Social Psychology and Theories of Group Influence

The Perspective of Social Psychology

The three main areas of social psychology in terms of influencing behavior social thinking, social influence, and social relations/behavior. Social thinking deals with how behaviors are attributed. The concept argues that behavior is a product of the situation and the individual. There is the principle of a fundamental attribution error, which suggests that when analyzing behavior, the influence of personality traits is overestimated while the influence of the situation is commonly underestimated. Social thinking also deals with the way attitudes affect actions and vice-versa, critical elements in behavioral science.

Social influence is a concept in psychology that focuses on the power of the social influence, where an individual’s views and, in turn, behavior match those around us and the rules set by society. Social influence can be both broad and specific but comes down to key elements of conformity and obedience. Conformity is adjusting behavior to the group standard. Meanwhile, obedience is adjusting behavior in accordance with what is told by rules and authority. There are two primary forms of social influence – normative, which seeks to gain approval of others by changing behavior, and informational, when the worldview and opinions of others are accepted to modify one’s perspective.

Social relations or behavior is the concept of cognition and the influence of humans on one another. Individuals typically hold certain perceptions about one another in society based on prejudgment or prejudice. Almost everyone experiences prejudice, which consists of beliefs (stereotypes), emotions, and finally, the predisposition to action (to discriminate). Social relations identify that the human mind processes thoughts and attitudes explicitly of which one is aware, implicitly, or subconsciously. Prejudice involves both elements and is influenced by a wide variety of other social factors such as upbringing, associations, knowledge, and social attitudes. Therefore, in relation to other people, there is always some level of prejudgment ongoing that may or may not reflect in behavior and interactions.

Group Influence

Group behavior is common and even necessary in society as people behave in large and small groups in a variety of contexts. Humans are ‘social animals,’ and from an evolutionary perspective, groups have provided survival, security, status, power, and companionship. However, when individuals are in a group, their behavior of individuals begins to shift as decision-making processes are influenced by common beliefs.

Asch and Milgram conducted studies on group influence studying these effects. Asch focused on investigating the extent of social pressure on conformity. A participant was placed in a room with people who were part of the experiment, but the participant thought they were similar to him. They were asked a simple question such as selecting a line that resembled the one in a presented image, and while the others had agreed upon an incorrect answer beforehand, it was necessary to see if the participant would conform despite the correct answer being obvious reality. Asch found that 32% of participants conformed, and in 12 trials, over 75% conformed at least once (McLeod, 2018). This is a demonstration of groupthink, where an individual changes their perception of reality to conform to the group and demonstrate the power of group influence, able to convince an individual to shift reality itself.

Meanwhile, the experiment by Milgram is one of the most famous demonstrating obedience, conformity, and elements of groupthink. Meant to study justifications for genocides, the experiment consisted of participants being split into pairs, drawing randomly who would be the ‘teacher’ and who would be the ‘learner.’ However, this was fixed, and the learner was always someone hired by Milgram to participate. The actual participant was put being a control room and could provide the shock of various degrees of severity to the electrodes attached to the learner. Learners were asked to call out pairs to the word called out by the teacher from a list, and if the answer was wrong, the teacher had to shock, gradually increasing the level of shock. The learners answered questions wrong on purpose, and the purpose of the experiment was to determine how far in providing the shock the participants would go, while the experimenter would continue to emphasize that the experiment must be continued. About 65% of participants went to the maximum level of shock (450V), and most went to 300 volts (McLeod, 2017). This demonstrates that people will follow orders given by authority figures, and it is part of the societal upbringing ingrained in most people from an early age. It also demonstrates group shift; since the consequences were part of the experiment and the group overall, the individual went to the extreme.

Power of Roles and Prejudices

As discussed in the first question, prejudices are experienced commonly and consist of multiple elements influencing an individual’s attitudes. Prejudice devalues individuals based on their perceived membership in a social group. The psychological biases for prejudice are complex and can consist of values, social norms, and self- and social identity. However, within the intergroup context of society, people fit within certain social groups and view members of other groups with prejudice. The views may relate to power differences and intergroup relations based on which people develop their attitudes (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014). The power differences are most commonly seen through roles in society.

Zimbardo conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment to demonstrate the power of roles on prejudice and behavior. Student participants were divided into guards and prisoners and roleplayed a prison. Zimbardo encouraged realism, so the ‘guards’ had full authority and relative freedom actions. After some time, the individuals became increasingly aggressive, hostile, and domineering, getting to a point where the experiment had to be discontinued due to the potential of psychological and physical harm to the ‘prisoners.’ This demonstrated how power in their roles impacted social behavior within the rigid power structure of society (McLeod, 2020). Despite everyone realizing it was an experiment, the ‘guards’ adopted open non-pretense prejudices against their fellow students who roleplayed prisoners and began to show hostility as a means of acting on that prejudice.

De-individuation, Bystander, and Altruism

Deindividuation refers to the loss of one’s individuality when in a group. Either through short-term (to fit in) or long-term (adopting the common ideal) effects, individuals begin to lose their unique perspectives, opinions, and beliefs and go along with the group, regardless of whether it is a good or bad action (Daffin & Lane, 2021). In common words, this can be explained as mob mentality. The bystander effect is a social theory that argues that individuals are less likely to help a person in crisis or a victim when others are present. It is a common social phenomenon captured and also sometimes is known as social apathy, depending on a number of factors such as the culture, risk of harm, familiarity, and environment. Meanwhile, altruism is the act of helping others intentionally. There are various models explaining altruism ranging from prosocial reciprocal altruism to ego-based altruism, although there is also an instance of empathy-altruism where the helper expects no benefits and emphasizes (Lumen, n.d.).

All three of these aspects can be clearly seen online by various means. For example, people become the so-called ‘trolls’ online while their character differs in real-life. This is an example of deindividuation, where the anonymity of online and the collective negative behavior of others leads people to act more aggressively and demonstrate hostile behavior online. As for the bystander effect, social media has become a powerful force. People either witness horrific acts online or document and post the behavior themselves, more concerned with the fascination of popularity rather than helping people. When people witness ongoing cyberbullying, the large majority will not intervene online as it would make them socially unpopular in the current social media-driven world. Finally, altruism has its place online as well. Due to the anonymity or the opposite, the viral sharing nature, it is easy to gather people behind a common cause. People are willing to be altruistic and demonstrate this – it can be seen in public online fundraisers helping those in need.

Personal Reflection

Examining these elements of social psychology and theories of group influence, it becomes clear the significant extent that they have on our attitudes, thinking, and behavior. It makes me want to rethink and reconsider various aspects of my personal opinions and behavior, which I have found to be influenced by groups and society. It was an epiphany to understand these concepts because it becomes much clearer why I act so differently when I am with my group of friends, my family, and online – seemingly like a completely different person sometimes. Also, I have reflected on how my opinions have changed with time, strongly affected by my surroundings and social context. I think taking this information and applying it to everyday life is difficult since so many of the processes are inherently implicit. However, I think that I will be more considerate of my behavior in certain social situations, carefully evaluating whether I am myself or being influenced by the group. Furthermore, I may re-examine some aspects of my opinions and perceptions, potentially reevaluating some of the stereotypes that I may hold, to avoid falling into common pitfalls of groupthink.

References

Daffin, L., & Lane, C. (2021). Principles of social psychology (2nd ed.). Pressbooks.

Jhangiani, R., & Tarry, H. (2014). Principles of social psychology (1st ed.). BCcampus. Web.

Lumen. (n.d.). The bystander effect and altruism. Web.

McLeod, S. (2017). The Milgram shock experiment. SimplyPsychology.

McLeod, S. (2018). Solomon Asch – Conformity experiment. SimplyPsychology.

McLeod, S. (2020). The Stanford Prison Experiment. SimplyPsychology.