Conformity and Obedience in Society

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Conformity and Obedience in Society The desire to be accepted and belong to a group is an undeniable human need. But how does this need affect an individual? Social psychologists have conducted numerous experiments and concluded that, through various forms of social influence, groups can change their members’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In her essay “Group Minds,” Doris Lessing discusses our paradoxical ability to call ourselves individuals and our inability to realize that groups define and influence us. We, as humans, hold individualism in the highest regard yet fail to realize that groups diminish our individuality. Lessing writes, “when we’re in a group, we tend to think as that group does... but we also find our thinking changing because we belong to a group” (p. 334). Groups have the tendency to generate norms, or standards for behavior in certain situations. Not following these norms can make you stand out and, therefore, groups have the ability to influence our thoughts and actions in ways that are consistent with the groups’. Lessing’s essay helps set the context to understand the experiments that social psychologists Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo conducted to explain conformity and obedience. Solomon Asch’s experiment in “Opinions and Social Pressure” studied a subject’s ability to yield to social pressure when placed within a group of strangers. His research helped illustrate how groups encourage conformity. During a typical experiment, members of the group were asked by the experimenter to claim two obvious mismatched lines were identical. The single individual who was not privy to this information was the focal point of the experiment. Twelve out of eighteen times the unsuspecting individual went along with the majority, dispelling his beliefs in favor of the opinions of the group. Why did a subject conform in two-thirds of the tests? Influence causes us to think and act in ways that are consistent with our group, especially when we look to the group as a source of information. We also tend to assume that a large number of people can’t all be wrong. Asch writes, “the sheer weight of numbers or authority sufficed to change opinions, even when no arguments for the opinions themselves were provided” (p. 337). Stanley Milgram is well known for his work with obedience to authority. His work, “The Perils of Obedience,” studied whether average individuals would obey an authority figure, telling them to do something that harms another individual.
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