Conformity and Obedience to Authority

Human beings have been known to be social beings for as long as they have existed. Every individual has personal attributes that makes him or her unique but the need to live and co-exist with other people is inevitable.

Therefore, people interact at significantly different levels and as a result they influence each other in one way or another through a process known as social influence. Social influence refers to the ability of an individual to influence another person or a group of people in according to one’s own will (Forgas & Williams, 2001).

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It is a form of power. Individuals with significantly large amounts of money, high status jobs, exceptional beauty, and such attributes and material possessions will tend to be more socially influential, especially on the otherwise known as ordinary people. However, it is incorrect to think that good looks and the like will automatically and solely enable someone to exert influence on others.

It is the person’s self-perception and esteem that play a central role in determining how greatly one can be able to be socially influential (Friedkin, 1998). This essay seeks to discuss two major forms of social influence; conformity and obedience to authority. It will explore the reasons that make people conform to majority group pressures as well as obey authority.

Social influence has been known to take a number of forms. The forms include; socialization, conformity, obedience to authority, leadership, peer pressure, persuasion, marketing, and sales. Three types of social influence have been identified by Herbert Kelman. First, there is compliance characterized by public conformity and private dissent.

The second is identification where an individual is influenced by someone who commands authority from people. The last one is internalization which refers to people accepting a given belief and undoubtedly agreeing with it (Genova, 2009). Conformity is a form of social influence where a person’s set of beliefs, attitudes, and general behaviors are changed by other people or someone else (Gerber, Green & Larimer, 2008).

An individual conforms in order to be part of a group and avoid the horror of social rejection. The change could be as a result of influence involving real physical presence or absence of others or it could be involving the pressure arising from social norms or conventions. All these impose some form of group or social pressure on an individual.

In psychology, according to Genova (2009), conformity is defined as the tendency to follow the popular wave, either with an aim of fitting into the group or in order to be admired (normative) or in an attempt to be correct (informational) or just for the sake of it (identification) (p.15).

There are a number of reasons that force people to conform to majority behavior as well as to obey authority. Forms of conformity include, persuasion, teasing, criticism, bullying, and so on. As mentioned earlier, people conform for several reasons. Some theories have been advanced by psychologists to attempt to provide an understanding to this phenomenon.

People may conform in order to feel secure, especially from age mates, religion, educational level, political conviction, and cultural orientation (Gerber et al., 2008). Most conformists dread the prospect of being socially rejected due to their failure to conform to some popular pattern.

Hence, some people conform in order to avoid being bullied or criticized by the peers. Despite the fact that the conformity rate is higher among the youth and adolescents, it has been established that all human beings have a tendency to conform (Genova, 2009).

Peer pressure has been viewed in most cases as a bad trait, but conformity, depending on the situation at hand, may have negative as well as positive impacts on an individual. Driving on the proper lane on a busy road can be considered a positive example of conformity. Social norms are formed over a long period of time through conformity and this helps in predicting the society’s functionality (Forgas & Williams, 2001).

Apart from Kelman’s theory of social influence that has already been discussed, there are two more perspectives of explaining people’s conformity. The first one is the informational conformity investigated by Muzafer Sherif in his auto-kinetic experiment, where individuals conform to a given group in order to seek “accurate” or “reliable” information (Friedkin, 1998).

This occurs mainly when one is not very sure of what should be done. This type of conformity can be compared to Kelman’s internalization or otherwise known as private acceptance.

The second one is the normative conformity which normally occurs when an individual seeks to be admired or liked by group members. This compares with public compliance under Kelman’s theory of social influence. This phenomenon was first investigated by a renowned psychologist by the name Solomon Asch through the modification of Sherif’s experiment (Friedkin, 1998).

The normative influence draws greatly from the theory of social impact. The social impact theory has three pillars; number of people, immediacy, and strength which are all positively correlated to conformity.

The above varieties of social influence depict the power of the majority to influence the minority. However, there is another case where an individual can influence a large group of people around him/herself. This is referred to as the minority influence. The power of the minority to influence the majority greatly depends on the strength of the minority, how convincingly they manage to argue their case (Gerber et al., 2008).

Individuals with some expertise can easily execute minority influence on a larger group. Moreover, studies have shown that social conformity may be gender dependent. It has been established that women exhibit a higher probability of conformity compared to men (Genova, 2009). This trend has been traced to the societal norms that shape and determine gender roles.

Obedience to authority, on the other hand, is another form of social influence that is mostly overlooked by social psychology inquisitors. Obedience is defined by psychologists as a form of human behavior which is characterized by carrying out orders or commands from someone else of a higher status or authority (Milgram, 19974). Obedience to authority, therefore, can be defined as the act of enacting orders from another person bestowed with the power to control another’s actions legally or illegally, moral or immoral.

This type of social influence is quite different from compliance or conformity since the latter is due to peer pressure or behavior adopted in order to match that which is popularly practiced. Psychologists have found that human beings can be so obedient to a legitimate authority figure regardless of whether the command obeyed is moral or against ones conscience (Blass, 2000).

This idea was pursued by Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist. His desire to investigate how and why people obey authority was triggered by the willingness of ordinary people to participate actively in the infamous Nazi war contrary to their conscience (Milgram, 19974).

Milgram analyzed the findings of the experiment using the theory of conformism according to Solomon Asch and the agentic state theory which proposes that an individual obeys because he considers himself an agent of another person and hence ready to execute the wishes of another who is perceived to be having authority (Blass, 2000).

The essay has elaborated the concepts of social influence, conformity, and obedience to authority. It has discussed the different types of conformity and the associated theories. Furthermore, it has expounded on minority conformity as well as the impact of gender on conformity. This essay has also highlighted the difference between conformity and obedience, importance of obedience and some of the reasons that make people obey authority figures.

Reference List

Blass, Thomas (2000) Obedience to authority: current perspectives on Milgram paradigm. Routledge.

Forgas, Joseph P. & Williams, Kipling D. (2001) Social influence: direct and indirect processes. Psychology Press.

Friedkin, Noah E. (1998) A structural theory of social influence. Cambridge University Press.

Genova, Cathleen (2009) Social conformity starts in the brain. Neuron, 5(3), 15-21.

Gerber, Andrew, Green, David, & Larimer, Chris H. (2008) Social pressure and voter turnout: evidence from a large-scale field experiment. American Political Science Review, 102 (3), 33-47.

Milgram, Stanley (19974) Obedience to authority: an experimental view. Taylor & Francis.

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