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Social Psychology

Social Influence

Social psychology is the scientific exploration of social interactions, including the causes of social behavior and the impact of social forces on individuals.

Social psychology is the scientific study of interactions between people. It explores ways in which social norms or the presence of others shapes people's thoughts, feelings, and behavior. People may be directly aware of social influences, such as a teenager who makes a risky choice because they are worried about looking uncool in front of peers. However, people may also be unaware of the impact of social influences. For example, culture shapes everything from food preferences to personality traits to beliefs about gender roles. Without exposure to a new culture, people can be blind to the impact of their culture on their views and behaviors because those views and behaviors are so widespread.

Virtually every aspect of human behavior can be influenced by the presence of others or by social norms. To meet social expectations, people speak, dress, and behave differently in the presence of others than when alone. The impact of social forces is complex. Under some conditions the presence of others boosts performance, but under other conditions it causes people to put forth less effort. Slight variations in the social context can influence whether a person will conform to group pressure or bow to the will of an authority figure.


People change their behavior in response to group pressure to fit in, appear correct, or conform to an implied social role. Both individual and cultural factors influence conformity.

People tend to change their beliefs and behaviors in response to group pressure. Group pressure can take many forms, including bullying, persuasion, teasing, and criticism. Conformity is a type of social influence involving a change in thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to fit in with a group. Conformity is also known as majority influence. The influence of the majority can involve the physical presence of others or the imagined pressure of social expectations. For example, in a work meeting, a person might express agreement with a new policy they dislike because most others in attendance appear to agree. That same person might later agree over email to meet colleagues after work even though they would prefer to go home. Although they were not physically with people when they responded to the email, they could still feel social pressure to accept the invitation.

Individuals tend to conform for one of the following reasons:

  • normative—to be liked by others and fit in
  • informational—to be correct
  • identification—to conform to an implied social role

People may also conform to follow a behavioral or social script. A social script refers to the expected behaviors, actions, and consequences for a specific situation. Social scripts tend to be culturally constructed. When dining at a restaurant in the United States, it is common practice to leave a tip for the server in addition to paying one's bill. In Japan, however, tipping at restaurants is rare. In fact, tipping may be considered rude to service providers who strive to provide excellent service at the given price. Culture can also influence the extent to which people conform to social scripts. For example, group conformity is emphasized in collectivistic societies (e.g., China) but not in individualistic societies (e.g., the United States). Members of collectivistic societies are expected to strive to benefit the group rather than themselves. Members of individualistic societies tend to focus on fulfilling their own independent aspirations.

Psychologists have long been interested in conformity. In 1951 psychologist Solomon Asch conducted an experiment to see if participants would conform to the majority view even when the given answer was incorrect. A group of eight people was asked to identify which line in a set of three matched the line pictured on a separate card. Seven of these people were confederates, or fake participants. There was only one real participant, who did not realize the other seven were confederates. In 12 trials the seven confederates gave an incorrect answer, and the real participant answered last. The real participant conformed to the majority answer at least once in 75% of trials even though it was clearly incorrect. Asch's experiment also contained six control trials with no pressure to conform. In the control condition, only 1% of participants gave the wrong answer. After the experiment, participants reported having conformed for two reasons. Some wanted to fit in with the group: they had gone along with the consensus to avoid being different. Others believed the group was better informed then they were and that the majority answer was truly correct. In variations on this study, simply having one other person in the group give the correct answer reduced rates of conformity.

Asch Conformity Experiment

Condition Sample Stimuli Responses to the Line-Matching Task Study Results
Individual control: The participants completed the line-matching task alone.
Participant: “Line 3 matches.” Participants working alone gave the correct answer virtually every time.
This shows people can easily complete the line-matching task.
Group control trials: The participant responded after confederates posing as participants each gave the correct answer.
Confederates 1 through 7: “Line 3 matches.”
Participant: “Line 3 matches.”
When confederates gave the correct answer, participants also gave the correct answer.
Group critical trials: The participant responded after confederates each gave the same wrong answer.
Confederates 1 through 7: “Line 2 matches.”
Participant: “Line 2 matches.”
When confederates gave the wrong answer, some participants also gave the wrong answer.
About 75% of participants conformed at least once over 12 trials.

In the Asch conformity experiment, participants were shown a card with a single line and asked to identify the matching line on another card. Participants working in groups did not know that other "participants" were actually confederates working for the experimenter. Although it was easy to identify the correct line, participants surrounded by confederates giving incorrect answers often conformed, giving the same wrong answer.

Obedience and Compliance

Many people will follow orders given by an authority figure, even if it causes harm to others.

Another form of social influence is obedience to authority. Obedience is behaving in a certain way given an authority figure's instructions. Compliance is the act of yielding to an implicit or explicit demand. Individuals often comply with an authority figure's request because they are concerned about consequences if they refuse. Compliance tends to increase when the authority figure possesses prestige or is in close proximity to the individual receiving a demand.

Many people will conform to an authority figure's demands even if doing so harms others. In 1963 social psychologist Stanley Milgram sought to test the validity of a Nazi war criminal's defense that he was "just following orders." In Milgram's experiment 40 male volunteers were told they were participating in a study to improve learning and memory. A "researcher" instructed participants to use a device to deliver increasingly strong electric shocks to "learners" when the learners repeated lists of word pairs incorrectly. The learners were actually confederates who were only pretending to be shocked. Milgram told participants the shocks would motivate learning.

Most participants repeatedly shocked the learners as instructed, even administering shocks up to 450 volts. At a certain point in the experiment, the learners gave cries for help, complained of heart trouble, and begged the participants to stop. Even if participants expressed concern for the learners' health, the researcher told them they must continue. A surprising 65% of participants obeyed, continuing with maximum-voltage shocks to the point that the learner became unresponsive. This experiment enabled Milgram to measure participants' propensity to conform when under pressure from an authority figure.

Obedience Levels in Milgram Shock Experiment

The Milgram experiment began with 100% of participants administering low-level shocks to a person they believed was also participating in the experiment. As the voltage increased, obedience levels dropped. However, an alarming 65% of participants administered the highest level shock (marked with an ominous-looking XXX on the device), despite hearing screams and pleas to stop.
Several variations of this experiment have tested the boundaries of obedience. Results of these experiments revealed that participants' obedience decreased when the participants could see or touch the learner apparently being shocked. When the authority of the experimenter decreased, so did obedience.

Variations on the Milgram Shock Experiment

Variations on the Milgram Experiment Obedience Rates
Original conditions 65%
Moved to an office building 48%
Learner in the same room as participant 40%
Learner and participant touching 30%
Orders given by phone 23%

Stanley Milgram's classic shock experiment has been conducted across various settings and conditions. Obedience rates have been found to change depending on the experimental conditions.

Group Behavior

Groups influence thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in positive and negative ways. Group decision-making can lead to more extreme views and cause people to overlook obvious problems.

People tend to be influenced by the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others and often conform to group norms (expectations). Group conformity takes many forms. In groupthink, pressure to align with the group consensus discourages critical thinking and leads to flawed reasoning. People change their opinions (or stay silent) to align with the majority opinion. Groupthink can keep people from sharing key information or correcting misconceptions, which can lead to uninformed decision-making. For example, group members may self-censor, which occurs when members withhold information or dissenting views to avoid going against the group.

Feelings of anonymity and deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness in groups, may lead to uninhibited behavior such as rule-breaking or violence. On social media sites and message boards, for example, individuals can hide behind a pseudonym to voice controversial views or even harass others. Hazing in fraternities is another instance in which people may engage in risky or dangerous behavior that they otherwise would not due to group pressure. Being part of a group leads people to feel less personally responsible for their choices. Being part of a group can also amplify energy and emotion. For example, people who would never smash a window by themselves might smash a window while surrounded by a crowd of rioters. Not all aspects of deindividuation and emotional amplification are bad. People often have more fun watching a sporting event, seeing a movie, or dancing as part of a large group than they would with a small group.

Group polarization refers to the ability of group discussion to shift people to positions that are more extreme than their initial opinions. In group polarization, extreme opinions (both positive and negative) attract attention and elicit other extreme opinions. These skew the entire group toward a more extreme decision than individual members might have made on their own. Group polarization occurs in various group settings, such as teams (e.g., in sports or at work) and organized groups (e.g., self-help groups). For example, hockey players may be undecided over whether to try a potentially risky play during a game. The team as a whole might lean toward trying it, but some players may prefer to try a safer play instead. After discussing the play as a group, however, the team may become fully invested in making a risky play.

Group Polarization

In group polarization, discussions between people who hold slightly negative views on an issue can lead the entire group to develop a stronger negative stance. Groups that start with slight positive views will move toward a stronger positive stance.
Social loafing occurs when a person working in a group puts forth less effort than they would if working alone. Individual effort is difficult to measure when in a group, and members may thus be less motivated to contribute. Social loafing can be a problem in group projects when a group member does less work than others, leaving the other students to pick up the slack.

However, the presence of others is not always problematic. Social facilitation occurs when an individual performs better in front of an audience than when alone. This is common in skilled activities, such as when athletes compete at a sporting event or when musicians perform on stage. They feed off the energy and excitement of the crowd, which can lead to improved performance. When a person is unskilled or nervous, a crowd can also amplify those feelings and hinder the person's performance.