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Wednesday, 09 June 2010 17:54

Explanations of independent behaviour, including how people resist pressures to conform and pressures to obey authority

Written by Keiron Walsh
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Figure 1: The closer the soldier is to the enemy, the more likely it is that they will refuse to kill  Figure 1: The closer the soldier is to the enemy, the more likely it is that they will refuse to kill
In Asch’s (1951) conformity study 25% of people did not conform on any of the trials, in Milgram’s (1961) study, 35% of the participants resisted the influence of the experimenter and refused to continue. This section explores the factors involved in resisting social pressure.

Resisting Conformity

Deutsch and Gerard’s (1955) explain conformity as the result of two types of social pressure: Informational Social Influence and Normative Social Influence. Normative Influence often leads to pressure to comply; that is to conform, whilst privately disagreeing with the majority. One situation in which people are able to resist normative influence is when that power is reduced by the presence of a dissenter. Asch (1951) found that it was not the size of the group that was important (similar rates when there were three or more confederates), but a dissenter caused obedience rates to drop dramatically. This means that social support enables people to resist conformity.

Another factor is the cultural context of the situation. It has been argued that there was a high rate of conformity in the Asch study because it reflected the American culture of that time (Perrin and Spencer, 1981). When Perrin and Spencer replicated Asch’s study using Mathematics, Engineering and Chemistry students as participants, a conformity response was found in only 1 of 396 trials. Nevertheless, students of these subjects are probably more confident in their judgements of length and, therefore, may have felt less pressure to conform.

Smith and Bond (1993) also found that culture can affect conformity rates. Their meta-analysis of studies from a range of different countries found that the average conformity rate in collectivist countries was 37%, whereas individualist countries had the much lower rate of 25%. In collectivist cultures, members are socialised to value the collective goals of the group, while in individualist cultures, the emphasis is on personal achievement and independence.

Resisting Obedience

Several factors have been identified by research as important in determining whether participants are able to resist obedience:

Social Support

In one of Milgram’s variations of the study, the participant took part as part of a team of 3. The other two members of the team, of course, were confederates. At 150 volts one of the other team members refused to continue and the other confederate refused to continue after 210 volts. In this experiment only 10% continued to the maximum shock level. Most participants withdrew themselves from the experiment just after one of the confederates withdrew. This shows that people are more likely to resist obedience if they are not alone in resisting it.

This was also demonstrated in Gamson, Fireman and Rytina's (1982) study where participants were led to believe that they were taking part in a study by a research organisation called Manufacturers Human Research Consultants (MHRC). The fictitious study involved participating in discussions concerning the sacking of a petrol station employee because he was living with a woman that he was not married to.

It becomes increasingly clear as the study progresses that MHRC are manipulating the participants so that they can use the staged, videotaped discussions to defend the petrol company in an upcoming court-case. The sacked petrol station employee was arguing that he was sacked because he criticised the oil company's decision to raise prices on a man-on-the-street TV interview. Gamson et al. found that in 16 of the 33 groups more than 1/3 of members either publicly registered an explicit protest against the procedure or publicly refused to comply with it when asked to “argue as if [they] were members of the community who [were] offended by Mr C's behaviour”. Gamson et al.'s research shows that in realistic situations where groups of people are ordered to behave against their moral judgement, they are less likely to comply because they have the support of others.

Reduction of Buffers

Several variations of Milgram’s obedience studies have demonstrated that ‘buffers’, factors that create a physical or emotional distance between the participant and the person being harmed, increase the rate of obedience. For example, when the participant had to force the learners hand onto a shock plate only 30% obeyed, whereas 40% obeyed when they were in the same room and 65% obeyed when the learner was in another room. Buffers allow people to distance themselves emotionally from the consequences of their actions. David Grossman (1995) has contended that Military personnel are more resistant to killing the enemy at close quarters and prefer more distant methods, such as surgical strikes and autonomous weapons. There are many instances of soldiers refusing to kill in hand to hand combat, but never at large distances, e.g., dropping bombs (Grossman, 2000).

Milgram’s (1974) quotation of George Orwell provides a good illustration of this situation:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are only "doing their duty," as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it.

Perhaps, encouraging people to consider the consequences of their actions would reduce the effect of buffers and, hence, increase the ability of people to resist obedience.

Last modified on Wednesday, 09 June 2010 18:15


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Keiron Walsh

Keiron Walsh

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