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Groups and social influence

We will look at groups again in Unit 8 from an occupational team perspective, but here we will discuss some of the key aspects of group interactions from a more-general social psychology point of view. People can behave differently when in a group; they may conform to the norms of the group or comply with individual requests made of them, depending on group attitudes to the person making the requests. Being a member of a group can also affect our decision-making, risk-taking and sense of identity.

Social influence involves the power to change a person's actions, attitudes, goals, needs and values (French et al., 1959). There are three main ways in which those around us influence us (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Turner, 1991):

Social influence is context dependent: it is a cultural phenomenon that varies across time and space (Bond & Smith, 1996) and therefore has a strong influence on many issues of interest to E/HF practitioners. These can include peer pressure and why people may not follow procedures, or challenges and conflicts across teams.


Sherif (1936) first posited the idea of 'social norms'. These social frames of reference are the first stimuli that people come across in their interactions with the world and become internalised over time. A social norm is established when a person establishes their own frame of reference but subsequently modifies this in the direction of conformity within the social environment (we see coalescence around a shared frame of reference). These social norms then influence subsequent interactions. While the importance of norms is universally acknowledged, there is still a degree of debate in the literature about what they actually are - see, for example, Legros and Cislaghi (2020).

Cialdini and Trost (1998) looked at social norms, conformity and compliance in terms of the behaviours that make up all three, all of which could be said to be goal-directed. These goals include behaving effectively, building and maintaining relationships, and managing the self-concept. The self-concept is an important construct in social psychology and is defined by Baumeister (1999) as a person's individual belief about themselves including their attributes and who/what the self is.

Conformity involves the influence of (majority or minority) peers on an individual. Perceived pressure to conform is a powerful driver of behaviour. This was famously illustrated by Solomon Asch, who, in 1952, conducted a series of experiments looking at when people choose to conform and in doing so deny the reality of their senses when in social situations. Watch this short video (four minutes long) showing social conformity in action in Asch's famous experiment:

Question the Herd | Brain Games

View Question the Herd | Brain Games video transcript

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Asch found that 37% of participants conformed to the group norm, and they were more likely to conform when shouting out answers compared to writing them down. Over the different trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once. In the control group, with no pressure to conform, less than 1% of participants gave the incorrect answer.

Asch (1956) tried varying the size of the group to see whether that impacted how many participants conformed. He found that the bigger the majority group (number of confederates), the more people conformed, up to an optimum of three confederates. There was no increase in conformity with more than three confederates, though.

Further work by Abrams et al. (1990) showed that it is not just the size of the influencing group that matters. We are also more likely to conform with people we identify as being like us.

However, criticism of Asch's work has mentioned that people had a low stake in the task (it didn't matter if they were honest or not), it was an artificial situation (so would not reflect real-life conformity) and it was a product of its time. Perrin and Spencer (1980) carried out an exact replication of the original Asch experiment using engineering, mathematics and chemistry students as subjects. They found that in only one out of 396 trials did an observer join the erroneous majority. They suggested that a cultural change has taken place in the value placed on conformity and obedience and in the position of students. In the USA in the 1950s, students were unobtrusive members of society, whereas now they occupy a free, questioning role.

Bond and Smith (1996) conducted a meta-analysis of conformity studies using an Asch-type line judgement task, looking at 33 studies drawn from 17 countries. The analysis of studies in the USA found that conformity had declined since the 1950s. Collectivist countries tended to show higher levels of conformity than individualist countries. It was suggested that research into conformity needs to take more account of cultural variables and their role in the processes involved in social influence.