To what extent are individuals influenced by the majority and how can this be explained?

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To what extent are individuals influenced by the majority and how can this be explained?

Norms as Influence

An individual’s personal norms (standards of behaviour that derive from internalized values) can be influenced by social or group norms, either explicit or implicit.  Group norms may be descriptive (how the majority behaves in a situation) or injunctive/prescriptive (how an individual should behave in a situation).  Both may influence an individual to conform (private attitude/behaviour change to match group/social norms) or to comply (public acquiescence to a request for change of attitude/behaviour).

Extent of Influence

The extent of social influence can be measured both quantitatively (e.g. amount of change) and qualitatively (e.g. degree of internalisation of change).  

In Asch's (1955) line length study, even though there was an obviously correct answer, 76% of subjects complied at least once with an incorrect group majority decision.  24% of subjects gave all (factually) correct responses irrespective of the majority decision.  This contrasts with 99% of subjects giving all correct responses in the control conditions – showing a quantitative shift due to majority influence of 75% of participants.

Upon subsequent interview, Asch’s (1955) subjects revealed their conformity to be public acceptance or compliance.  This can be viewed as qualitatively different from the private acceptance or conversion under majority influence shown by Sherif (1936).

Types of Influence

  • Informational influence - the need to behave correctly and in accordance with reality - leads an individual to rely on others for information.  An individual may compare their personal norms with those of others because of:
  • uncertainty as to what is appropriate (social comparison)
  • greater expertise/knowledge of others (systematic informational influence)
  • need for a short cut when there is no time to think things through (heuristic informational influence)

A majority may be perceived as particularly influential because ‘a large number of people can't all be wrong’.  Sherif’s (1936) autokinetic effect experiments showed that when individuals made judgements in groups, their estimates of the movement of light converged over time as a group norm developed.  The subjects were using information from their environment (other people's estimates) to interpret ambiguous stimuli and help them form a decision.  Having relied on the group norm, the subject adopted it as their personal norm.  This conversion effect was long-lasting and stable, being present 1 year later when the individual was tested alone.  

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  • Normative influence – the need to be liked/accepted by others - prompts an individual to behave consistently with group norms.  When Asch (1955) varied his line study conditions so that the subject wrote their responses privately, the rate of conformity decreased.  This showed that, even though the subject’s personal opinion had not changed, they were simply conforming publicly (complying) with the group norm.  Although 12% continued to comply with the erroneous group norm.

When Asch (1955) included a confederate who diverged from the majority opinion, the subject also conformed less.  The dissenter might have served as a model ...

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