Home » SOC 101 Lecture 6: Conformity

SOC 101 Lecture 6: Conformity

Introduction

Welcome to our sixth online lecture in the Spring 2015 Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Maine at Augusta.  This week, we consider research by Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram on the subject of conformity.  Although most popular discussions of conformity research treat it as a subject matter most relevant to psychology, I’ll try to make the case that conformity is a sociological phenomenon, since conformity as a dependent variable is related strongly to independent variables describing social structure.

 

Milgram and Asch’s Conformity Experiments: Retrospectives

As you’ll see below, I’d like you to think of the conformity experiments of Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch as a sociologist would, in terms of variation in a dependent variable to be explained and variation in independent variables that may assist in the explanation by testing associated hypotheses.  However, I’d also like you to think about the implications of this research on conformity for your micro-level experience with conformity as an individual and the macro-level potential for social structures to encourage conformity or dissent.  To help you think about the real-world implications of these experiments, and not just about trends on a sheet of paper, I’d like you to review the following two videos, each of which shares re-enactment footage of the experiments as they were carried out:

Toward the end of his career, Solomon Asch provided his own retrospective account of one way that conformity impacted his own life, in a way that he still recalled despite the passage of many decades of time (Ceraso, Rock and Gruber 1990: p. 3):

“I was brought up at a time of great anxieties, big fears, great dangers. But I remember a little incident of another kind when I was a child. I must have been about seven. The war [WWI] had just started; it was Passover evening and there was the first Seder. Everything was prepared; it was a glowing ceremony, and we children were up late for the first time. Then I saw my grandmother fill a cup of wine for each of us including the children; and in addition, another cup. Then I saw a chair in which nobody sat. I was sitting next to an uncle of mine and I asked what this meant. He said that the prophet Elijah comes into every Jewish home on Passover. That is why there is a chair prepared for him, and at the proper moment in the ceremony the door is opened to admit him and that he takes a sip of the wine meant for him.

“I was completely fascinated and astounded that the prophet Elijah would in one night stop at all the Jewish homes in the world. I said to my uncle, ‘will he really take a sip? and he said, ‘oh yes, you just watch when the time comes, watch the cup.’ — It was filled to the brim — ‘and you’ll see that it goes down.’ And when the moment came, my eyes were glued to the Prophet’s cup; I looked and looked and then it seemed to me as if perhaps it did go down a little! Well, except for a few details, that is just about the story of an experiment I was to do years later as part of the group pressure studies.”

As a child, Solomon Asch really did feel he saw the wine draw down in a cup.  Whether or not the wine actually did draw down, the social reality of Solomon Asch’s perception is undeniable — “real” in the sense that it had real consequences for his life.  The impact of the social structure of the situation was also real — Asch would not have perceived the wine to draw down if there had not been a ritual in which his whole family created a majority understanding around him, an understanding that the wine would be sipped, an understanding reiterated by the nearby authority of a beloved uncle.  As an adult, Asch was able to turn his own individual experience of conformity into a research question that he could use to understand the experience of others.

Conformity as a Sociological Variable

Like most undergraduate textbooks, your You May Ask Yourself text by Dalton Conley treats conformity as a curious but constant psychological feature, noting briefly on p. 164 and p. 580 that researchers Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram were able to manipulate their subjects into agreeing with a majority in making a statement that was obviously untrue, or into apparently shocking people to death. My, my, aren’t people such conformists, Conley concludes:

“Although we tend to put a high value on individuality in American culture, our lives are marked by high levels of conformity.  That is, groups have strong influences over individual behavior… obedience to authority is an extraordinarily powerful mechanism of social control, capable of making perfectly rational people do otherwise unthinkable things” (Conley 2014, p. 164 and 580).

This standard textbook treatment of conformity is simple, neat, tidy and dire, but I believe it is misguided in two aspects. First, conformity is not a constant in Asch’s and Milgram’s studies. Some people do conform to expectations, but very importantly others do not. Conformity is a variable. Second, if conformity is a dependent variable, the independent variables in the Asch and Milgram studies are NOT psychological, and so the label of “psychological experiment” is inappropriate. At best, the experiments are social psychological, and the action here is all in the social. The individual-level psychological distress expressed by subjects in Asch’s and Milgram’s experiments was to no avail. What predicted conformity or non-conformity was the structure of the social situation engineered by the experiments.

In short, the conformity experiments involve sociological explanations for what appears to be a psychological phenomenon. If conformity is a sociological outcome affected by independent variables of social structure, then understanding the elements of social structure that impact conformity is vitally important for the individual who wishes to avoid conformist pressures or for the social engineer who wishes to manufacture consent.

How do we arrive at that understanding?  Well, you may remember from an earlier week studying social research that one way of describing the most typical experience of a phenomenon such as conformity is the calculation of the mean or average value for that phenomenon.  To describe the effect of an independent variable on a dependent variable, we calculate a set of contingent means of the dependent variable for different values of an independent variable.

To provide an example of this, consider that in Milgram’s standard shock experiment, the mean maximum shock level person delivered by the subject (on a scale of 1-30) was 24.55.  That’s pretty high!  In a different experiment by Milgram in which subjects were told they could choose the shock level themselves, the mean maximum shock level delivered was just 5.50.  The mean value is contingent upon on the value of the independent variable “whether subjects choose the shock level.” If subjects can choose, the mean is 5.50.  If the subjects cannot choose, the mean is 24.55.  That’s a big difference.

mode: the most commonly occurring outcome in a set of observations

median: the point at which half of all observations lie above and half of all observations lie below; also known as the 50th percentile

mean: the result of taking the sum of all observed numbers and dividing it by the number of observations; also known as the average

contingent mean: the average value of a dependent variable for a particular value of an independent variable.

The lecture video below identifies the independent variables in the Milgram and Asch experiments.  More than that, it presents Asch’s and Milgram’s research result in terms of the contingent means of the dependent variable of conformity for different values of those independent variables.  Finally, it considers the relevance of those independent variables to micro- and macro-level questions of social living in a world shaped by conformity.

Conformity, Replicated

Perhaps, after reading these decades-old studies and watching the decades-old videos surrounding them, you might be thinking that the conformity observed in those studies is a product of its time.  “Well, we all know the 1950s was a conformist decade,” you might be thinking.  “Surely people nowadays in the hip, jaded, nonconformist modern world would never do the same thing.”  Or perhaps you’re thinking that the conformity observed in those studies is a product of a particular place.  “We Americans are such stupid dupes,” you might be thinking.  “More sophisticated people living in other countries wouldn’t fall for those tricks.”

Well, think again.  Both conformity studies have been replicated in different times and different places, with the same effects appearing.

Lines from Solomon Asch's 1952 Experiment on Conformity under Social PressureIn 1994 in the University of Oporto in Portugal, research Félix Neto held an experiment with 69 undergraduate students (Neto 1995).  Half of students were placed in a “control” group and allowed to perceive Asch’s lines and make judgments about matches on their own, without hearing any judgments from their peers.  The other half of students were placed in an “experimental” group and listened to three other students give an incorrect answer first.  In the control group, just 3.3% of students chose the wrong line.  In the experimental group, 18.2% of students (nearly six times as many) chose the wrong line — the same wrong line that the majority choice.

At the University of Kuwait in the 1980s, researcher Taha Amir carried out another replication with the same setup (Amir 1984).  Students in the control group gave incorrect answers 4.76% of the time, while students in the experimental group gave incorrect answers 29.28% of the time.  In yet another, the results of the classic Asch experiments were replicated.

Watch this replication of the Asch experiments in Helsinki, Finland in 2013:

At Hudson High School in the United States in 2012, a group of students carried out a partial replication (notice there’s no control group).  What did they find?  See for yourself:

Replications of the Milgram shock experiments are more difficult to come by, since in the modern era ethics boards are present to prevent university professors from convincing students that they have killed innocent people.  However, in 2006 the ABC television network replicated the Milgram experiments, and found that nearly two-thirds of subjects continued to shock a victim in the experiment (Burger 2009).  Watch excerpts from that replication below:

In 2009 the BBC carried out a replication in Britain and televised the results.  Watch that television replication below in two parts:

In the British replication, 9 out of 12 subjects (75%) went forward all the way to Milgram’s maximum on the shock generator, past “Danger, Severe Shock” to “XXX” at Level 30, 450 volts.

The results of the Asch and Milgram experiments do not appear to be an artifact of a particular time or a particular place.  Across time and place, the propensity of individuals to conform to the expectations of a majority or an authority figure has been affirmed again and again.  It is important to know how Asch and Milgram produced variation from conformity by changing aspects of social structure; these means provide a sociological escape hatch from conformity that otherwise might seem to be an inescapable constant.

References

Amir, Taha. 1984. “The Asch Conformity Effect: A Study in Kuwait.” Social Behavior and Personality: an International Journal 12(2): 187-190.

Asch, Solomon. 1955. “Opinions and Social Pressure.”  Scientific American 193(5): 31-35.

Burger, Jerry. 2009. “Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today?” American Psychologist, 64 (1): 1-11.

Ceraso, John, Irvin Rock and Howard Gruber. 1990. “On Solomon Asch.” pp. 3-19 in The Legacy of Solomon Asch: Essays in Cognition and Social Psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Psychology Press.

Hofling, Charles K., Eveline Brotzman, Sarah Dalrymple, Nancy Graves, and Chester M. Pierce. 1966. “An Experimental Study in Nurse-Physician Relationships.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 143 (2): 171-180.

Milgram, Stanley. 1965. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.”  Human Relations 18:57-76.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority.  New York: Harper Collins.

Neto, Félix. 1995. “Conformity and Independence Revisited.” Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal 23 (3): 217-222.


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