Chapter 10: Social Influences on the Development of Human Potential

Compliance, Conformity and Obedience

Humans are not the only social animals living among members of their own species.  Humans are not the only social animals dependent upon parents to survive.  Humans have pets.  Therefore, humans are not the only species dependent upon humans to survive!  In fact, some animals not dependent upon humans to survive, still find them helpful.


Watch the following video for a demonstration of crows using humans to obtain food:

This is the third chapter in the Nature/Nurture section. In Chapter 8, we saw how starting from the time of conception, nature and nurture interact, influencing your physical, cognitive, and moral development. In the previous chapter, we considered how nature and nurture interact in the development of human personality. I asked you to consider how you would describe your own personality as well as that of a potential partner in life. This raises the question, why is personality important?

From the moment you are born, the most important part of your world is other people. Think of the extent to which you relied on others to eat and survive. Consider the extent to which your answer to “What’s it all about” includes a life partner, family (including potential children), friends, colleagues, and others. Social psychology studies the effects of the presence, or imagined presence, of other people on one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

One’s social world starts at birth. Immediately, reciprocal determinism feedback loop s (Bandura, 1986) will be established between the newborn and other people.  The newborn’s temperament and behavior influences how the environment (including caretakers) respond, which then impacts upon the development of the infant’s skills and knowledge, which then influences how others react, and so on (see video).


Watch the following video describing the reciprocal determinism feedback loop:

Indirect effects of the newborn’s and caregivers’ personalities will occur soon after birth during feeding and whenever the infant communicates being uncomfortable (e.g., by crying). Whatever sex and temperamental factors the newborn inherits, they will influence interactions with the mother and caregivers. The personalities of the mother and caregivers will influence how they react to the newborn.

Previously cited research (Rovee & Rovee, 1969) demonstrated that young infants are sensitive to the consequences of their actions (i.e., they learned to manipulate a mobile by moving their leg). The most important consequences in the newborn’s life are administered by other people. It is not inaccurate to suggest that very early in life, an infant must learn to influence the behavior of other people. These interactions represent the infant’s first experiences in social influence. Examples of social influence occurring later in life include compliance, peer pressure to conform and obedience to authority.


Watch the following video describing the three types of social influence:


From birth, infants are learning the ABCs.  No, not the alphabet, the control learning ABCs.  Infants are learning under what environmental conditions (i.e., Antecedents, specific Behaviors are followed by events that feel good or bad (i.e., Consequences).  If the combination of the rooting and sucking reflexes do not result in the ideal nursing position, the infant will soon learn the necessary movements to maximize the flow of milk.  One may debate whether it satisfies Hockett’s (1960) definition of speech, but early in life infants emit different sounds that are influenced by their consequences (e.g., different cries for food, discomfort or attention).

Early in life, parents and caretakers are not concerned with compliance by  their newborns.  They assume the responsibility of serving the needs and whims of their little bundle of joy.  This one-way expectation of compliance eventually ends, with the parent or caretaker making the first requests or demands.  Within developed nations, this often occurs when toilet training is initiated.  This may be the first time there are unpleasant consequences for a child’s behavior.  This may also be an early opportunity to establish the meaning of “no.”  If successful, this will inevitably result in a two-way, double-edged sword.  The parent may gain the ability to use a word to replace the necessity of delivering an unpleasant consequence to the young child.  The downside is the inevitable “terrible twos!”  In fact, it is the beginning of the necessary interactions between an individual and parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and acquaintances to influence and respond to the requests of others.

If you are reading this book, you probably started attending school by the time you were five years of age.  Prior to then, most of your social interactions were with family and neighbors, including other children.  Once you started school, much of your waking time was spent in or preparing to go to school.  School represented a totally different set of ABCs.  School was something like home: it was indoors; adults asked for compliance and administered reinforcers and punishers.  School was different from home in an important respect: you were required to spend a lot of time with people your own age that were not your family or friends.  If not learned previously, you needed to acquire the ability to “play well with others.” The others could be very different from those at home and in your immediate neighborhood.  In addition to requiring that you acquire interpersonal skills with those your own age, school required that you continue to advance in your abilities to read, write and perform quantitative operations.  Freud’s observation that love and work are the most fundamental and important components of life implied the objectives of a school system.  It should provide you with the knowledge, skills and motivation to succeed in your social relationships and eventual career.

If you think back upon the role school played in your life, I suspect you will agree that it was essential to your current future aspirations.  School required that you conform to and obey consensually agreed upon rules of conduct.  Sometimes rules of conduct were established by teachers and other adults.  Sometimes, different rules of conduct were consensually agreed upon by your classmates.  The pressure to conform has been systematically studied by social psychologists.


Peer pressure is especially pronounced in adolescence and can involve risky, sometimes dangerous, behaviors (Ferguson & Meehan, 2011).  Peer pressure can create a reciprocal determinism feedback loop in which an individual acts in a risky way.  If others display the same behavior, it becomes a social norm within the group.  An individual can be placed in conflict, wishing to keep (or make) friends while being threatened by violating a social norm and, feeling they should resist pressure to violate the teachings of their parents.  The following video describes effective ways to resist peer pressure.


Watch the following video describing ways to resist peer pressure:

There are different types of conflict s: approach-approach (i.e., having to choose between two “good” things); avoidance-avoidance (i.e., a dilemma requiring “choosing between a rock and a hard place”); approach-avoidance (i.e., having to make a cost-benefit analysis weighing the positive and negative aspects of a situation); and double approach-avoidance (i.e., having to choose between two things, each having positive and negative features). A teenager facing peer pressure to smoke or to drink does not want to lose friends. The teenager may be aware of the health consequences of smoking and the dangers associated with excessive drinking. This is a complicated double approach-avoidance conflict requiring weighing the potential short- and long-term consequences of complying with the friends request or resisting their pressure.

As a college student, you are not far removed from your middle-school and high-school experiences. You can remember the cliques, the in-groups and out-groups that formed and had so much influence among your friends and classmates. You can remember how teenagers can be insensitive to the feelings of others and sometimes cruel. It is the rare individual who can join social groups without experiencing conflict or who can go it alone. Peers generally dress alike, groom themselves alike, talk alike, and share the same values. Such conformity is usually harmless. However, as described, such risky acts as smoking, excessive drinking, reckless driving, and sexual behaviors, can also occur as the result of peer pressure (Spear & and Kulbok, 2001). Fortunately, so can studying, helping others, and performing community service. One has to choose their friends carefully. There is a well known saying: Show me your friends and I will show you your future.

Asch’s conformity research

Susceptibility to peer pressure does not end after adolescence. Classic social psychological research conducted with college students has examined the conditions under which conformity is likely to occur with adults.

Solomon Asch (1951, 1952; 1956) told male college students that they were being administered a vision test. Students were asked to judge which of three lines was the same height as a comparison stimulus on eighteen trials (see Figure 10.3). There were other students in the room, all of whom were actually part of the experimental manipulation. These confederates each gave their answer and the actual subject went last. On six of the trials, the confederates unanimously chose the (rather obviously) correct stimulus. On the other 12 trials, they unanimously chose the same incorrect stimulus. One of the variables manipulated was the number of confederates. As seen in the graph, Subjects practically never conformed (i.e., chose an incorrect stimulus) if there was only one other student. The percentage of conforming responses increased as a function of the number of confederates, leveling off at about one-third of the trials with three confederates. Additional confederates hardly increased the extent of conformity. If only one confederate gave the correct answer, this dramatically lowered the extent of conformity, even with unanimity among the others. If the non-conforming confederate went first, it was more effective than going last (Morris & Miller, 1975). Asch found that if a confederate giving the correct answer left in the middle, the subject’s level of conformity increased substantially. This result may remind you of the multiple schedule example with the aunts and uncle. In this instance also, the college student’s behavior changed as a function of who was present.


Figure 10.1  Stimuli used in Asch’s conformity study.


Watch the following video of Asch’s conformity experiment:


The role of deception in psychology research

Asch’s experiments involved deception . Subjects were misled by being told that they were involved in a vision test rather than a task to assess conformity. Deception is essential if certain psychological issues are to be studied. If Ash’s subjects were told that the purpose of the study was to see if they would conform to what others did, this certainly would have changed the results. Subjects would have been alerted to the fact that others were trying to influence them. In this instance, the deception was relatively benign.
Ash’s subjects did not display serious anguish or disturbing symptoms afterward. The American Psychological Association has strict guidelines for conducting research with human subjects. After the session is completed, there must be a debriefing session in which the nature of and necessity for deception is explained. Often, subjects are interviewed to try to determine if there are concerns. Also, they may be asked why they responded the way they did as a way of gaining clarity with respect to the data. During their debriefing, some of Asch’s non-conforming subjects expressed more confidence in their judgments than others. Despite feeling uncomfortable, however, the non-confident subjects stuck with their (correct) response. Some of the conforming students actually believed the perceptions of the confederates were accurate; others knew they were wrong but did not want to offend the other students.  We will now review other examples of the necessary use of deception to experimentally investigate important social psychological phenomena.



The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.

Stanley Milgram


Milgram’s experiments investigating obedience to authority, are among the most famous and controversial ever conducted in social psychology.  Some of the infamy and controversy stems from the nature of the deception involved in conducting the studies. Some subjects were severely disturbed during the actual procedures, some after being debriefed, and some subsequent to the study. Some of the controversy also stems from the disturbing findings and implications regarding “human nature.”

Milgram’s Obedience Research

Stanley Milgram was a Jewish psychologist interested in questions of concern to many after the events of World War 2 and the Holocaust. How could human beings inflict such pain and suffering on others? Under what conditions do people passively display obedience to authority figures commanding that they behave cruelly? On the first page of his excellent book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram states

“It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders” (Milgram, 1974, p. 1).

These seem like monumental existential issues that could never be investigated scientifically, let alone experimentally. How can the demands of internal and external validity be satisfied? Sciences attempt to establish cause-and-effect relationships between independent and dependent variables that apply under naturalistic (i.e., “real world”) conditions. This requires either creating laboratory conditions which capture the essence of “the real world” or manipulating independent variables in a controlled fashion in the field. Asch successfully implemented the first strategy by developing experimental laboratory procedures permitting the study of conformity with respect to perceptual judgments. Milgram became familiar with Asch’s work when serving as his research assistant while completing his doctoral studies. His doctoral thesis used a variation of Asch’s procedure to study conformity in different cultures.

How could laboratory conditions be created to study obedience resulting in the administration of pain to another person? Milgram built upon Asch’s work, developing an ingenious set of deceptive procedures leading individuals to believe that they were administering a painful stimulus to another person. The subject was assigned the role of “teacher” in a supposed verbal learning study evaluating the effectiveness of punishment. The teacher was instructed to deliver an electric shock whenever the “learner” made a mistake. The learner was actually an actor and never shocked. This deception enabled the experimental study of variables influencing obedience to an authority figure. Milgram indicated, I was trying to think of a way to make Asch’s conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was about lines. I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him” (Milgram, 1977).


Milgram Experiment.png

Figure 10.2  Milgram’s Obedience Study. 


Figure 10.2 portrays the placement of the participants in Milgram’s original study conducted at Yale. The experimenter provided instructions to the actual subject and the confederate (actor). They were told that one would randomly be designated the teacher and the other the learner. The assignment was rigged such that the subject was always designated the teacher (i.e., the person administering the shock). The subject received a mild 45-volt shock to establish the credibility of the shock generator and appreciate what the learner would be experiencing. The experimenter (indicated by the E in the Figure) and teacher (indicated by the T) were seated in the same room. The learner (indicated by the L) was in an adjoining room.

The dependent variable was the level of intensity of a shock the person was willing to administer. The shock generator included 30 switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. There were descriptive labels spaced among the switches, ranging from “Slight” (15-60 volts) to “Danger: Severe” (375-420) and “XXX” (435 and 450 volts). The learner responded correctly or incorrectly to the different test items according to a pre-arranged script. The teacher was instructed to move to the next switch each time the learner made an error, supposedly increasing the intensity of shock by 15 volts. When the intensity reached 150 volts, the learner convincingly started to scream and bang on the wall, requesting the teacher to stop. At a later point, the learner remained silent. If the teacher requested to stop, the experimenter replied with four graded requests from “please continue” to “you must go on.” The experiment ended when the teacher refused to proceed after the fourth request or administered the 450-volt shock three consecutive times.


Watch the following video of Milgram’s obedience study:


Subjects were clearly disturbed by the task. Every one of them stopped the procedure at some point to question the experimenter. They displayed such signs of distress as sweating, stuttering, and nervous laughter. Milgram was concerned about the effects of his research on his subjects and surveyed them at a later date. Perhaps surprisingly, 84% indicated they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, 15% reported feeling neutral, and only 1% reported negative feelings (Milgram, 1974, p. 195).

Milgram followed up his original study, trying to identify variables influencing the propensity toward obedience (see Figure 10.3). Conducting the research at a workplace rather than a university reduced the percentage of teachers administering the highest intensity shock from 65% to 48%. If the learner was in the same room as the teacher, the level was reduced to 40%. Requiring that the teacher hold the learner’s hand on the shock plate reduced obedience by an additional 10%. If the experimenter gave orders by phone or someone else took over, this further reduced obedience. In one counter-intuitive experiment, Milgram examined whether a conformity manipulation similar to Asch’s research could be used to counteract obedience. Indeed, he found that only 10% of the participants administered the highest intensity shock if they observed two confederate teachers refuse to continue. When teachers were permitted to set their own shock levels, on average they stopped after the third switch (45 volts), with only 3% administering the most severe shock (Milgram, 1974, p. 70). This was the type of behavior predicted for the original study before it was conducted.

Image result for Milgram's obedience study results

Figure 10.3  Milgram’s research findings.


The reactions to Milgram’s findings were widespread and intense, ranging from disbelief to outrage. The horrors occurring during the Holocaust were often attributed to a small number of evil individuals having the ability to command obedience among the members of a passive authoritarian culture. It was assumed that such widespread obedience to authority would never occur in the proudly individualistic United States. However, in Milgram’s words

This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Milgram, 1974, p. 6).

Toward the end of his book, Milgram concludes, “It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act” (Milgram, 1974, p. 205). This may remind you of the person-situation debate described in the previous chapter. Heider (1958) differentiated between attributing another person’s behavior to a personality trait (i.e., an internal attribution) or to environmental circumstances (i.e., an external attribution). We are all subject to what social psychologists refer to as the fundamental attribution error. This is the self-serving tendency to explain the behavior of others in terms of their internal personality traits while attributing our own behavior to external factors. Milgram’s extensive research program identified several external variables influencing the likelihood of obedience. There appeared to be a dimension of psychological distance whereby proximity to the learner or removal of the experimenter reduced obedience. Reducing the prestige of the setting or the experimenter also reduced obedience. The fact that 65% of the subjects in the role of the teacher administered the highest shock intensity refutes any attribution of evil to an individual.

Milgram’s findings have been replicated across a variety of cultures suggesting that obedience to authority figures appears to be built in to the human genome. He reflects upon this possibility, offering suggestions consistent with evolutionary psychology. In an observation that could apply to the dual-sided picture of Manhattan, Milgram states “We look around at the civilizations men have built, and realize that only directed, concerted action could have raised the pyramids, formed the societies of Greece, and lifted man from a pitiable creature struggling for survival to technical mastery of the planet” (Milgram, 1974, p. 124). It is true that single individuals made enormous intellectual and artistic contributions to the transformation of Manhattan. Manhattan, however, could not be built by a single individual. It required the coordinated talents and efforts of an enormous number of individuals.

Milgram concluded his discussion of the evolutionary advantages resulting from a propensity toward obedience with the following thoughts regarding the roles of nature and nurture:

Indeed, the idea of a simple instinct for obedience is not what is now proposed. Rather, we are born with a potential for obedience, which then interacts with the influence of society to produce the obedient man. In this sense, the capacity for obedience is like the capacity for language: certain highly specific mental structures must be present if the organism is to have potential to language, but exposure to a social milieu is needed to create a speaking man. In explaining the causes of obedience, we need to look both at the inborn structures and at the social influences impinging after birth. The proportion of influence exerted by each is a moot point. From the standpoint of evolutionary survival, all that matters is that we end up with organisms that can function in hierarchies” (Milgram, 1974, p. 125).



Figure 10.1 “Asch’s conformity study” by Fred the Oyster is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Figure 10.2 “Milgram’s obediance study” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Figure 10.3 Milgram’s findings” by a publisher that has requested that it and the original author not receive attribution is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.






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Psychology Copyright © by Jeffrey C. Levy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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