When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.
—C.P Snow, 1961
Have you ever been caught up in an exciting or an otherwise emotional situation and made decisions that you later regretted? Were you just doing what others in the same group were also doing? Perhaps you were just trying to fit in or figure out what was going on in that group? Conformity is an important part of our culture. In fact, our culture could not function without conformity. Can you imagine sitting in a classroom where everybody started talking loudly when the professor was trying to talk? Social situations usually have a social and behavioral script of what is acceptable. What is acceptable can also change over time based on society and cultural norms. However, as you will see in this module, conformity, either by itself or in the form of obedience to an authority figure, can lead people to carry out terrible atrocities. Two incidents that were caused by conformity and obedience include the Nazis killing millions of innocent people during the Holocaust, as well as the prison tortures committed at Abu Ghraib. Can you think of other current examples?
Conformity is a very common behavior. There are generally three reasons why people are susceptible to being motivated by outside influence. First, we need to form accurate perceptions of reality and to react accordingly. Secondly, we are motivated to develop and maintain meaningful social relationships through affiliation. Lastly, we may conform to maintain a favorable self-concept (Kassin et al., 2021). Group social influence and the motivation to belong and fit in is very common. When you were a younger person, did you ever participate in activities with friends or other people even if you did not enjoy these activities? Why did you do so? The bottom line was that you wanted to be part of the group and fit in. You might have really liked the members of the group even if you didn’t like everything that the group did. For instance, some people join rebellious groups that protest against big corporations or against environmental polluters because they believe in a cause. However, when they are asked to carry out destructive acts, they do so just so they can stay with the group, even if they find some of the group’s activities offensive, or even dangerous.
Group social influence is when people conform to other people’s behavior hoping to learn the right action to take. For example, if you see smoke in your building, you might follow all of the other people near you and assume they know where the exit is. Conforming for information typically occurs in ambiguous situations and may or may not lead to the correct decision. Individual identity (IT) and social identity (SIT) are also connected to collective identity (Davis et al., 2019) and this can impact self-concept, identity formation, and identity reformation.
Obedience is slightly different from conformity. Obedience is when you conform because an authority figure tells you to. You obey out of a fear of being sanctioned should you refuse (Meyer, 2021). The big question that has been addressed in social psychology is: What would an ordinary person do because an authority figure told them to do it? Would you lie? Cheat? Would you harm or kill someone just because you were told to do so? There are three distinct components of submissive behaviors, including obedience, conformity, and compliance, but one current approach is to focus on how the authority figure interacted with the individual resulting in submissive behavior (Meyer, 2021).
Davis, J. L., Love, T. P., & Fares, P. (2019). Collective social identity: Synthesizing identity theory and social identity theory using digital data. Social Psychology Quarterly, 82(3), 254–273. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1177/0190272519851025
Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H.R. (2021). Social Psychology (11th ed.). Cengage.
Meyer, M. (2021). Putting the onus on authority: A review of obedient behavior and why we should move on. New Ideas in Psychology, 60. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1016/j.newideapsych.2020.100831
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