The power of other people’s influence – conformism and authority figures
Many people do not realize how much other people can influence our behavior. Under the influence of the group, we often behave completely irrational, as evidenced, among others, by the study by Asch (1951 as cited in: Tyszka, 1999).
The subjects were shown one reference line and three comparative lines (e.g. as shown in the figure) and were asked to evaluate which of the comparative lines was of the same length as the reference line.
The subjects answered in 8-person groups, of which only the last or penultimate person was actually the subject, and the remaining seven people were assistants of the experimenter, which the subject did not know about. The remaining people gave incorrect answers and it was checked how it would affect the respondents’ answers. As many as three-fourths of the respondents succumbed to the pressure of the group in at least one sample, and one-third in more than half of the samples. Although it was evident which segment was the same length as the reference segment, the subjects conformistically indicated what the others were, as if they preferred to believe them rather than their own eyes.
Interestingly, in order to reduce the conformism of a large number of subjects, it was enough that one of the experimenter’s assistants gave a different answer than the rest of the group. Four times less respondents gave the answer in accordance with the opinion of the majority, if at least one of the experimenter’s helpers gave the correct answer. Conformism dropped significantly even if the answer given by this helper was also wrong (i.e. if, for example, most of the group pointed line A and he pointed B). Apparently, the subjects were afraid of being the only one to oppose the rest of the group. However, it was enough for them to see that at least one person behaved differently from the rest to gain courage and express their own opinion.
People also have a surprisingly high propensity to succumb to authority. Once an experiment was carried out (Milgram, 1974 as cited in: Wojciszke, 2006) in which participants were told that they would play the role of a teacher whose task was to teach students different pairs of words. When a student gave an incorrect answer, the teacher was to punish him with electric shocks from 15V to 450V. The electric shock device had signatures ranging from “slight shock” to “Danger! heavy shock! ”. In fact, the “learners” were experimenter’s helpers who simulated an electric shock when the subject pressed the appropriate button. When no one pushed the “teachers” and were allowed to give punishment as they wished, half of the respondents went to 75V and only a few percent above 150V. However, they behaved completely differently when a researcher in a white coat stood beside them, recommending ever stronger shocks. As the strength of the tremors increased, the “students” simulated more and more pain. At 300V they shouted that they had enough, to let them go and that they refused to answer, until finally, with even stronger shocks, they stopped showing signs of life. When the “teacher” began to hesitate, the researcher insisted on continuing. As a result, as many as 65% of the respondents reached the maximum 450V… this is the power of authority. The researcher orders, so student has to be punished. Even if he screams in pain and begs to end the study. Even if it can lose its life …
We are strongly influenced not only by scientists, but also by our superiors. In one study (Hofling et al., 1966 as cited in: Wojciszke, 2006) an unknown man introduced himself to a nurse and told to give the named patient 20 mg of a certain drug. Even though the nurses knew that the acceptable daily dose of this drug was 10 mg, as many as 21 of the 22 nurses complied. So they were willing to put the patient’s health at risk simply because they had been instructed to do so by a doctor, and a doctor they had never seen before. It seems that when we hear a command from the right person, that is, from the person we think is right, we stop thinking for ourselves. We follow orders thoughtlessly, even if they are clearly harmful to another person.
Many people are also prone to harm themselves when influenced by others. After each suicide of a famous person, adequately publicized in the media, the number of suicides increases. This is called the Werter effect, after the title character of Goethe’s novel, after which it was first observed such a phenomenon. It was calculated that, on average, each famous suicide results in several dozen additional suicides, and Marylin Monroe contributed to the increase in the number of suicides by as much as 198 within the first month of her death (Philips, 1986 as cited in: Wojciszke, 2006).
- Tyszka, T. (1999). Psychologiczne pułapki oceniania i podejmowania decyzji. Gdańsk: Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne.
- Wojciszke, B. (2006). Człowiek wśród ludzi. Zarys psychologii społecznej. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar.
Author: Maja Kochanowska