How Do Others Influence Our Behaviour?

Social facilitation is one way an individuals behaviour can be influenced and is simply the belief that the presence of other people will influence performance on a specific task. In other words “performance is facilitated and learning is impaired by the presence of spectators” (Zajonc, 1965). Triplett in 1898 conducted a study to investigate the dynamogenic factors he had previously observed in cyclists better performance in race conditions. Triplett presented forty children with a fishing reel that moved a flag from one point to another in which the time to complete the trial was measured. Children participated in six trials, alternating between alone and paired and he found twenty of the children performed better in competition, ten saw no change and ten were slower.

Triplett’s findings suggest that for thirty of the children their performance was affected by the presence of another child, it is difficult to attribute that effect to social facilitation. Triplett used a repeated measure design and his results illustrated an improvement in performance across trials for the children, so the results may have been due to practice rather than the actual presence of another individual. This methodological issue could confound the results and impact negatively on the experiments internal validity. While Triplett’s results illustrate improved performance when in a competition setting, they do not illustrate the effects of social facilitation as competition is a separate phenomenon completely.

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Zajonc in 1969 researched social facilitation using cockroaches which had been taught to run a maze from a bright light to a dim one. The cockroaches’ completion times improved when the audience boxes contained other cockroaches. The second condition used a more complex maze, which involved a turn and it was found that cockroaches performed less well when the audience boxes were full.

This demonstrates the effects of social facilitation as the cockroaches behaviour altered when they had an audience improving their completion times, for dominant responses (practiced), showing more effort was being expended. Zajonc argued that the presence of others caused psychological arousal which gives access to energy not normally available, resulting in an energised response to the practiced maze. However, this same arousal was argued to be distracting for more difficult (non-dominant) responses, resulting in poorer performance.

While Zajonc’s results support the audience effect theory in social facilitation, it is based on animals which make generalisations difficult, impacting negatively on the experiments’ external validity. However, the results also suggest predictions about behaviour could be made in regard to novices and experts which were supported by Michaels et al (1982). Zajonc’s results suggest that when observed performance of dominant responses should improve and non-dominant responses deteriorate. Michaels et al found that novice pool players made fewer shots while observed and expert players made more.

In contrast to social facilitation, Social Loafing is the belief that an individual lessens their efforts when they are in a group, this drop in performance output may be unrealised by the individual. Jackson and Williams in 1985 found that participants who were told they were to be assessed individually they performed better when solving difficult mazes on a computer program. When they were assessed as a group there was a noticeable drop in performance output, which was concluded to be a result of not being evaluated individually. This is where social loafing and social facilitation differ. Social loafing does not observe the individual’s performance, but the group’s, so an individual can feel invisible among the group. While both do see a decrease in performance on complex tasks, Dashiell in 1930 found that while the number of errors increased on arithmetic problems performed in the presence of others, the total number completed increased showing that social facilitation does increase output. This suggests that a simple task is better performed in groups whereas complex, difficult tasks are better performed alone.

When discussing influence a key term to consider is conformity, which can be defined as “changing one’s beliefs or behaviour because of real or imagined group pressure”. Sherif in 1935 conducted an autokinetic effect experiment where participants were asked to estimate how far a light moved. Participants initially guessed alone where the estimate range was 2-25cm and then a group condition where they gave their estimates with two other participants. During the second condition a group norm was very quickly established and participants even changed their original solo estimates dramatically to meet the group estimate.

The results suggest that people will conform to a group when they are themselves uncertain of the correct response; this is also known as informational conformity (a desire to be correct). Sherif told the participants he would be moving the light, which was a deception, as the light never moved, which along with the ambiguous task resulted in uncertainty in the participants. This was also echoed by the participants themselves when they said afterward that they had not felt influenced by the other participants, they were just attempting to work out the correct answer to a difficult task. Sherif created a situation where the only certain thing was uncertainty and participants simply may have attempted to work together to give what they believed was the correct answer.

This led Asch in 1951 to conduct an experiment that removed any ambiguity from the task and to test if an individual would conform to a group when the correct answer was clearly not being given. Asch gathered nine individuals, eight confederates and one real participant, where they guess which line they believed was the same length as a test line. The real participant always answered last. The confederates all gave the incorrect answer and Asch found 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 32% conformed entirely on the critical trials.

These results demonstrate normative influence, whereby participants adopt an outward behaviour they know to be wrong to fit in. When interviewed after the experiment, they participants supported this view by stating they had gone along with the group so they would not stand out. Asch also found during subsequent studies that the rate of conformity could be affected by a number of factors. He found that as the size of a group increases so does the rate of conformity. There appears to be little to no change in conformity beyond a group of four people which is the optimal group size. When there is uncertainty of the correct response informational influence causes a rise in conformity. Unsurprisingly, if participants are allowed to answer in private the rate of conformity drops, this is due to normative influence being lessened.

However, there are a number of methodological issues with this study. Firstly, sample was biased, it consisted of male students of the same age group and the task is an artificial one. These two points impact negatively on the experiments’ external validity as generalisations are very difficult. Also, participants were deceived about the nature of the experiment and that they were the only naA?ve participant in the group. This deception could have exposed participants to psychological stress through embarrassment and non-conformity. Lastly, the reliability of Asch’s study must also be questioned as attempts to replicate it have been unsuccessful. Perrin and Spencer in 1980 found that conformity was rare in their replication of the Asch study. This was also later supported by Lalancette & Standing in 1990 when they concluded the “Asch effect appears to be an unpredictable phenomenon rather than a stable tendency of human behaviour”.

The last form of social influence will be obedience, which involves an individual acting in accordance to an order or demand made of them, usually by a person in a position of authority. This was most famously investigated by Milgram in 1963 where 40 male participants were meant to take part in a study investigating learning. The participant had to administer an electric shock for every incorrect answer the learner gave from 15v to 450v (xxx). If the participant refused to administer the shock the experimenter had a number of prompts to encourage continuation. The experimenter filled the role of authority figure. Milgram found 65% of the participants administered a shock of 450v, even after the learner had protested.

Milgram suggested a number of factors which could explain the levels of obedience seen in the results. In a number of follow-up variations on his study he found that the physical presence of the authority figure will increase obedience as well as the actual location. The original study was held at Yale University which is a leading academic institution. This venue thus added authority to the experimenter and increased the level of obedience. Variations in an office building saw a drop in obedience, only adding weight to the importance of the venue in regard to obedience. One of the ethical issues raised in this experiment may also have increased the rate of obedience. Deception was used from the very beginning of the experiment, and participants were told shocks were painful and not dangerous; this may have led participants to have more faith in the experimenter’s “expert” position. The major ethical concern however, is protection from harm; the participants were put in a situation of tremendous psychological distress which could have caused psychological harm. However, Milgram did debrief the participants fully and kept in touch to make sure no lasting harm occurred. These variations do demonstrate the importance of situational variables; however, it would be naA?ve to dismiss personality factors and personal beliefs. Some participants did refuse to go to 450v! A more troubling thought however, is in 2000 Blass reviewed the research on obedience and found Milgam’s findings to be reliable.

While it is clear others can influence our behaviour, most notably our conformity to social norms and our obedience of authority figures such as the police, we are responsible for our actions. While we exist in a society we conform to we must appreciate we can influence those around us and be conscious of how!

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