s study also ignores the findings of previous research which identified the diffusion of responsibility as a factor.
He concluded that the characteristics of a person in need were more important than the number of bystanders present in influencing helping behaviour.
He believed that people were just as likely to be given help on a crowded subway compared to an empty one based on the “victims” characteristics rather than the “helpers”.
This contradicts other research that has looked at how the diffusion of responsibility occurs which influences helping behaviour with people more or less likely to help dependent on the number of other bystanders that are present.
Crowd and collective behaviour
Crowd and collective behaviour refers to how people behave when in group settings.
Psychologists have found that people behave differently when they are part of a group or crowd compared to when they are alone.
Early theories have suggested that crowds had a tendency to act as a violent mob and although the majority of the research has focused on antisocial behaviour, most crowd behaviour tends to be peaceful.
A growing body of research evidence also highlights that crowds can act in prosocial ways too.
An example of this is after the 2005 London underground bombings, large numbers of people who were trapped underground united to work together and help fellow passengers.
Peaceful crowds showing responsible behaviour occurs on a regular basis at sporting events, train stations, tourist attractions or even religious gatherings.
How do social factors affect collective behaviour
Social loafing refers to the idea that individuals will put less effort into completing a task when they are part of a group compared to when they are completing it alone.
When a group are completing the task together, every individual is being helped by others within the group and this results in the diffusion of responsibility occurring as each individual does not have to work as hard.
This results in each person ultimately contributing less towards the task.
There are some key factors that reduce the likelihood of social loading occurring, such as:
- When people are in a small group (compared to a large group)
- If individuals are completing a task or activity they think is important
- If the group is in competition with another group.
Social loafing can also be reduced if each individual’s efforts are identified and evaluated within a group task.
Deindividuation refers to what happens when people lose their sense of individuality.
Individuality refers to who we are, our personality values, our sense of right and wrong.
Psychologists have found that people can become deindividuated when in a crowd because they feel like they are anonymous.
Within a crowd, it is hard to be identified and more so if their appearance is masked or they look like other people in the crowd.
This leads people to lose their inhibitions and sense of responsibility for what they do. As a result, they are less able to monitor their own behaviour and judge whether their actions are right or wrong because they behave as part of the crowd rather than an individual.
Research into deindividuation has found that when people are in crowds, they look to those around them to guide their own behaviour.
If the crowd is happy and joyful, the people joining the crowd will change their behaviour to adapt accordingly.
If however, the crowd is a hostile mob, the people joining in will also become aggressive and hostile.
This is because they feel they are anonymous within the group and no one knows who they are and so they think they cannot be punished.
The social norms within a culture can also affect collective behaviour.
Interestingly, social loafing does not occur in all societies. For example, in collectivist cultures such as China, people are prepared to work just as hard for the good of the whole group even when they do not need to.
This means that it is difficult to assume that collective behaviour will be the same across all cultures.
Rotter (1966) believed that some people have an internal locus of control while others had an external locus of control.
People with an internal locus of control believe they control the things that happen to them.
People with an external locus of control, attribute the things that happen to them to factors outside of their control.
If people with an internal locus of control (dubbed “internals”) did poorly in an assessment or test, they are likely to believe this was because they did not revise enough whereas people with an external locus of control (dubbed “externals”) would blame the result on poor teaching or difficult questions in the test.
Subsequent research has found that people with an internal locus of control take greater responsibility for their own behaviour and thus are more likely to decide how to behave based on their own idea of what is right or wrong (rather than conforming to the groups behaviour).
This means such people are less likely to conform to crowd collective behaviours compared to those with an external locus of control.
Whether a person engages in prosocial or antisocial behaviour may also depend on their sense of morality.
Morality is defined as their sense of what is right and wrong.
For example, young people may not trust the police or believe they are there to protect them and their communities and may, therefore, feel justified in abusing or attacking them when in collective situations.
However, this is not the only factor to influence their behaviour.
If for example, they believe their behaviour is right and justified, they may still avoid getting involved in anti-social behaviour if engaging in it presents a personal risk to them, such as getting in trouble, prison, losing their job or facing negative consequences.