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Task: Why do the majority of people tend to conform and be obedient?
Societies we live in have the ability to influence our behaviour. We often change the way we think and act as a direct consequence of the interaction with a person or a group of people in our immediate environment. Social influence can either be intentional or unintentional (Tedeschi2017, p.11). Social influence plays a vital role in conformity and obedience. According to Burger (2018, p.241), conformity refers to the tendency of individuals in the society to adopt similar attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour of other members of their immediate society in which they are trying to fit in. We conform because of our concern about what other people think about us. This desire to fit in is often demonstrated using Solomon Asch perceptual lines experiment. Secondly, we also conform due to lack of information on how one is supposed to behave or act in a certain environment. On the other hand, obedience refers to behaviour that is influenced by a person in authority; for instance, acting in a certain way to obey orders issued by a figure in authority. Experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram and Zimbardo vividly described the effect obedience has on a person's behaviour.
Human beings have an innate habit to mimic and imitate what other people do in their immediate environment. Most people often without intending mimic the actions of others in society. The actions imitated can be subtle ones such as gestures to more serious ones such as decisions we make. According to Tedeschi (2017, p.11), though shocking, this behaviour is vital for human interaction since it smoothens all our societal interactions. However apart from the inborn tendency to imitate others in society, we also do it for two major reasons. First, is the influence other people have on us. This influence called the normative influence makes us make decisions to be in line with what the others have done. It is driven by the desire to fit in and not fall out of place. This behaviour is motivated by the desire to avoid receiving criticisms for being different. Additionally, the behaviour gives a feeling of camaraderie for the person.
To determine the ability of normative influence to impact someone's behaviour, Solomon Asch in 1956 conducted perceptual lines experiment, in this experiment, the researcher standing at a distance showed the participants two flash cards one on the right and the other on the left hand. The participants were required to name a line on the right card that had the same length as the one of the left card. In the room, there were other six people who said their answers aloud for the student to hear before the student gave out his answer. In the first three flashcards, the group shouted the correct answer and the student also corroborated the answer. However, in the fourth card, the group chose a wrong answer and surpassingly, the student also gave the same answer. This repeated itself several times. In fact, two-thirds of the participants were influenced and gave out wrong responses highlighting the power of normative influence on a person's behaviour. The students did not want to be the odd one out in the room. Therefore, despite their eyes telling them one thing, they heard a different answer from the group and decided to go with it. I have also on several occasions been a victim of normative influence. This mostly happens during group work. After most of the group members have agreed on something, I conform and adopt the decision even though I know it is wrong.
Secondly, individuals also conform due to descriptive norm. This mostly happens when we are in new situations where we have limited information of what the society expects from us. In such situations, we imitate the behaviour of the next available person we can see. However, finding the right information to mimic can often be a problem using this form of conformity. Binge drinking in school is a direct result of descriptive conformity (Tedeschi2017, p.13). Since they are no set guidelines on the level of drinking, students, therefore, emulate any person's level of drinking assuming it is the expected level for a college student resulting in an excessive drinking problem. Personally, descriptive norm affects my behaviour whenever I visit new environments. One time, I visited a Chinese restaurant and did not know their food etiquette. I resorted to imitating a Chinese man sited across the table only to realize he was also doing it the wrong way after I saw people staring at me. I conformed because I lacked information about the environment.
Conforming to the behaviour observed in the environment is a voluntary process. On the other hand, obedience gives a person no option but to behave in a certain way. An influential figure issues the instructions, and the subordinates are left with little choice but to obey and execute the instruction. For most parts, obedience is a good thing in the society, and people are trained from a young age to be respectful and obedient especially to people in authority. However, it also has a dark side to it (Haslam and Reicher 2017.p.60). After several years of being required to be obedient, many people have in the past broken the law and conducted atrocities in the name of obeying instructions given by a superior person.
The electric shock experiment conducted by Milgram in 1963, 1964 and 1974 highlighted how human beings are socialized to obey instructions. In this experiment, three participants believing to be taking part in learning and memory experiment had one participant, a teacher who administered an electric shock to another participant, a student, at any time the student gave a wrong answer. The buttons for the shock varied in intensity from low to dangerous. It was surprising how the teacher continued to administer the shock increasing the level each time the student gave a wrong response (Russell 2018, p.36). This happened despite the obvious danger of electric shock to one's life. This experiment proved the dark side of obedience; human beings obey instructions as long as they have been issued by a senior person without questioning even if the instructions harm other people. In the experiment, 65% of normal family men continued administering the shock to the highest level. This experiment explained the killing of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Good family men simply obeying instructions executed the worst massacre the world has ever seen.
Personally, I have also been a victim of obedience in society. As a child, my parent would delegate the task of disciplining my younger siblings. Wherever they made mistakes, I would be instructed to discipline them. This involved administering pain through acts such as canning the child. I administered the punishment not because I liked hitting my siblings but because I was following the instructions of an adult who was a figure of authority in my life. Blind obedience is, therefore, a vice in the society.
Zimbardo's 1973 Stanford prison simulation also corroborated the results attained by Milgram. However, his study dehumanized the subjects to determine the effects of brainwashing in obedience (Haslam, Reicher and Birney2016, p.7). Subjects that were dehumanized received twice the level of shocks as compared to the other subjects who were individualized in the study. This study introduced another variable to obedience. Those participants were brainwashed about the subjects they were administering the shocks to. This increased their intensity of administering the shocks. This adds another perspective to the Holocaust. The Germans were brainwashed about the Jews. This, therefore, affected their perception about Jews. The propaganda they were feed dehumanized Jews increasing their level of hate and therefore resulted in the excess killing. Obedience alone could not have resulted in the scale of death witnessed. However, since it was coupled with brainwashing, the soldiers did not only think they were following orders, they also thought they were helping the society.
In conclusion, conformity and obedience play an integral role in highlighting the social effect on our behaviour in society. Conformity is voluntary and comes from the desire to fit in and receiving compliments. On the other hand, obedience is not optional and is fuelled by years of societal socialization about the benefits of obeying those in authority. Even though both conformity and obedience affects a person's behaviour, obedience has adverse effects on the behaviour of a person.
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Burger, J.M., 2018. Conformity and Obedience. General Psychology FA18, p.241.
Haslam, S.A. and Reicher, S.D., 2017. 50 years of “obedience to authority”: From blind conformity to engaged followership. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 13, pp.59-78.
Haslam, S.A., Reicher, S.D. and Birney, M.E., 2016. Questioning authority: new perspectives on ‘obedience ‘research and its implications for intergroup relations. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, pp.6-9.
Russell, N., 2018. The Origins and Evolution of Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiments. In Understanding Willing Participants, Volume 1 (pp. 37-54). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Tedeschi, J.T., 2017. The social influence processes. Routledge.
Conformity and Obedience: Why do the Majority of People tend to Conform and be obedient?
- The essay tittle is significant in determining the nature of content to be used as it contains all the aspects of the question being investigated. As a question tittle, it eases the process of determining research variables. As such, it defines the scope of the study.
1.1. The question requires the researcher to validate its assertion first. For instance, do people conform and obey or not? After that, it calls for determination of reasons why people conform and obey as well as explaining why they do so.
1.2. Main points: Reasons why people conform include the need to achieve interactions with others, lack of critical information in potentially conflicting situations, and the desire to achieve a certain level of excellence or reputation. On the other hand, obedience is influenced by religion, the need to avoid punishment, and systematic conditioning within the society.
1.3 Independent research for answering the question is mainly made up of scholarly sources that have been peer reviewed. They include Tedeschi (2017); Burger (2018); Haslam and Reicher (2017), Haslam, Reicher, and Birney (2016); Russell (2018), and Xie (2016)
Contemporary social experiences are characterised by rules and norms, which guide the conduct of people. They range from community values to authoritarian directives enforced through security elements such as law enforcement officers. Primarily, conformity refers to the tendency of individuals in the society to adopt similar attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour of other members of their immediate society in which they are trying to fit in. On the other hand, obedience refers to behaviour that is influenced by a person in authority, such as acting in a certain way to obey orders issued by a figure in authority. The set-up has elicited conformity and obedience from the people, which in some instance, occurs naturally. The obedience and conformity demonstrated by people are intriguing, considering the fact that human beings are autonomous species with the ability to make rational decisions and choices independently. Moreover, diversity in people makes it difficult for them to experience or desire similar elements meaning that conformity should be challenging to achieve due to changing desires, demands, and preferences. Therefore, this analysis explains the reasons why the majority of people tend to conform and be obedient.
2.2 Evidence and examples why people Conform and Obey
The primary reason why the majority of people conform and obey is social influence presence within societies. Ideally, the societies in which people live can influence their behaviour. They often change the way people think and act as to rhyme with happenings in the immediate environment. Notably, this social influence can be unintentional or intentional (Tedeschi2017, p.11). The primary exemplification of how social influence leads to conformity and obedience is the way children conform to norms or rules observed by their parents. For instance, a child will desist from abusing others because the parents do not abuse other people. In an urban setup, people will walk to work if the distance is short, and they see most of their colleagues walking to walk. Usually, the intentional social influence that results in conformity is caused by the desire to adhere to norms present in society. In this regard, a person strives to co-exist with other people by not disrespecting what they believe in hence obeying and conforming. On the other hand, unintentional conformity occurs when a person finds himself doing the activities that others do without prior planning.
2.3 Specific Reasons Why People Conform and Obey
Human beings conform as a means of achieving interactions with others. According to Tedeschi (2017, p.11), human interactions are built on the ability to carry out similar things or behave similarly. The ability is often innate to people meaning that it often occurs naturally. The explanation also describes how people behave in new environments. For instance, emigrants pick up social behaviours and norms of their new neighbours. In this regard, the mimicking of what others in their immediate environments do occurs unintentionally. Conformity is vital in enabling a person to be accepted in a particular society. As per Burger (2018), societies define themselves based on a set of norms and rules that may or may not be written. Usually, anybody adhering to these values is regarded as a societal member. As such, conformity is a means by which persons get to fit into the wider society. This nature of conformity with the aim of fitting in is called normative influence. One of its goals is to avoid negative criticism associated with people who are different. As such, gaining dominant behaviour gives a person a camaraderie feeling.
Conformity by the majority of people also occurs due to a lack of critical information. People sometimes find themselves in situations where they do not know precisely what to do. The experience can be complicated the absence of a person to help clarify the matters. For instance, while in a new culture, nation, or setup, a person may enter a restaurant and find the names on the menu different from the one in their home culture. For example, while in an Asian cuisine hotel, it may be challenging to know the exact names of the food when coming from a western society. Therefore, one might decide to order what other customers may be eating. The influence is called descriptive norms and can result in picking up positive or negative norms as one considers only that which is convenience is at the time. Tedeschi (2017, p.13) explains that people pick the behaviours of the person next to them, and this is a risk since the other person too may not be doing it in the right way. However, this form of conformity is seldom permanent as some people may think back on their decisions and inquire as a means of gaining more understanding of the situations. Thus, they manage to make independent and right decisions when faced with the same confusing satiation for the second time.
The desire to achieve some level of excellence or reputation also influences conformity among human beings. Xie et al. (2016) state that people are always competitive and ambitious. Therefore, they engage in activities that will enable them to realise the highest possible benefits. As such, where achievement is enforced by particular behaviours and beliefs, humans imitate the same. For instance, in a workplace setup where job promotion is based on personal and performance measures, employees will strive to perform well and depict desired behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs as a means of making the management promote them. Similarly, in schools, students conform to particular behaviours, attitudes, and norms because they believe that the combination will enable them to realise better academic performances and qualifications. Often, this type of conformity leads to the adoption of positive values, attitudes, and behaviours and is often encouraged in structured environments.
Obedience is more prevalent in people than conformity because it is primarily enforced on others (Russell, 2018). Therefore, the majority of the people are forced to obey, as there is no alternative action, and they have no option since free will is not recognised. For example, employees are forced to obey the reporting time as being eight in the morning failure to which they may be subjected to particular disciplinary actions. Usually, this form of obedience can be disastrous if people have to follow directives that are not moral and ethical. For instance, obeying orders to work in potentially dangerous settings with or without protective equipment may result in injury. Moreover, some senior individuals may require their subordinates to obey laws or rules that can amount to crime (Haslam and Reicher. 2017, p.60). For instance, instructing an accountant to manipulate accounts to avoid paying taxes. Currently, most people are employed in workplaces controlled by particular rules and norms. Therefore, they obey all the rules to avoid losing their jobs, which results in high levels of obedience.
The majority of people obey to avoid receiving punishment. Primarily, legislative laws that define what is a right and wrong guide all human societies in contemporary settings. Citizens are required to practice what is right by the law while avoiding, at all cost what may be unlawful. Notably, unlawful actions amount to a crime and can attract significant punishment if a person is discovered. For instance, if one is found engaged in illegal business activities such as drug trafficking, he or she may face a lengthy prison sentence. Therefore, to avoid such, or due to the fear of punishment, people decide to obey the existing laws. In most cases, Burger (2018) explains that obedience occurs even though people may not be willing at their personal levels, to obey. For instance, many people would love to avoid paying taxes so that they can have high incomes and profits. However, the fear of punishment, if discovered, makes them continue paying their taxes. Similar, this form of obedience exists when respect is lacking (Haslam, Reicher, and Birney, 2016). For instance, one may detest the actions of law enforcement officers but remain obedient, as any contradiction will result in another crime such as resting arrest.
Majority of the people in a contemporary setting are obedience because of systematic conditioning. Ideally, since childhood, the processes that an individual goes through teaching obedience either directly or indirectly. For example, children are encouraged to obey their parents, and this manifests in their behaviours, as they believe more in what their parents or guardians say as compared to other people whether it is right or wrong. After early parenting, children go to a school where their teachers carry out obedience conditioning. Learners are required to follow the instructions and directives of the teachers at all times to help them acquire new knowledge. Even though this practice helps them acquire positive values, it enforces the art of obedience in young persons. Similar, when people are done with schooling, they go to workplaces where they have to obey and follow directives from their managers. In the end, obedience becomes a part of a person’s characteristics.
Religion has also played a part in having many people obey. Ideally, religion is based on a firm belief in a super being whom people have never seen. As much as it looks unrealistic, many people believe that there is the super being, and this influences other matters such as life after death and resurrection at the end of times. The concept of religion elicits many questions. However, those who are religious have learned not to ask questions and obey everything as it is explained to them. The continued demonstration of obedience in religion tends to have impacts in other areas of society as people carry those beliefs to science, technology, human ability, and governance. Since most of the world’s population is religious, those impacted to obey are many.
It is apparent that many people conform and obey various concepts within society. The behaviours are depicted in numerous actions, especially where they are positive such as adhering to legislation to remain a law-abiding citizen. Primarily, obedience and conformity play a crucial role in depicting the social effect on people’s behaviours in contemporary societies. One variation between the two elements is that conformity is voluntary and comes from the desire to fit in and receive compliments while obedience is not optional and is fostered by years of societal socialisation about the benefits of obeying those in authority.
Burger, J.M., 2018. Conformity and Obedience. General Psychology FA18, (p.241). Saylor Academy, DC.
Haslam, S.A. and Reicher, S.D., 2017. Fifty years of “obedience to authority”: From blind conformity to engaged followership. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 13, (pp.59-78). Qld.
Haslam, S.A., Reicher, S.D. and Birney, M.E., 2016. Questioning authority: new perspectives on ‘obedience ‘research and its implications for intergroup relations. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, (pp.6-9). Elsevier Ltd. London.
Russell, N., 2018. The Origins and Evolution of Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiments. In Understanding Willing Participants, Volume 1 (pp. 37-54). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Tedeschi, J.T., 2017. The social influence processes. Routledge. Chicago
Xie, Y., Chen, M., Lai, H., Zhang, W., Zhao, Z. and Anwar, C., 2016. The neural basis of two kinds of social influence: Obedience and conformity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 10, p.51. Beijing. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00051. PubMed PMID: 26941632; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4762203.