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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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In his study, the “teacher” is instructed to read a list of words and ask the “learner” to recite them back. If the learner answers incorrectly, the teacher is supposed to shock the learner, starting at 15 volts and increasing to 450 volts. With each incorrect answer the teacher is supposed to increase the shock. Although the teacher thought that he/she was administering shocks, the learner was actually never harmed.
Milgram’s study undermined the theory that only the most sadistic individuals would submit to such cruelty. His findings showed that, “two-thirds of this studies participants fall into the category of ‘obedient’ subjects, and that they represent ordinary people” (p. 352). Milgram concluded that when a person is obeying orders he “views himself as the instrument... and no longer regards himself as responsible for his action” (p. 354). Milgram’s experiment proved that when doing a job as instructed by an authority figure the feelings of duty and personal emotion are separated. Responsibility shifts in the minds of the subordinate from himself/herself to the authority figure. There is a purpose for the actions or goals of the authority, and the subordinate is depended upon to meet those goals.
Another important study in the area of social roles and obedience is Philip Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment.” A group of 21 college men were divided into two groups for a study on group dynamics. Eleven men became “guards” and the other ten “prisoners.” The prisoners were given numbers instead of being allowed to use their names, systematically stripped, de-loused and given prison clothing to wear. The study was terminated prematurely due to the unexpected and disturbing results. The guards quickly became locked into the role of belittling and dehumanizing the prisoners. Although the subjects were fully aware of the nature of the experiment, given the authority, the guards transgressed the boundaries of norms that are considered acceptable.
Zimbardo’s experiment demonstrated the power of social situations to distort personal identity. What social value did this test serve? Zimbardo proved that social roles might affect behavior more than personality in certain situation. Zimbardo writes, “abnormal social and personal reactions are best seen as a product of... an environment that supported the behavior” (p.374). Like Milgram, Zimbardo determined that almost all humans would do what they are told if they believe the voice of authority is “good.”
Through their experiments, Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo have proved that social influences can have a profound effect on individuality. One’s desire to be accepted can make them unaware of conformity or obedience to authority. The problem lies not only within the group, but also the individual’s acceptance of authority without question.
Asch, Solomon. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” In L. Behrens & L. J. Rosen (Eds). Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. (pp.336-342). New York: Longman Press.
Lessing, Doris. “Group Minds.” In L. Behrens & L. J. Rosen (Eds). Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. (pp.333-335). New York: Longman Press.
Milgram, Stanley. “The Perils of Obedience.” In L. Behrens & L. J. Rosen (Eds). Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. (pp.343-355). New York: Longman Press.
Zimbardo, Philip. “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” In L. Behrens & L. J. Rosen (Eds). Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. (pp.363-375). New York: Longman Press.