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What are the similarities and differences between conformity, compliance, and obedience?

Here’s another one of my first year assignments for your casual reading. Please bear in mind that this is all written by myself as a first year student, so it’s accuracy is not to be taken as gospel! Having said that this essay bagged me an A grade, so it can’t be all bad 🙂

What are the similarities and differences between conformity, compliance, and obedience?

This essay looks at the concepts of conformity, compliance, and obedience and lays out the similiarities and differences between them by looking at the factors that influence each. It concludes that conformity stands apart from compliance and obedience, which share more similarities than differences. The reasons for this may be evolutionary in nature.

Conformity, compliance, and obedience are forms of social influence which strongly affect our behaviour is social situations, from following fashions and unwritten social norms which organise our behaviour, to committing immoral acts because we are commanded to by someone who appears to be in a position of authority. This essay looks at the similarities and differences between the three, looking specifically at the factors that influence each three. In conclusion we find that two of the forms of social influence are very similar, almost interchangeable, while the third stands alone with influencing factors different from the other two.

1. Conformity

Conformity is the tendency for people to change their behaviour and paradigm to fit social norms. Experiments (Asch, 1951; Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2003) have shown that when confronted by social norms individuals will often adjust their paradigm and behaviour to closer approximate the perceived norm. The Asch (1951) experiment involved subjects performing a perception task, saying which of a selection of lines matched a control line in length. Unbeknown to the subject the other participants in the room were all confederates, and the seating was arranged so that the confederates would each give their answer to the trial in turn, with the subject giving their answer last. On critical trials the confederates would all give the same incorrect answer to the question. The experiment showed that around 76% of the subjects would conform to the incorrect answer at least once. In the Aarts & Dijksterhuis (2003) experiment participants who were exposed to pictures of a situation where there is a social expectation of silence, a library, were later quieter on a pronunciation task than the participants who were shown pictures of a normally noisy situation, a railway station. This showed that the normative behaviour of being silent had been unconsciously activated in those subjects who saw the library picture.

There seem to be three main reasons for conformity: a need to be accepted into the societal group, an aversion to conflict, and informational social influence. Each of these could be argued to have ethological roots: improving the accuracy of an individual’s perception of the world, allowing them to assess threats more accurately for the latter reason, and improving an individual’s chances of being accepted into, and protected by, a “tribe” for the former two reasons.

2. Compliance

Compliance is one person yielding to the requests of another. Much research has been carried out into what influences compliance. After participating in training programs of various professions which depend on the professional’s ability to elicit compliance, such as sales and marketing, Cialdini (as cited in Baron, Branscombe, and Byrne 2006) established a list of six main factors that impact compliance rate: friendship / liking, commitment / concistency, scarcity, reciprocity, social validation, and authority.

3. Obedience

Obedience is defined as being “Simply, acting in accordance with rules or orders” (Reber, Reber, & Allen, 2004). Conformity has been studied most famously by Milgram (2010). In his experiment a subject was told to apply electric shocks of increasing strength to a learner, actually a confederate, whenever they made mistakes on a memory task. If the subjects expressed concern the experimenter responded simply with pre-arranged stock sentences such as “The experiment must continue”. Around 65% of participants showed obedience up to the level of administering shocks they believed to be highly dangerous.

4. Similarities

The three concepts of conformity, compliance, and obedience are interrelated and share a number of similarities.
Both compliance and conformity have been shown to be improved by positive inter-personal attitudes. Ingratiation and flattery has been shown to correlate with improved compliance, as has performing small favours for the subject and a positive self-presentation (Gordon, 1996). Drawing attention to incidental similarities between the requestor and the requestee has likewise been shown to improve compliance (Burger et al., 2004) by improving the “friendship” between the two. Similarly cohesiveness of the group has been shown to affect conformity (Crandall, 1988).

Compliance and obedience also have a similarity in the foot-in-the-door approach. Studies have shown that having the participant commit to a small act, such as accepting a taster at a supermarket, can improve later compliance to request (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). This is reflected in the Milgram (2010) experiments on obedience where the subject built up from smaller shocks to larger ones.

Conformity, compliance, and obedience are all subject to the effects of informational social influence. Conformity is obviously based on informational social influence and studies (Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1990; 2000) have further provided evidence for the normative focus theory; that the saliency of the social norm has a significant correlation to conformity. Compliance is subject to informational social influence under Cialdini’s category of social validation (as cited in Baron, Branscombe, and Byrne 2006), which draws on the subject’s desire to fit with the actions and expectations of society. Studies have also shown that the rate of obedience to destructive commands drops sharply if the participants are reminded that the weight of responsibility falls on their shoulders (Hamilton, 1978), i.e. that they are stepping outside the socially expected behaviour.
Finally obedience and compliance can, for the sake of much of the above, be considered the same thing as while compliance is a request and obedience is an order, both are requesting that the subject comply with the demand.

5. Differences

Compliance and obedience have one main difference: one is a request, a question, and the other is a direct command. While one invites the subject to decline, a command carries with it the social expectations of obedience.
Conformity is strongly affected by whether the culture in question is orientated to individualism or collectivism (Bond & Smith, 1996), however compliance and obedience are less likely to be affected by this particular factor.
Conformity is generally an internalising of the social norms, where the subject takes these and incorporates them into their own paradigm. Conformed behaviour can be shown to become “automatic”, i.e. unconscious, such as in the experiment by Aarts & Dijkersterhuis (2003). However public compliance and obedience do not necessarily belie private attitudes and beliefs.
While compliance and obedience are the result of social expectations, self-gain, and fear of conflict or punishment, conformity also has a stronger ethological cause: The perceptions and behaviours of the majority are likely to be more accurate and conducive to survival than those of the individual or minority.

6. Conclusion

Conformity, compliance and obedience have many aspects in common, however there are more similarities specific to compliance and obedience than those shared by conformity. Most of the differences identified above are between conformity on one side and compliance and obedience on the other.
Conformity is usually internalised by the individual (Aarts & Dijkersterhuis, 2003), whereas compliance and obedience can occur even in the presence of cognitive dissonance. Ethologically conformity can be considered a survival instinct, and may well have preceded our ability to communicate and thus compliance and obedience may be relatively new to us.
Finally obedience is a submission to power, however conformity and compliance are based on more positive driving forces of survival and coherence of the social group.

References
Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The Silence of the Library:Environment, Situational Norm, and Social Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 84 (1), 18-28.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men (pp. 177-190). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Baron, R., Byrne, D., Branscombe, N. (2006), Social Psychology 11th Ed, Pearson Education
Bond, R., & Smith, P. (1996). Culture and Conformity: A Meta-Analysis of Studies Using Asch’s (1952b, 1956) Line Judgment Task. 119 (1), 111-137.
Burger, J., Messian, N., Patel, S., Prado, A. d., & Anderson, C. (2004). What a Coincidence! The Effects of Incidental Similarity on Compliance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 30, 35-43.
Cialdini, R., Kallgren, C., & Reno, R. (1990). A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: Recycling the Concept of Norms to Reduce Littering in Public Places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 58 (6), 1015-1026.
Cialdini, R., Kallgren, C., & Reno, R. (2000). A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: When Norms Do and Do Not Affect Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (26), 1002-1012.
Crandall, C. (1988). Social Contagion of Binge Eating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 55 (4), 588-598.
Freedman, J., & Fraser, S. (1966). Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-In-The-Door Technique. Journal ol Personality and Social Psychology , 4 (2), 195-202.
Gordon, R. (1996). Impact of Ingratiation on Judgments and Evaluations: A Meta-Analytic Investigation. Journal or Personality and Social Psychology , 71 (1), 54-70.
Hamilton, V. (1978). Obedience and Responsibility: A Jury Simulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 36 (2), 126-146.
Milgram, S. (2010). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Pinter & Martin Ltd.
Reber, E., Reber, A., & Allen, R. (2004). Dictionary of Psychology (3rd Edition ed.). Penguin.

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Obedience to Authority by Stanley Milgram

Cover of the book Obedience to Authority by Stanley MilgramStarting in 1961 American psychologist Stanley Milgram started a series of experiments which were to become some of the most famous and revealing in history. After the Nuremberg Trials a lot of people were asking how the Nazis could have carried out the atrocities they did, and a common defense presented by those on trial was “I was following orders”. It was hard to believe, however, that people could really commit such heinous acts simply because they were ordered to. Milgram’s experiments showed that not only can the presence of authority easily influence people to bypass their moral judgements and inflict harm on others, but that the capacity and mechanisms for this exists inside each one of us.

This book, published over ten years after the experiments, is Milgram’s chronicling of the experiments, the results, the analysis and conclusions he drew, and some of the critical reactions it provoked. It is also very readable, which I have found is unusual for a book written by a psychologist. There is no excessive jargon or academic writing style, just plain language and good explanations.

Personally I found the book fascinating, and while I already knew about the famous experiment I was unaware that quite so many variations had been carried out and covering such a wide sample of the population. I would say this book should be required reading for just about everyone, not just psychologists, as it teaches us a lot about our own obedience to authority and by learning the lessons here we can learn to question and challenge authority when appropriate.

If you find this book interesting you may also like:
The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil – Philip Zimbardo
and
Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century – Lauren Slater

Nothing has Changed

If you’ve not heard of Stanley Milgram’s “obedience to authority” experiment, then glance over the wiki page before you watch the below (embedded is first of three videos).

It’s alarming that despite what was learned from the original experiment, and despite how far we think we’ve come, nothing much seems to have changed.

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