Skip to main content

Conformity, Obedience, and Infuence in Social Psychology

Jennifer L. Black has a BA and an MS in psychology and has also completed master's-level coursework in criminal justice.

Conformity in social psychology

Conformity in social psychology

Introduction to Social Psychology

Social psychology looks at how people influence and are influenced by others. How the members of a group influence an individual is an important part of social psychology research. In this paper, central concepts of group influence will be defined, a classical example will be discussed using Stanley Milgram’s study on group influence as well as contemporary examples, including Zimbardo’s deindividuation study and Bandura’s dehumanization study on the effects of group influence. It will also cover how individual and societal influences can result in actions and behaviors that deviate from the norm.


Group Influences on the Self

When discussing group influence, it is important first to understand what the term social influence’ means. In summary, it pertains to any changes in the way an individual acts, thinks, or behaves as a result of interaction with another person or group of people. This differs from changed behavior brought about as a result of persuasion. When someone tries to persuade another person, it is the intention of the individual to do so, while social influence can come from intentional as well as unintentional acts. The rules of society, or societal norms, play a significant role in social influence as do conformity and obedience (Fiske, 2010)


According to the American Psychological Association’s glossary of psychological terms (2012), conformity is the predisposition of an individual to assume similar beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors as other members of the group he or she is trying to fit in to. Studies like Asch’s line judgment experiment in 1955 have shown that many people will go along with the group response even when the evidence of what they see with their own eyes is telling them something different (Fiske, 2010).


While conformity focuses on changing to fit into a group, obedience has more to do with the level of authority of the person doing the influencing. If they are perceived to be in charge or are seen as an authoritarian type of individual, individuals are more likely to respond to him or her by complying with the requests they make. While this is in part because of the dictatorial nature of the individual, it could also be due to some level of fear of reprisals if compliance is not imminent (Fiske, 2010). According to McLeod, 2007, obedience occurs when someone acts in a way he or she may not normally act as a result of someone in a position of authority ordering them to do so. This being the case, conformity is more directly related to social pressure and influence, while obedience not only contains a hierarchy or power element not necessary for conformity but also is caused more by a reaction to someone in a position of authority than social influences.




Effect of Group Influence on the Self – Classical and Contemporary

The Holocaust is one of the first things that come to mind when discussing the topic of group influence. While Adolf Hitler is the most well-known villain, Adolf Eichmann was responsible for developing and implementing the plan for the best way to collect, transport, and slaughter those who were to die. While on trial for his crimes, he stated that he was following orders. He was tested and found to be sane. He seemed like a normal guy with a normal family and a normal life, and yet he was reasonable for the death of millions of innocent people. Following the end of the war, psychologists decided to study German behavior to see what was different about them that could and would allow them to carry out the orders they were given. It soon became evident that it was not just a German behavioral trait, but a human one. Experiments started popping up to study what kind of situations would lead to this kind of blind obedience to authority. One of the first experiments was Stanley Milgram’s. It became one of the most famous experiments ever done and remains so today (McLeod, 2007).

Stanley Milgram’s Experiment

The participants in the Milgram study were told that they were going to be involved in a study that focused on an individual’s ability to learn information. The participants were asked to sit at a table in front of a window where they could see the designated learner, who was strapped into a chair in another room. On the table in front of them was a fake shook generator with 30 different switches marked from 15-450 volts. The learner was supposed to memorize a list of words, and if he or she failed to do so, the participant was supposed to give him or her ever-increasing shocks. While the participants did seem to have some negative reactions to the process, over two-thirds of them continued to the highest level of shocks after being asked to do so. From these results, Milgram concluded that most people will do almost anything when asked to do so by someone in authority, even if it goes against what he or she believes is right (Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, Meyer, Meyer, 2012). Prior to the experiment being done, expects were asked to predict the results. They thought only a sadist or psychopath would continue to the highest level of shocks, around one to two percent. In reality, 65% of the participants continued to give shocks, including giving them to one subject who complained of heart trouble (Explorable, 2011).

Milgram’s Study Revisited by Dateline

With all of the regulations in place because of possible harm to subjects, this experiment probably would not be allowed to be repeated in the world of psychological research. However, television follows a different set of rules. In 2010 Dateline recreated this experiment under the guise of a new show called “What a Pain”. While they were limited on time and number of subjects, they found that those who participated were reluctant to give the shocks and appeared to face moral dilemmas. In general, the moral nature of humans is empathetic to friends, family, or same group members, and they are usually treated with kindness while different may receive harsher treatment. The producers of this ‘show’ believed that the experiment did not illustrate blind obedience to those in authority so much as conflicting moral tendencies (Shermer, 2012).

Analysis of Classic Studies

It is hard to imagine that anyone would go along with a study in which they were led to believe that he or she was causing others pain. Maybe it has something to do with the time frame between Milgram’s study and the recreation by Dateline, but the results from the Dateline study, while not significant in terms of sample size and validity, added to Milgram’s interpretation rather than replacing it. While there are many examples that Milgram’s theory is correct in that people tend to follow orders given by authority figures, Dateline also has a point that morals could play a large role in the process. Milgram’s study was designed to measure a specific behavior, and it did so effectively, but how the results are interpreted could be different, depending on the person interpreting him or her.

Zimbardo’s Deindividuation Study

Zimbardo’s Deindividuation study used disguises to dehumanize the subjects being shocked by the participants in his study. The participants were told that this study was supposedly being done to test the effect that stress has on creativity. The subjects pretended to be doing something creative while the participants gave them ever-increasing levels of electrical shocks. While the first study used women as both the participants and subjects, later studies were done using both men and military personnel. In all cases, the results were the same. When the subject was deindividuated, they received twice as many shocks as those subjects who were allowed to be seen as individuals (Zimbardo, 2000).

Bandura, Underwood, & Fromson Dehumanization Study

The Dehumanization study used a different approach. There was no authority figure and no deindividuation used. In this study, they focused on the participants' perception of the individuals; they were instructed to give shocks when they made an error. Comments were made by an assistant to the experimenter about the subjects being tested loudly enough for the participants to overhear. These comments were intended to either humanize or dehumanize the subjects. The comments were along the lines of the subjects seemed nice or the subjects were acting like animals. While at first there did not seem to be any difference in the way the participants acted that soon changed and males who overheard the subjects referred to as animals continued to give higher level shocks and became more aggressive about it. The aggression levels were lower when the subjects were humanized by being referred to as nice. Discussions with the participants afterwards led to the discovery that the participants could orally disengage from what they were doing when the subjects were dehumanized (Zimbardo, 2000).

Analysis of Contemporary Studies

Both of these studies took the Milgram’s experiment to a different level in a time frame far away from the Holocaust. While Zimbardo’s study disguised the subjects to make them less individualized, Bandura study made the participants see the subjects differently by planting information about the subject’s character. In both cases, the effect was the same. The participants did not relate to the subjects either because of the disguises or the comments that made the subjects seem less human. This second helps to explain how the holocaust happened as people were in a sense brainwashed to believe that Jewish people, gypsies, and homosexuals were less human, which permitted them to overlook and carry out the atrocities that occurred.


Deviation From the Norm and Influence by Self and Others

Norms are the rules of society that pertain to what is deemed to be appropriate concerning values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes these rules are clear to all while others may be implied rather than stated. However learned, they must be complied with or individuals could be punished in some way or banished from the group altogether (Changing Minds, 2013). Core social motives play a large role in social influence as individuals want to feel that they belong. When members of the group do or ask an individual to act in a certain way that he or she would not normally act, often times the individual will follow through to be accepted by the group. This is often seen in peer pressure type situations. In some groups, it is seen as cool to smoke, do drugs, drink, or even commit violent acts. Individuals who want to be or stay members of those groups will comply. In some cases, for instance, the example above from Dateline’s recreation of the Milgram study, an individual’s own personal morals, beliefs, values, and ethics could influence him or her to act in a way different from the group expectations (Fiske, 2010). Some deviations from societal norms are not necessarily group related. For instance, those who like to get pierced, tattooed, and wear unusual hairstyles or clothing choices deviate from the norm but could be influenced by either their own desire to be different or by others in a group displaying those types of behaviors.

How Does This Research Influence Us?

Social psychology looks at how people are influenced as well as how they influence others. Social or group influence is a very important part of social psychology research, and there have been many studies conducted over the years demonstrating these types of behaviors. Conformity and obedience are central concepts of social influence, and the studies discussed in this paper gave both classical as well as contemporary study examples of how group influences could get individuals to do things that they might not otherwise do. Not all deviations from what is seen as normal behavior are caused by social influences, however. An individual’s beliefs, attitudes, morals, and values play a significant role in what he or she does or does not do every day.


American Psychological Association, (2002). Glossary of Psychological Terms. Retrieved from

Changing Minds. (2013). Social Norms. Retrieved from

Explorable. (2011). Do as you’re told. Retrieved from


Fisk, S.T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd Ed.). Hoboken, NJ:


McLeod, S.(2007). Obedience to Authority. Retrieved from

Shermer, M. (2012). What Milgram’s Shock Experiments Really Mean: Replicating Milgram's

shock experiments reveals not blind obedience but deep moral conflict.

Retrieved from


Velasquez, M., Andre, C., Shanks, T., Meyer, S.J, . Meyer, M. (2012). Conscience and


Retrieved from

Zimbardo, P. (2000). The Psychology of Evil. Retrieved from


Mike on June 08, 2018:

This is old data

Ian Shihembekho from Nairobi, Kenya on October 28, 2015:

love the way you build your ideas and give them concrete elaborations.Looking forward to more of this type of articles.Through the Migram experiment you took me to a different journey,i was only aware of how people in power seem to influence those under them in either way under social psychology.well done