Explanations of resistance to social influence
The consequences of conforming and obeying, although often positive for society, can sometimes be negative. Therefore, it is important that psychologists, as well as understanding why people conform and obey, also know how such social influences can be resisted. Effective strategies for resistance can then be formulated.
One important explanation of resistance is that of social support, which involves the perception of assistance and solidarity being available from others. If dissenters (people who go against the attitudes and behaviour of the group) are present in a social group, they break up the unanimity of the group, making it easier for individuals to resist social influence to conform and obey. This works even if a dissenter displays a different attitude or behaviour to one preferred by a given individual who also privately disagrees with the group.
Another important explanation is that of locus of control (LoC), which involves the extent to which things happen as a result of an individual’s choices and decisions. Internal LoC involves the belief that things happen due to internally controlled factors, such as effort, while external LoC involves the belief that things happen as a result of fate and other uncontrollable external forces. Rotter (1966) argued that a high internal LoC made individuals more resistant to social influence, as such individuals see themselves as having a free choice over whether to conform or obey.
Fig 1.8 Whistle-blowers who report illegal activities within institutions tend to have a high internal LoC
Avtgis (1998) conducted a meta-analysis of studies involving LoC and conformity, in which the average effect size for internal and external LoC was measured. Earlier research had indicated that those scoring high on internal LoC are less easily persuadable, less socially influenced and less conformist than those who score high on external LoC. After subjecting the data to statistical analysis, it was found that these predictions were generally true, with participants who displayed an internal LoC being less easily influenced and therefore more able to resist conformity. These results support the idea that differences in conformist behaviour are related to differences in measures of LoC, which suggests that differences in LoC are linked to differences in the ability to resist social influence.
• Asch (1956) (see page 6) found that if a confederate dissenter answered correctly from the start of his study, conformity dropped from the usual 32 per cent to 5.5 per cent, but if the confederate only dissented later in the study conformity only dropped to 8.5 per cent. This suggests social support received earlier is more effective than that received later.
• Milgram (1974) in a variation of his study found that when 2 confederate teachers refused to obey and left the study, only 10 per cent of participants gave the maximum shocks, which suggests that disobedient models are a powerful source of social support, as they reduce the unanimity of a situation. This makes it easier for an individual to act independently.
• Shute (1975) found that students with an internal LoC, exposed to peers expressing pro-drug attitudes, conformed less to such pro-drug attitudes than students with an external LoC. This supports the idea that having an internal LoC increases resistance to social influence.
Many studies into social support — such as Asch’s variations that concentrated specifically on the role of dissent — are experiments, which isolate and rigorously test individual variables. This demonstrates such variables’ specific effects — in Asch’s studies, on the ability to resist social influences of conformity and obedience.
The extensive knowledge gained from research into conformity and obedience can be used to formulate and teach effective strategies to help individuals to resist social pressures to conform and obey in situations with potentially negative consequences. Even just being taught about studies like Asch’s and Milgram’s can help people recognise and therefore resist similar attempts to manipulate their social behaviour.
Most research into LoC involves correlations, which do not show causality. Therefore, the direction of the relationship is not known (for example, resisting social influence may create a higher internal LoC, rather than a high internal LoC, making people able to resist social influence). Other non-measured variables may be involved too.
Asch (1956) found that even if a dissenter gave a different wrong answer to other confederates, conformity dropped from 32 per cent to 9 per cent, which suggests it is the reduction in the majority’s agreement, rather than the social support given by the dissenter, which is the important factor in resisting social influence.
Chui (2004) reports that ’whistle-blowers’ (people within institutions who report illegal activities) have a high internal LoC. Therefore, it would be useful for institutions to appoint such people to investigate possible instances of corporate fraud, like paying bribes, money laundering and covering up institutional abuses, such as avoidable hospital deaths.