Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Social Psychology

[I dug up a couple more old first-year essays that I forgot to post before. This one is from my intro psychology course. It's fairly superficial (and the conclusion is positively cringe-worthy), but it may be of interest to those who haven't come across social psychology before.]

Why is the behaviour of an individual influenced by other people? Give some examples from the psychological literature of this social influence.

Humans are social animals, so it is not surprising that our behaviour is often influenced by other people. Indeed, the mere presence of others is enough to affect our performance in many tasks. If others participate in the same tasks as us, then the desire for conformity may override our own individual judgements. Obedience to powerful or authoritative figures can also cause individuals to do things they otherwise would not. An individual acts differently when they are part of a group. Within the group, social loafing can occur, whereby the individual makes less effort than they otherwise would. Between different groups, extreme hostilities can develop well beyond the extent of individual conflicts. Our social behaviour has adaptive purposes – it facilitates social interactions, group harmony, and the welfare of the individual as part of the group he or she belongs to.

The presence of other people when we are performing a task, often affects the quality of our performance. This effect tends to be positive (social facilitation) for dominant / simple / well-learned actions, but negative (social interference) for non-dominant tasks (Zajonc, 1965). This is because the performer’s concern about being evaluated leads to an increased arousal level (Cottrell et al, 1968). The various effects of arousal on performing different sorts of tasks are then consistent with the Yerkes-Dodson law. Recent research has modified Zajonc’s model somewhat, by distinguishing between two types of arousal – challenge or threat. Their differing physiological responses lead (respectively) to social facilitation or interference (Blasovich et al, 1999).

The examples set by other people will often influence the behaviour of an individual, for two general reasons. Often we may be unsure about the objective facts of a situation, and so look to others for guidance. Such informational influence can be very valuable as it means that we do not have to learn everything ourselves from scratch (Gray, 2002). The alternative reason arises when we want to be liked and accepted by a group, and promote group cohesion. This normative influence was demonstrated by Asch (1956, cited in Gray, 2002), when he showed that many individuals (75% of participants were swayed at least once) would give incorrect answers to simple questions, in order to conform with the answers of the other group members.

Individuals may perform abhorrent or dangerous actions out of obedience, when ordered to by someone they perceive as authoritative or powerful (Raven, 1965, cited in Innes, 2001, identifies six bases of social power). The classic example of this is Milgram’s (1974) experiment, where participants were ordered to give increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person. They heard pleading, screams, and – eventually – silence, as the voltage of the shocks was increased. Remarkably, 65% of the participants continued to the end of the experiment, administering what they believed to be 450V shocks (labelled “XXX” on the switch), at the insistence of the experimenter. Many factors have been suggested as facilitating this result, particularly the perceived authority of the experimenter, his acceptance of responsibility, and the lack of any alternative model for how to behave in such a novel situation (Gray, 2002). Obedience to authority and respect for those ranked higher than oneself in the social hierarchy ensure stability and the smooth functioning of animals’ social systems – evidently humans are no exception.

Individuals tend to put in less effort when part of a group, a phenomenon known as social loafing. In one study, for example, students were told to clap and cheer as loudly as possible. The average member of a group of six made less than half the noise they made when clapping alone (Latane et al, 1979, cited in Smith & Mackie, 1995). Social loafing makes sense from the individual’s perspective, as it enables one to conserve energy and resources, without getting ‘caught’ and suffering social disapproval for one’s laxness. Consistent with this view, social loafing is reduced when individual contributions can be monitored, or else if the individual is highly motivated (Smith & Mackie, 1995).

Being a member of a group can cause individuals to develop hostile attitudes and behaviours towards members of a different group. In a classic study of group behaviour (Sherif et al, 1961), 11 and 12-year-old boys were randomly split into two groups during a 3-week camping programme. Once the groups were well established, competitive games were held between them. This competition led to three changes in the individuals’ behaviours: within-group solidarity, negative stereotyping of the other group, and hostile between-group interactions – soon “verging on intertribal warfare” (Gray, 2002, p.565). Such destructive behaviour makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as a perceived foreign ‘threat’ strengthens group cohesion, and aggressive groups may successfully overcome their competitors in the fight for resources.

An individual’s behaviour can be affected by other people in a wide variety of circumstances. The proximal causes behind this influence can generally be attributed to a desire to ‘belong’ or to be accepted and liked by those other people. More distal causes can be inferred from evolutionary theory, where it is clear that the benefits of co-operation led us to evolve as social creatures, and our behavioural mechanisms reflect this. We are concerned about how others judge or evaluate us. We look to others for guidance when we are unsure. Even if we are sure, sometimes we go along with the crowd anyway, in order to ‘fit in’. Obedience to perceived authorities reinforces social hierarchies and structures. Sometimes, being part of a group allows us to expend less effort than we otherwise would. Other times, group membership can influence the way we see others, leading to hostilities and an escalation of violence. Ultimately, our individual successes in life depend – to some degree – on others. Our brains instinctively recognise this fact, and so allow the influence of other people to shape our behaviour appropriately. Thus co-operation has given humankind the potential to achieve a greatness of which a world of isolated individuals could only dream.


Blasovich, J., Mendes, W.B., Hunter, S.B., & Salomon, K. (1999). Social “facilitation” as challenge and threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 68-77.

Brehm, S.S. (1985). Intimate Relationships. New York: Random House.

Cottrell, N.B., Wack, D.L., Sekerak, G.J., & Rittle, R.H. (1968). Social facilitation of dominant responses by the presence of an audience and the mere presence of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 245-250.

Gray, P. (2002). Psychology (4th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.

Innes, J.M. (2001). Behaviour in Groups. In Bond, N.W., & McKonkey, K.M. (Eds.), Psychological Science: An introduction.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row.

Sherif, M., Harvey, O.J., White, B.J., Hood, W.E., & Sherif, C.S. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Book Exchange.

Smith, E.R., & Mackie, D.M. (1995). Social Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

Zajonc, R.B. (1965). Social facilitation. Science, 149, 269-274.


  1. cool, thanks for posting that it will help with my essay.

  2. hey
    thanks for page, will definitely help me with my essay on milgra and obedience !

    got to love social psych , my head hurts :D



Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.