Conformity and Obedience Research Proposal

Conformity and Obedience

The thrust of this paper — evaluating the influence of group dynamics on the individual — is designed to bring together classical and contemporary analysis in a cohesive, succinct presentation that adds value to the discussion. Within the discussion as to how individuals are affected by group dynamics, the concepts of conformity and obedience will be addressed.

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ONE (a) Compare and contrast the concepts of conformity and obedience. The research that will be used in this context as to conformity is published in The Journal of Social Psychology. The authors initially define conformity in the most popular terms: “…an effect of majority influence on an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior” (Cavazza, et al., 2008). Cavazza et al. add that most recent research into conformity embraces “situational factors” such as social / group pressure, “individual predispositions” (to wit, personalities that are authoritarian), along with “motivational and cognitive processes” (such as processes of comparison and cognitive restructuring). These approaches to research involving the concept of conformity — that “foster or reduce” the phenomenon of conformity — do not, however, provide a thorough subjective look at how the majority impacts the self and others (Cavazza).

The authors suggest that as an approach to understanding an individual’s conformity (or non-conformity) with the majority one can look into the “third-person effect”; to wit, a person tends to believe that persuasive messages (such as those from mass media, e.g., advertisements) “…influence other people more than they influence one’s self” (Cavazza). In other words, conformity in this instance is something that “other people” are more willing to embrace and hence (Cavazza) there is the “tendency to evaluate oneself more favorably than others” (also known as the “illusory superiority phenomenon” [Hoorens, 1993])

As to obedience, renowned researcher Stanley Milgram explains that obedience is as “basic” a part of the fabric of society “as one can point to” (Milgram, 1974). Writing in Harper’s Magazine Milgram goes on to assert that obedience is “a deeply ingrained behavior tendency”; it is “a potent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct” (Milgram, 1974). And the “dilemma inherent in submission to authority is ancient…and the question of whether one should obey when commands conflict with conscience” has been debated as far back as ancient Greece (Plato) (Milgram, 1974). Milgram explains that some degree of obedience is “a requirement” in communal living situations. There has to be some level of authority in every community, large or small — otherwise chaos would ensue (Milgram). The only individuals who do not have to respond to the commands of others, Milgram insists, are those living in “isolation.”

The bottom line: conformity is agreeing with and/or going along with the majority group for any of several cogent reasons, among them group pressure and cultural habits; obedience is an impulse to do what one thinks is correct or necessary, based on a respect or fear of authority.

TWO (b): How does altruism apply to the self and to one’s behavior? One avenue of discovery when identifying altruistic behavior in a psychological / sociological sense is through the analysis of “prosocial behavior.” A worthwhile way to analyze altruism in terms of how it applies to one’s self and behaviors is to examine the motives and the personalities of volunteers who provide free “direct-care” services (love, nurturing, empathy) for victims of sexual assault. What are the values and qualities that volunteers demonstrate through their interaction with others? Chan Hellman and Donnita House, instructors in the University of Oklahoma Graduate School, have published research in The Journal of Social Psychology (2006) that identifies the ingredients that go into this kind of volunteer-based altruism.

On page 118, the authors reference Omoto and Snyder (1995, 2002) who put forward “antecedents” like “a helping personality, the motivation to serve, and social support” as having influence on individuals’ decision to serve as volunteers. The authors offer these three reasons for the prosocial behaviors of volunteers working with rape victims: a) “satisfaction with their experiences” with those in need; b) “commitment to the organization” that serves victims of sexual assaults; and c) the “persistent” intent “to stay” involved with victims (Hellman, et al., p. 118). The individuals working as volunteers in the sexual assault facility who reported “higher levels of the value of training and social support,” were most consistently linked to “higher overall satisfaction” with their interactions with victims. Hence, the self and behavior are linked to those who altruistically donate their time and talent to others in need.

THREE (c): [Classical Study] The effect of group influence on the self. Stanley Milgram published his book in 1974 (Obedience to authority: an experimental view) that reviews in specifics his obedience experiment. In the book he used a full page to reproduce his original solicitation for “five hundred New Haven men” volunteers to complete “a scientific study of memory and learning” (Milgram, Fig. I, 1974). The solicitation offered men between the ages of 20 and 50 $4.00 (plus fifty cents for “carfare”) to spend “only one hour” and have “no further obligations” (Milgram). The experiment involved a “shock generator” that had switches that started at low intensity with “Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock and Very Strong Shock” and worked up to “Extreme Intensity Shock,” “Danger: Severe Shock” and then simply “XXX” and “XXX” for the highest level of shocks.

The point of this experiment on humans at Yale University was to “measure the strength of obedience and the conditions by which it varies” (Milgram, p. 13). The author asserted (p. 13) that the “moral principle” that comes closest to being “universally accepted” is that one should never “inflict suffering on a helpless person who is neither harmful nor threatening to oneself.” And so to test these participants as to their obedience to instructions — notwithstanding that their willingness to follow instructions results in harm to innocent people — Milgram sets some of his participants up as “teachers” and “learners.” The learner is strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to his wrist; he is asked to listen as lists of simple word pairs are read aloud and then he will be tested to see if he remembered the second word of any pair (after hearing the first one read again). Note that the “learner” is an actor who is receiving no shock at all, but the “teacher” doesn’t know that.

Prior to starting his experiment, Milgram queried psychiatrists, college students and faculty members in the behavioral sciences — and “with remarkable similarity” they predicted “virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter” (Milgram, 2004). They were wrong. Some sixty percent of Yale undergraduates were “fully obedient” and this percentage went up to as high as 85% when the same experiment was conducted in Munich, Rome, South Africa, Australia and at Princeton University. Milgram offers an interpretation of these results: “…All people harbor deeply aggressive instincts continually pressing for expression, and the experiment provides institutional justification for the release of these impulses” (Milgram, Harper’s Magazine, 1974).

Many of the “teachers” were “totally convinced” that what they were doing was wrong, Milgram writes in Harper’s Magazine (a portion of his book, referenced earlier, was excerpted in Harper’s). However, their moral sensibilities were trumped by their desire to avoid “violating the experimenter’s definitions” of their competence. Indeed, the teachers were “proud,” for the most part, of “doing a good job, obeying the experimenter under difficult circumstances.”

The “essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions” (Milgram, 1974). And once the responsibility shifted from his own mind to that of the experimenter, “all of the essential features of obedience follow,” Milgram continues. “The subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority” (Milgram).

On page 8 of his book, Milgram hits the nail on the head in terms of describing the true meaning of obedience vis-a-vis his experimentation with humans:

“Unable to defy the authority of the experimenter, they attribute all responsibility to him.

It is the old story of ‘just doing one’s duty’ that was heard time and time again in the defense statements of those accused at Nuremberg. But it would be wrong to think of it as a thin alibi concocted for the occasion. Rather, it is a fundamental mode of thinking for a great many people once they are locked into a subordinate position in a structure of authority. The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.”

In conclusion, it is valid to ask, did those individuals who shocked the victims at “the most severe levels” come from “the sadistic fringe of society”? No, Milgram asserts, in fact the experiment shows that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”

FOUR (d): A contemporary example of the effect that group influence has on the self. Meanwhile on the subject of obedience, an article in American Psychologist (written by the former research assistant to Milgram at Yale University) poses the following question: if Milgram’s experiments / research were conducted today, in 2009, “would people still obey… ” (Elms, 2009, p. 34). The answer given in most cases by Elms is that “…a current measure of obedience to destructive authority would find substantially less obedience than Milgram did” (Elms, p. 35). Elms backs up his assertion by pointing to the “important lessons” that “a large portion of our populace should have learned” by now (Elms, p. 35). Those lessons include the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King and the wisdom “other social activists” (i.e., the “group” that has influence on the “self”) who have raised legitimate issues like racial prejudice, government deception and corruption, and domestic violence. These leaders that Elms alludes to should be, Elms goes on (p. 35), instrumental in aiding contemporary citizens to eschew “unthinking obedience” to “destructive edicts.” What Elms is saying, albeit idealistic and perhaps unrealistic, is that society is 35 years removed from the time during which Milgram conducted his research, and hence there have been so many vital lessons learned (King, et al.) about justice and fairness, the average individual should be influenced not to be blindly obedient.

FIVE (e): Individual and societal influences that lead to deviance from dominant group norms. Thomas Blass explores the individual “mediating mechanisms” that Milgram identified as influences moving a person away from dominant group norms. Writing in the American Psychologist Blass (2009, p. 40) explains that when people accept the legitimacy of any authority — when they believe “that the person in charge has the right to prescribe their behavior, and they, in turn, feel an obligation to submit to that authority” — there are internal adjustments occurring. The initial change that makes “destructive obedience possible” Blass describes (p. 40) as the acceptance that the authority’s (whomever it may be) definition of the reality of the situation. In other words, if a young football player on the Tigers believes that his coach is the ultimate judge of proper ethical sporting conduct, and the coach tells the player to gouge his fingernails into the eyes of an opponent player when that player is down, the Tigers’ player likely will be obedient. Blass invokes Milgram’s “agentic state” theory: once that football player accepts his orders, he then shifts responsibility to the coach (p. 41). Obedience to malevolent orders, Blass asserts, “is predicated on the individual’s shedding of responsibility” from dominant group norms, and in turn “handing it over to the authority in charge” — in this case, the football coach.

Works Cited

Blass, Thomas. (2009). From New Haven to Santa Clara: A Historical Perspective on the Milgram Obedience Experiments. American Psychologist, 64(1), 37-45.

Cavazza, Nicoletta, and Mucchi-faina, Angelica. (2008). Me, us, or them: who is more

Conformist? Perception of conformity and political orientation. The Journal of Social

Psychology, 148(3), 335-346.

Elms, Alan C. (2009). Obedience Lite. American Psychologist, 64(1), 32-36.

Hellman, Chan M., and House, Donnita. (2006). Volunteers Serving Victims of Sexual

Assault. The Journal of Social Psychology, 146(1), 117-124.

Milgram, Stanley. (1974). Obedience to authority: an experimental view. London: Taylor & Francis Publishers.

Milgram, Stanley. (1974). The Perils of Obedience. Harper’s Magazine. Retrieved July 12,

2009, from

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