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Social Psychology

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A Minority of One: Conformity to Group Norms



Individuals are undoubtedly shaped by others, and researchers can examine how social influences—whether unconscious or overt—affect thoughts and behaviors.

Take for instance, a busy street intersection. Someone wanting to cross safely will wait for the correct symbol. However, when joined by a group of others—who seem to be in a hurry and start walking when they’re not supposed to—that same person follows suit, even though they know better than to risk being hit.

This phenomenon in which people match their behaviors to group norms is referred to as conformity.

Inspired by the work of Solomon Asch, this video demonstrates how to design and execute an experiment to test conformity when the group norm is incorrect in a judgment of something that can be measured objectively, like reporting the lengths of lines.

In this experiment, participants are assigned to either control or experimental conditions, placed into a group setting, and shown different lines. They are asked to report which of three comparison lines matches the length of a standard one.

The trick is that the experimental group is comprised of only one true participant, with the rest being confederates—hired actors. During the first few noncritical trials, the confederates provide correct answers before switching and purposely claiming that the wrong comparison line matches the standard one.

These latter trials are considered critical, and as a result, are used to measure whether the participant would conform to the objectively incorrect majority judgment.

In contrast, the control participants record their responses privately—on a sheet of paper—rather than directing them verbally to the group. The dependent variable is then calculated as the number of errors made across all trials.

Due to the power of conformity, it is expected that the participants in the experimental group will make more errors compared to the controls as a result of them following the majority of responses, even though they were clearly incorrect.

Prior to the experiment, conduct a power analysis to recruit a significant number of participants for control and experimental groups.

In addition, enlist several confederates—individuals who, unknowingly to the rest of the participants, will be trained in what to say as the majority opinion during the session. Instruct them to make correct judgments on six of the 18 trials and incorrect ones on the other 12. Further inform them that they should remain impersonal and not look at the participant after stating their decisions.

Before proceeding, verify that the stimuli were created: There should be a single line on the left, and three comparison lines on the right—all spaced out from one another. Make sure that they are of varying lengths with one matching the original individual mark.

Then, in the testing room, go ahead and arrange the confederates in two rows. Leave an open spot for the participant in the second row, 2nd seat from the left.

To begin the experiment, greet each participant outside of the testing room. After seating them in the empty chair, obtain informed consent: explain the cover story—the task is about visual discrimination—the rules to follow, and what the overall goals of the procedure are.

Moving left to right, start with the confederates in the first row to call out the line that they think matches.

Record their responses for every trial, and remain indifferent by showing no reaction to their answers, even on the critical trials. Continue this process for all 18 trials without a break.

Note that the type of errors made by the confederates should vary from trial to trial, such that some are moderate—the incorrect line chosen is the second closest to the standard—and others are more extreme, in which the majority chooses the one furthest from it.

For participants in the control group, present the same stimuli, but rather than asking for any answers out loud, instruct everyone to privately record their answers on a sheet of paper. In this case, all individuals serve as controls, not confederates. After the last trial, gather the pages for subsequent data analysis.

To conclude the experiment, debrief all participants and explain why deception was necessary in this case.

To visualize the results, convert the responses recorded to percent correct and plot the critical trials across groups. Notice that participants in the control condition made very few errors, and their averages were near 100% across all trials. In contrast, participants in the experimental group made significantly more errors.

Despite the majority of distorted judgments, the results also showed large individual differences, such that there was a large range of reactions to an incorrect majority. One quarter of participants either never yielded to the majority or almost always did, whereas half followed on at least some trials.

Thus, the results showed that a majority of participants will conform to group norms, even when it—s at odds with something a person knows to be untrue.

Now that you are familiar with the power of conformity, let—s look at how researchers use similar paradigms to study its developmental emergence, the implications for marketing, and finally, the neurobiological correlates.

Children as young as 4 years of age were tested in a modified version using animal images as the comparative objects. Just like adults, they responded to match the majority opinion, and interestingly, the effect was more pronounced in girls compared to boys. Such findings suggest that even preschool-aged children are subject to peer pressure and conformist tendencies.

Businesses apply the concept to make particular products and services the normative of usage. For instance, power companies interested in energy-savings can reverse consumption by sending consumers notices that they are using more power than their neighbors.

Likewise, if individuals perceive that everyone is using a product, like the newest cell phone, people are likely to buy it simply because they feel pressure to fit into the norm. Corporations use this trending knowledge to create advertisements that imply their product is the most popular among other competing items.

Lastly, the underlying neurobiology of social conformity has been investigated. Researchers combined the behavioral paradigm to induce the manipulation while individuals were being scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging. They found that the amygdala displayed heightened activity specific to the induction of conformity, which makes sense given its known role in social processing, and provides an anatomical basis for future exploitation.

You—ve just watched JoVE—s video on conformity to group norms. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design and conduct this social psychology experiment using confederates, how to analyze and interpret the results, as well as how the concepts are applied in research and even marketing strategies.

Thanks for watching!

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