Chapter 10: Social Influences on the Development of Human Potential

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the procedures Asch and Milgram used to study conformity and obedience
  • Describe Zimbardo’s study demonstrating the impact of social roles on behavior
  • Describe the bystander apathy effect
  • Describe the procedures used by Sherif to reduce conflict and promote cooperation between groups
  • Describe an experiment evaluating Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory

Compliance, Conformity and Obedience

Humans are not the only social animals living among members of their own species. Humans are not the only social animals dependent upon parents to survive. Humans have pets. Therefore, humans are not the only species dependent upon humans to survive! In fact, some animals not dependent upon humans to survive, still find them helpful.

This is the third chapter in the Nature/Nurture section. In Chapter 8, we saw how starting from the time of conception, nature and nurture interact, influencing your physical, cognitive, and moral development. In the previous chapter, we considered how nature and nurture interact in the development of human personality. I asked you to consider how you would describe your own personality as well as that of a potential partner in life. This raises the question, why is personality important?

From the moment you are born, the most important part of your world is other people. Think of the extent to which you relied on others to eat and survive. Consider the extent to which your answer to “What’s it all about” includes a life partner, family (including potential children), friends, colleagues, and others. Social psychology studies the effects of the presence, or imagined presence, of other people on one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

One’s social world starts at birth. Immediately, reciprocal determinism feedback loops (Bandura, 1986) will be established between the newborn and other people. The newborn’s temperament and behavior influences how the environment (including caretakers) respond, which then impacts upon the development of the infant’s skills and knowledge, which then influences how others react, and so on (see video).

Indirect effects of the newborn’s and caregivers’ personalities will occur soon after birth during feeding and whenever the infant communicates being uncomfortable (e.g., by crying). Whatever sex and temperamental factors the newborn inherits, they will influence interactions with the mother and caregivers. The personalities of the mother and caregivers will influence how they react to the newborn.

Previously cited research (Rovee & Rovee, 1969) demonstrated that young infants are sensitive to the consequences of their actions (i.e., they learned to manipulate a mobile by moving their leg). The most important consequences in the newborn’s life are administered by other people. It is not inaccurate to suggest that very early in life, an infant must learn to influence the behavior of other people. These interactions represent the infant’s first experiences in social influence. Examples of social influence occurring later in life include compliance, peer pressure to conform and obedience to authority.


From birth, infants are learning the ABCs. No, not the alphabet, the control learning ABCs. Infants are learning under what environmental conditions (i.e., Antecedents, specific Behaviors are followed by events that feel good or bad (i.e., Consequences). If the combination of the rooting and sucking reflexes do not result in the ideal nursing position, the infant will soon learn the necessary movements to maximize the flow of milk. One may debate whether it satisfies Hockett’s (1960) definition of speech, but early in life infants emit different sounds that are influenced by their consequences (e.g., different cries for food, discomfort or attention).

Early in life, parents and caretakers are not concerned with compliance by their newborns. They assume the responsibility of serving the needs and whims of their little bundle of joy. This one-way expectation of compliance eventually ends, with the parent or caretaker making the first requests or demands. Within developed nations, this often occurs when toilet training is initiated. This may be the first time there are unpleasant consequences for a child’s behavior. This may also be an early opportunity to establish the meaning of “no.” If successful, this will inevitably result in a two-way, double-edged sword. The parent may gain the ability to use a word to replace the necessity of delivering an unpleasant consequence to the young child. The downside is the inevitable “terrible twos!” In fact, it is the beginning of the necessary interactions between an individual and parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and acquaintances to influence and respond to the requests of others.

If you are reading this book, you probably started attending school by the time you were five years of age. Prior to then, most of your social interactions were with family and neighbors, including other children. Once you started school, much of your waking time was spent in or preparing to go to school. School represented a totally different set of ABCs. School was something like home: it was indoors; adults asked for compliance and administered reinforcers and punishers. School was different from home in an important respect: you were required to spend a lot of time with people your own age that were not your family or friends. If not learned previously, you needed to acquire the ability to “play well with others.” The others could be very different from those at home and in your immediate neighborhood. In addition to requiring that you acquire interpersonal skills with those your own age, school required that you continue to advance in your abilities to read, write and perform quantitative operations. Freud’s observation that love and work are the most fundamental and important components of life implied the objectives of a school system. It should provide you with the knowledge, skills and motivation to succeed in your social relationships and eventual career.

If you think back upon the role school played in your life, I suspect you will agree that it was essential to your current future aspirations. School required that you conform to and obey consensually agreed upon rules of conduct. Sometimes rules of conduct were established by teachers and other adults. Sometimes, different rules of conduct were consensually agreed upon by your classmates. The pressure to conform has been systematically studied by social psychologists.


Peer pressure is especially pronounced in adolescence and can involve risky, sometimes dangerous, behaviors (Ferguson & Meehan, 2011). Peer pressure can create a reciprocal determinism feedback loop in which an individual acts in a risky way. If others display the same behavior, it becomes a social norm within the group. An individual can be placed in conflict, wishing to keep (or make) friends while being threatened by violating a social norm and, feeling they should resist pressure to violate the teachings of their parents. The following video describes effective ways to resist peer pressure.

There are different types of conflicts: approach-approach (i.e., having to choose between two “good” things); avoidance-avoidance (i.e., a dilemma requiring “choosing between a rock and a hard place”); approach-avoidance (i.e., having to make a cost-benefit analysis weighing the positive and negative aspects of a situation); and double approach-avoidance (i.e., having to choose between two things, each having positive and negative features). A teenager facing peer pressure to smoke or to drink does not want to lose friends. The teenager may be aware of the health consequences of smoking and the dangers associated with excessive drinking. This is a complicated double approach-avoidance conflict requiring weighing the potential short- and long-term consequences of complying with the friends request or resisting their pressure.

As a college student, you are not far removed from your middle-school and high-school experiences. You can remember the cliques, the in-groups and out-groups that formed and had so much influence among your friends and classmates. You can remember how teenagers can be insensitive to the feelings of others and sometimes cruel. It is the rare individual who can join social groups without experiencing conflict or who can go it alone. Peers generally dress alike, groom themselves alike, talk alike, and share the same values. Such conformity is usually harmless. However, as described, such risky acts as smoking, excessive drinking, reckless driving, and sexual behaviors, can also occur as the result of peer pressure (Spear & and Kulbok, 2001). Fortunately, so can studying, helping others, and performing community service. One has to choose their friends carefully. There is a well known saying: Show me your friends and I will show you your future.

Asch’s conformity research

Susceptibility to peer pressure does not end after adolescence. Classic social psychological research conducted with college students has examined the conditions under which conformity is likely to occur with adults.

Solomon Asch (1951, 1952; 1956) told male college students that they were being administered a vision test. Students were asked to judge which of three lines was the same height as a comparison stimulus on eighteen trials (see Figure 10.3). There were other students in the room, all of whom were actually part of the experimental manipulation. These confederates each gave their answer and the actual subject went last. On six of the trials, the confederates unanimously chose the (rather obviously) correct stimulus. On the other 12 trials, they unanimously chose the same incorrect stimulus. One of the variables manipulated was the number of confederates. As seen in the graph, Subjects practically never conformed (i.e., chose an incorrect stimulus) if there was only one other student. The percentage of conforming responses increased as a function of the number of confederates, leveling off at about one-third of the trials with three confederates. Additional confederates hardly increased the extent of conformity. If only one confederate gave the correct answer, this dramatically lowered the extent of conformity, even with unanimity among the others. If the non-conforming confederate went first, it was more effective than going last (Morris & Miller, 1975). Asch found that if a confederate giving the correct answer left in the middle, the subject’s level of conformity increased substantially. This result may remind you of the multiple schedule example with the aunts and uncle. In this instance also, the college student’s behavior changed as a function of who was present.

Figure 10.1 Stimuli used in Asch’s conformity study.

The role of deception in psychology research

Asch’s experiments involved deception. Subjects were misled by being told that they were involved in a vision test rather than a task to assess conformity. Deception is essential if certain psychological issues are to be studied. If Ash’s subjects were told that the purpose of the study was to see if they would conform to what others did, this certainly would have changed the results. Subjects would have been alerted to the fact that others were trying to influence them. In this instance, the deception was relatively benign.

Ash’s subjects did not display serious anguish or disturbing symptoms afterward. The American Psychological Association has strict guidelines for conducting research with human subjects. After the session is completed, there must be a debriefing session in which the nature of and necessity for deception is explained. Often, subjects are interviewed to try to determine if there are concerns. Also, they may be asked why they responded the way they did as a way of gaining clarity with respect to the data. During their debriefing, some of Asch’s non-conforming subjects expressed more confidence in their judgments than others. Despite feeling uncomfortable, however, the non-confident subjects stuck with their (correct) response. Some of the conforming students actually believed the perceptions of the confederates were accurate; others knew they were wrong but did not want to offend the other students. We will now review other examples of the necessary use of deception to experimentally investigate important social psychological phenomena.


The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.

Stanley Milgram

Milgram’s experiments investigating obediance to authority, are among the most famous and controversial ever conducted in social psychology. Some of the infamy and controversy stems from the nature of the deception involved in conducting the studies. Some subjects were severely disturbed during the actual procedures, some after being debriefed, and some subsequent to the study. Some of the controversy also stems from the disturbing findings and implications regarding “human nature.”

Milgram’s Obedience Research

Stanley Milgram was a Jewish psychologist interested in questions of concern to many after the events of World War 2 and the Holocaust. How could human beings inflict such pain and suffering on others? Under what conditions do people passively display obedience to authority figures commanding that they behave cruelly? On the first page of his excellent book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram states

“It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders” (Milgram, 1974, p. 1).

These seem like monumental existential issues that could never be investigated scientifically, let alone experimentally. How can the demands of internal and external validity be satisfied? Sciences attempt to establish cause-and-effect relationships between independent and dependent variables that apply under naturalistic (i.e., “real world”) conditions. This requires either creating laboratory conditions which capture the essence of “the real world” or manipulating independent variables in a controlled fashion in the field. Asch successfully implemented the first strategy by developing experimental laboratory procedures permitting the study of conformity with respect to perceptual judgments. Milgram became familiar with Asch’s work when serving as his research assistant while completing his doctoral studies. His doctoral thesis used a variation of Asch’s procedure to study conformity in different cultures.

How could laboratory conditions be created to study obedience resulting in the administration of pain to another person? Milgram built upon Asch’s work, developing an ingenious set of deceptive procedures leading individuals to believe that they were administering a painful stimulus to another person. The subject was assigned the role of “teacher” in a supposed verbal learning study evaluating the effectiveness of punishment. The teacher was instructed to deliver an electric shock whenever the “learner” made a mistake. The learner was actually an actor and never shocked. This deception enabled the experimental study of variables influencing obedience to an authority figure. Milgram indicated, “I was trying to think of a way to make Asch’s conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was about lines. I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him” (Milgram, 1977).

Milgram Experiment.png

Figure 10.2 Milgram’s Obedience Study.

Figure 10.2 portrays the placement of the participants in Milgram’s original study conducted at Yale. The experimenter provided instructions to the actual subject and the confederate (actor). They were told that one would randomly be designated the teacher and the other the learner. The assignment was rigged such that the subject was always designated the teacher (i.e., the person administering the shock). The subject received a mild 45-volt shock to establish the credibility of the shock generator and appreciate what the learner would be experiencing. The experimenter (indicated by the E in the Figure) and teacher (indicated by the T) were seated in the same room. The learner (indicated by the L) was in an adjoining room.

The dependent variable was the level of intensity of a shock the person was willing to administer. The shock generator included 30 switches ranging from 15 to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. There were descriptive labels spaced among the switches, ranging from “Slight” (15-60 volts) to “Danger: Severe” (375-420) and “XXX” (435 and 450 volts). The learner responded correctly or incorrectly to the different test items according to a pre-arranged script. The teacher was instructed to move to the next switch each time the learner made an error, supposedly increasing the intensity of shock by 15 volts. When the intensity reached 150 volts, the learner convincingly started to scream and bang on the wall, requesting the teacher to stop. At a later point, the learner remained silent. If the teacher requested to stop, the experimenter replied with four graded requests from “please continue” to “you must go on.” The experiment ended when the teacher refused to proceed after the fourth request or administered the 450-volt shock three consecutive times.

Subjects were clearly disturbed by the task. Every one of them stopped the procedure at some point to question the experimenter. They displayed such signs of distress as sweating, stuttering, and nervous laughter. Milgram was concerned about the effects of his research on his subjects and surveyed them at a later date. Perhaps surprisingly, 84% indicated they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, 15% reported feeling neutral, and only 1% reported negative feelings (Milgram, 1974, p. 195).

Milgram followed up his original study, trying to identify variables influencing the propensity toward obedience (see Figure 10.3). Conducting the research at a workplace rather than a university reduced the percentage of teachers administering the highest intensity shock from 65% to 48%. If the learner was in the same room as the teacher, the level was reduced to 40%. Requiring that the teacher hold the learner’s hand on the shock plate reduced obedience by an additional 10%. If the experimenter gave orders by phone or someone else took over, this further reduced obedience. In one counter-intuitive experiment, Milgram examined whether a conformity manipulation similar to Asch’s research could be used to counteract obedience. Indeed, he found that only 10% of the participants administered the highest intensity shock if they observed two confederate teachers refuse to continue. When teachers were permitted to set their own shock levels, on average they stopped after the third switch (45 volts), with only 3% administering the most severe shock (Milgram, 1974, p. 70). This was the type of behavior predicted for the original study before it was conducted.

Image result for Milgram's obedience study results

Figure 10.3 Milgram’s research findings.

The reactions to Milgram’s findings were widespread and intense, ranging from disbelief to outrage. The horrors occurring during the Holocaust were often attributed to a small number of evil individuals having the ability to command obedience among the members of a passive authoritarian culture. It was assumed that such widespread obedience to authority would never occur in the proudly individualistic United States. However, in Milgram’s words

“This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study: Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Milgram, 1974, p. 6).

Toward the end of his book, Milgram concludes, “It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act” (Milgram, 1974, p. 205). This may remind you of the person-situation debate described in the previous chapter. Heider (1958) differentiated between attributing another person’s behavior to a personality trait (i.e., an internal attribution) or to environmental circumstances (i.e., an external attribution). We are all subject to what social psychologists refer to as the fundamental attribution error. This is the self-serving tendency to explain the behavior of others in terms of their internal personality traits while attributing our own behavior to external factors. Milgram’s extensive research program identified several external variables influencing the likelihood of obedience. There appeared to be a dimension of psychological distance whereby proximity to the learner or removal of the experimenter reduced obedience. Reducing the prestige of the setting or the experimenter also reduced obedience. The fact that 65% of the subjects in the role of the teacher administered the highest shock intensity refutes any attribution of evil to an individual.

Milgram’s findings have been replicated across a variety of cultures suggesting that obedience to authority figures appears to be built in to the human genome. He reflects upon this possibility, offering suggestions consistent with evolutionary psychology. In an observation that could apply to the dual-sided picture of Manhattan, Milgram states “We look around at the civilizations men have built, and realize that only directed, concerted action could have raised the pyramids, formed the societies of Greece, and lifted man from a pitiable creature struggling for survival to technical mastery of the planet” (Milgram, 1974, p. 124). It is true that single individuals made enormous intellectual and artistic contributions to the transformation of Manhattan. Manhattan, however, could not be built by a single individual. It required the coordinated talents and efforts of an enormous number of individuals.

Milgram concluded his discussion of the evolutionary advantages resulting from a propensity toward obedience with the following thoughts regarding the roles of nature and nurture:

“Indeed, the idea of a simple instinct for obedience is not what is now proposed. Rather, we are born with a potential for obedience, which then interacts with the influence of society to produce the obedient man. In this sense, the capacity for obedience is like the capacity for language: certain highly specific mental structures must be present if the organism is to have potential to language, but exposure to a social milieu is needed to create a speaking man. In explaining the causes of obedience, we need to look both at the inborn structures and at the social influences impinging after birth. The proportion of influence exerted by each is a moot point. From the standpoint of evolutionary survival, all that matters is that we end up with organisms that can function in hierarchies” (Milgram, 1974, p. 125).

Social Roles and Bystander Apathy

Social Roles

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between social classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart, through all human hearts.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.

Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo’s Prison Study

A second famous and controversial social psychology research project demonstrating the power of the situation over the power of the person was conducted by Philip Zimbardo. It is often referred to as “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). Like Milgram, Zimbardo started with an important existential question: “What happens when good people are put into an evil place? Do they triumph or does the situation dominate their past history and morality?” ( Like Milgram, Zimbardo addressed the combined issues of internal and external validity by attempting to bring the essential features of the natural environment into the laboratory. Like Milgram, this was accomplished through an ingenious deception strategy implemented with enormous attention to detail. Although this research took place over 45 years ago, it remains important and, unfortunately as you will see, prescient.

Newspaper advertisements offered male college students money to participate in an all day, two-week study taking place before the beginning of the fall semester. The study was described as a “psychological study of prison life.” Approximately 100 students responded to the advertisement. Those with prior arrest records, medical, or psychological problems were eliminated. Of the remaining students, 24 were selected. Eighteen would eventually be randomly divided into groups of nine guards and nine prisoners. The other six constituted replacements in the event anyone dropped out over the two-week period.

The study began for the nine original “prisoners” with a surprise arrest in their homes! The students went through the humiliating process of being searched and handcuffed before being read their Miranda right to remain silent. They were driven in a police car to the station where they were formally arrested with mug shots and fingerprints being taken. The simulated prison was situated in the basement of the Stanford University Psychology building. Prisoners were strip searched, issued smocks and stocking caps, and assigned ID numbers prior to being placed in their cells by the guards. Each cell held three prisoners and there was a separate cell to be used for solitary confinement. Those students assigned the role of guard were simply instructed to maintain law and order, refrain from violence, and not let any of the prisoners escape. They were told to refer to the prisoners by their ID numbers and not their names. The guards were issued military styled uniforms, darkened sunglasses, whistles, and night sticks. These procedures and details were designed to foster a sense of powerlessness in the prisoners while empowering the guards.

I suspect you will agree that just as Milgram captured the essence of being placed in a situation where obedience to authority could occur, Zimbardo captured the essence of the experience of being arrested and going to jail with his procedures. That is, both researchers manipulated the independent variable in such a way as to permit determining cause and effect relationships under controlled laboratory conditions that are likely to apply outside the laboratory. There is an important difference, however, in how their independent variables were manipulated. Part of Milgram’s manipulation included the responses of the confederate learner. These were scripted and could be controlled. For example, the learner could report having a heart condition or not. The learner could bang on the wall and scream or remain silent throughout. An important part of the independent variable manipulation in Zimbardo’s study was the behavior of the guards and prisoners toward each other. In Zimbardo’s research, there were no confederates, making scripting and control impossible. He placed students in an unbalanced relationship with their assigned roles determining their behavior. The prison study was unusual in this way; it relied upon an independent variable manipulation involving reciprocal determinism. The behavior of the prisoner affected the behavior of the guard which affected the behavior of the prisoner, and so on. There are also important differences in the ways in which the two investigators measured their dependent variables. Milgram developed a sensitive and precise measure of obedience with the graded switches on the shock generator. Zimbardo’s dependent variables were not assessed in a systematic way. Zimbardo could not know how the guards and prisoners would react to their roles. He videotaped the entire experiment, informing the subjects that their behavior was being recorded.

Whereas the first day was relatively calm, on the second day several of the prisoners started to rebel. Guards used fire extinguishers to quell the rebellion. All the prisoners had been instructed that they were allowed to leave at any point. One of the prisoners displayed severe signs of distress on the second day, left, and was replaced. Four more would leave before circumstances resulted in early termination of the experiment after only six days. The guards were becoming increasingly brutal and the experimenters feared for the safety and psychological well-being of the prisoners. Personality tests were administered to all applicants as part of the screening process. Results on these tests were not predictive of which guards became the most abusive or, in some instances, cruel. None of the guards left the experiment.

Zimbardo personally conducted debriefing sessions. He emphasized how the subjects were selected because of their initial physical and mental health. They should not feel their behavior was indicative of any psychological disturbance; it resulted from their assigned roles in the Stanford “prison.” Zimbardo took advantage of the debriefing session to discuss how they interpreted their roles as guards and prisoners, the choices they made, and how they might have done things differently. Although many of the participants reported being severely distressed during and immediately after the experiment, subsequent comprehensive interviews indicated no lasting disturbances. In their final follow-up interviews, the majority of the students indicated that the experiment proved to be a valuable learning experience. (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 239).

Forty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo (2007) wrote a provocative book entitled The Lucifer Effect:Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. In the preface, he reaches the same conclusion as Milgram: “One of the dominant conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment is that the pervasive yet subtle power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist.” Zimbardo compares the behavior of the guards in the prison experiment with the behavior of American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison thirty years later. Photographs of the two events are eerily and disturbingly similar. Zimbardo served as an expert witness on behalf of one of the perpetrators of the violence in the Iraqi prison. He argued that “The allegation that these immoral deeds were the sadistic work of a few rogue soldiers, so called bad apples, is challenged by examining the parallels that exist in the situational forces and psychological processes that operated in that prison with those in our Stanford prison” (Zimbardo, 2007, Preface). Rather, he concludes “These reports, chaired by generals and former high-ranking government officials, made evident that the military and civilian chain of command had built a “bad barrel” in which a bunch of good soldiers became transformed into “bad apples” (Zimbardo, 2007, Preface).

Bystander Apathy

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Edmund Burke

During the debriefing sessions, Zimbardo expressed his displeasure with his own behavior during the Stanford Prison Experiment. “I had tried to contain physical aggression, but I had not acted to modify or stop the other forms of humiliation when I should have. I was guilty of the sin of omission- the evil of inaction-of not providing adequate oversight and surveillance when it was required” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 181). He considered himself guilty of bystander apathy, the failure to assist an individual in need.

Zimbardo was almost definitely aware of the then recent social psychological research conducted by James Darley and Bibb Latané. They demonstrated that the likelihood of helping someone was related to the number of others present at the time (Darley& Latané, 1968; 1970; Latané & Darley, 1968) but not related to personality (Darley& Latané, 1970). In a laboratory experiment involving deception, subjects heard another student apparently undergoing an epileptic seizure. Subjects were told that they were one of two or one of six subjects involved in the research. That is, they were the only one that could help or there were four others who could also provide assistance. When they thought they were the only one, 85% of the subjects offered help; only 31% did when they thought there were four others available (Darley& Latané, 1968). The inverse relationship between the number of people present and the likelihood of providing assistance was described as the diffusion of responsibility effect. A comprehensive review found that this relationship has been repeatedly replicated since the original findings (Hudson & Bruckman, 2004).

The likelihood of providing assistance to a person experiencing an emergency may be described as a flowchart (Darley& Latané, 1970). First, the individual has to attend to the event. When there are many others present, it might not even be noticed. For example, the same authors previously found that smoke coming from the vent was noticed in 5 seconds when a subject was alone but took 20 seconds when two or three other subjects were present (Latané & Darley, 1968). Second, even if the event is noticed, it might not be interpreted as an emergency. This might be an example of the type of conformity displayed in Asch’s studies. That is, if others do not act as though the situation is an emergency, this could influence one’s own interpretation of the circumstances. Third, if the situation is considered an emergency, the number of others present will influence one’s perceived responsibility (i.e., diffusion of responsibility). Fortunately, it has been found that subjects are likely to respond to serious emergencies even if others are present and not responding (Fischer, Greitemeyer, Pollozek, & Frey, 2006). Fourth, If one feels personally responsible, it is necessary to consider courses of action and act accordingly. This flowchart may remind you of the five problem-solving stages described in Chapter 7: (1) general orientation; (2) problem definition and formulation; (3) generation of alternatives; (4) decision making; (5) verification (Goldfried and Davison, 1976, p. 187). One may act directly or indirectly by notifying the appropriate authorities.

Group Cohesiveness, Attitudes and Prejudice

Group Cohesiveness

A group consists of two or more individuals sharing a social relationship. The relationship can be based upon any shared characteristic (e.g., age, sex, grade-level, etc.) or interest (e.g., sports, academics, politics, etc.). A Nukak band can be considered a nomadic group consisting of a few families that live and move together. Consider what is likely to happen during the three steps of the bystander apathy flowchart if the person requiring assistance is a relative or friend. In the first stage, the relative will almost definitely be noticed, no matter how many other bystanders there are. In the second stage, the event will almost definitely be interpreted as requiring assistance. In the third stage, the person will almost definitely take direct action.

The prediction that one is more likely to help a fellow group member than a stranger probably does not surprise you. What may be surprising is how easy it is to establish group cohesiveness, a meaningful connection with another individual or several individuals. For example, one is more likely to help an injured person if they are wearing the football jersey of a shared favorite team (Levine, Prosser, Evans, & Reicher, 1968). In an experiment, college students were divided into low- and high-cohesive groups of two or four individuals. Cohesion was established by simply having the students discuss their likes and dislikes with respect to school and other activities. As expected, in the low-cohesiveness conditions, there was a social diffusion effect whereby subjects were more likely to assist another student when no one else was available. However, in the high-cohesiveness conditions, it did not matter if others were available to help; the subject felt personally responsible simply based on their prior conversations (Rutkowski, Gruder, & Romer, 1983).

Interestingly, the opposite of the social diffusion effect occurs with friends. Increasing the number of bystanders increases coming to the aid of friends, in comparison to strangers (Levine & Crowther, 2008). Tragically, the reverse can also be true. Increasing the number of bystanders can increase the likelihood of inflicting harm on members of a defined group. This is a necessary component of Milgram’s original questions regarding the Holocaust. How could human beings inflict such pain and suffering on others? Under what conditions do people passively display obedience to authority figures commanding that they behave cruelly? To answer these questions we must understand the formation of attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudice.

Attitudes, Stereotypes, and Prejudice

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

South Pacificby Rodgers & Hammerstein

Rogers and Hammerstein set to music how classical conditioning principles described in Chapter 5 to help us understand emotional responding and the acquisition of word meaning can also be applied to the formation of prejudice and stereotypes. If a child’s parents pair emotionally toned words with members of a particular race or ethnic group (e.g., immoral, dirty, lazy, etc.), the child can learn to fear and/or dislike members of that group. Razran (1938, 1940) demonstrated that ratings of political slogans could be affected in opposite directions by pairing them with either food or noxious odors. Similarly, Staats and Staats (1958) showed that attitudes toward national names (e.g., Dutch, Swedish) or even personal names (e.g., Tom, Bill) could be influenced by pairing them with positively or negatively charged words. Scapegoating is a particularly pernicious form of stereotyping. It involves selecting an individual or group (e.g., a sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.) for negative treatment. Often this individual or group is inaccurately blamed for unfortunate events or circumstances (e.g., loss of jobs, income inequality, etc.). It is important to recognize the potency of these procedures, since they are so frequently used in an attempt to influence your behavior. For example, advertisers pair their products with attractive images (see Figure 5.3) and political candidates frequently “dress themselves in the flag” and “sling mud” at opposing candidates.

These examples are attempts to affect attitudes toward their products and candidates. An attitude consists of one’s emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to a person, place, object, or event (Allport, 1935; Rosenberg & Hovland, 1960). Classical conditioning can account for two of the three components of attitudes (including discriminatory attitudes); the affective (prejudice) and cognitive (stereotype) components. The behavioral component is the target of the advertiser and candidate. Their objective is to convince you to purchase the product or vote for the candidate. The behavioral component, unfortunately, is also the target of the child’s relatives in the song. The objective is to have the child discriminate against an out-group (Allport, 1954; Duckitt, 1994; Whitley & Kite, 2010). Fortunately, at least in this case, there is an extensive literature indicating that the emotional and cognitive components of attitudes are not necessarily predictive of overt behavior (c.f., Rosenberg & Hovland, 1960; Wicker, 1969). The likelihood of behaving in a manner consistent with one’s beliefs is influenced by the following: comparative strength of each belief, perceived consistency with social norms, perceived ability to carry out the behavior, and motivation for complying (Ajzen, 2002).

Muzafer Sherif believed that prejudices and stereotypes were especially likely to develop when there was competition between groups for scarce resources. This position has become known as Realistic Conflict Theory. He conducted the Robbers Cave Experiment (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961), a classic demonstration of conflict and cooperation between experimentally established in- and out-groups. Each group consisted of eleven, randomly assigned normal, well-adjusted fifth grade boys attending a summer camp. The groups were randomly assigned to two cabins at different locations and not initially aware of each other’s existence.

During the first of the three stages of the research, the campers engaged in activities designed to foster group identity and camaraderie such as hiking, swimming, and a treasure hunt with a monetary prize which they could spend together. The groups named themselves the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers” and developed their own behavioral norms and leadership structures.

In the second stage of the research, a tournament of competitive games including baseball, tug-of-war, and touch football was scheduled. The winners would receive a trophy and individual prizes. As soon as the games began, the teams started calling each other names. This escalated into flag burning and dormitory raiding. A fight was on the verge of breaking out when the counselors (actually members of the research team) stepped in and broke it up.

During the third stage of the research, two different approaches were implemented to try to reduce hard feelings and promote cooperation between the groups. The first approach, described as “mere contact”, involved having the groups attend meals and movies together. Other than a few “food fights”, there was practically no interaction between the groups. The group members continued to stick together. The second approach introduced superordinate goals, tasks affecting the members of both groups and requiring their cooperation. In one instance, they needed to determine if a water tank serving the entire campsite was damaged and if the faucet needed to be repaired or replaced. Working together to address common concerns in this way succeeded in breaking down barriers between the two groups.

Figure 10.4 shows the changes in the friendship patterns occurring between the end of the second and third stages of the study. Especially for the Rattlers, there was a substantial increase in the percentage of Eagle friends in comparison to friends from their own cabin. The same pattern occurred for the Eagles but was not as pronounced. Thus, engaging in superordinate tasks requiring cooperation between competing groups appears to be an effective procedure for breaking down stereotypes and enhancing cooperation. More recent research has confirmed the effectiveness of creating an environment of forced interdependence in reducing prejudice (Fiske, 2000).

Image result for robbers cave experiment results

Figure 10.4 The Robber’s Cave Experiment.

Other procedures, besides creating interdependence through superordinate tasks, have been found to reduce stereotyping and prejudicial behavior. A related strategy is to have groups try to define their boundaries in a more inclusive manner, for example by describing themselves as sharing objectives and being on the same team (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2000). Having pairs of individuals disclose facts about themselves reduces prejudice toward out-groups (Ensari & Miller, 2002). Similarly, practice in assuming the perspective of others can reduce stereotypes and prejudice (Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000). For example, imagine what it is like being told that “people like you don’t live in this neighborhood.”

The fundamental attribution error underlies many stereotypes. That is, an out-group member’s failings are attributed to personal dispositional factors (e.g., the person is lazy, stupid, etc.) whereas in-group members’ failings are attributed to situational factors (e.g., it is a hot day, the problem is difficult, etc.). In a procedure designed to counteract this tendency, White adults were taught to consider situational explanations for negative stereotypical Black behaviors (Stewart, Latu, Kawakami, & Myers, 2010). This procedure was found to reduce racial stereotyping in comparison to control subjects not receiving the training.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Imagine how members of the “Eagles” and “Rattlers” felt after working together to achieve common goals. They probably started to develop beliefs about members of the other group which were inconsistent with what they previously believed. The conflict felt when holding contradictory beliefs or when there is an apparent discrepancy between one’s beliefs and behavior was described by Leon Festinger (1957) as cognitive dissonance. An example of the former might be, “I thought all Rattlers were jerks but this guy seems nice.” An example of the latter might have occurred if a member of the Rattlers engaged in an enjoyable conversation with a member of the “evil Eagles.” Festinger believed that cognitive dissonance was aversive and would motivate individuals to attain consistency between their beliefs and behavior. This could be achieved by changing either a belief or a behavior. For example, the Eagle might conclude “some Rattlers are nice” and the Rattler might conclude “not all Eagles are evil.”

In a test of cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959), college students were asked to repeatedly perform a boring task for an hour (e.g., turning pegs a quarter turn at a time). After finishing, the subjects were asked to do a favor for the experimenter by telling another subject (who was actually part of the experiment) that the task was enjoyable. Subjects were randomly divided into three groups: one was paid $1 (currently approximately $10) to lie; the second was paid $20 ($200) to lie; and a control condition was not requested to lie. Try to place yourself in the situation of the subjects who received money for lying. You have complied with the request of the experimenter to say something you do not believe to be true. Would you feel differently about performing the boring task after receiving $1 for lying about it in comparison to $20? In the study, participants who received only $1 for lying reported enjoying the task more than subjects receiving $20. Why do you think this occurred?

According to cognitive dissonance theory, the subjects that were paid to lie should experience dissonance resulting from believing one thing (the task is boring) and saying another (it is enjoyable). Those receiving the lower amount of money should have difficulty feeling that they lied in order to receive the money. Subjects receiving the higher amount should have less difficulty attributing their lying to being paid. That is, the lower paid group should experience a higher level of dissonance than the group receiving the higher amount.

The way for the lower paid group to reduce the dissonance would be to change their belief about how much they enjoyed the task. That is, to conclude that they did not really lie since the task was enjoyable. The results were consistent with this cognitive dissonance analysis. At the end of the study, the lower paid group did in fact report liking the task more than the higher paid group or the control group not paid for lying.

The Pyramid of Hate

The results of social psychology research studying conformity, obedience to authority figures, the power of social roles, bystander apathy, group cohesiveness, prejudice, stereotyping, scapegoating, and cognitive dissonance enables us to address Milgram’s question of how we can understand the Holocaust. Figure 10.5 shows the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate.

Figure 10.5 Pyramid of Hate

The Pyramid portrays a stage theory in which individuals are first “carefully taught” prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes, very much consistent with the Rodgers and Hammerstein song. Then, depending on their social groups, one might escalate to overt acts of prejudice including name calling based on personal characteristics (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc.), social avoidance and bullying. The next stage, involves discriminatory policies requiring systematic collaboration among members of a group. As indicated in the Pyramid, the groups could be as ubiquitous and respectable as businesses, real estate associations, and private schools. The linkage between where one lives and the quality of the education they receive is a particularly pernicious form of societal discrimination. The likelihood of a child going to college can be predicted from a zip code!

The two “highest” levels of the Pyramid involve violent acts by individuals or groups. It is at these levels, that individuals might experience severe cognitive dissonance resulting from the discrepancy between their beliefs and behaviors. For example, “How can I be a religious, moral person if I participated in a violent act against someone?” Frequently, such dissonance is dissipated through dehumanization and scapegoating. For example, “those people are shiftless, lazy, and often criminals” or “they are unpatriotic”, or “here illegally”, or “practice immoral acts”, or …… In its most extreme form such as the Holocaust, genocide is practiced against an entire ethnic group.

The Pyramid of Hate has been used as an educational tool by the Anti-Defamation League to try to prevent such atrocities from occurring. Educational materials for high-school students include an exercise “Have you ever …?” Students are asked to indicate whether or not they ever experienced or practiced different prejudicial or stereotyping activities such as being called a name or being the target of name-calling, etc. This is followed by discussion of the impact of prejudice on individuals and on society (Anti-Defamation League, 2003).

It seems possible to base out-group membership on practically any characteristic and then target an individual or group for discrimination. The day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Jane Elliott, an Iowa schoolteacher, devised an exercise for her third-grade students (Peters, 1987). Most children in Iowa at that time had never seen a Black person. She asked them if they would like to participate in a lesson on what it feels like to be a person of color in the United States. They agreed and she divided them into two groups; those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. Blue-eyed students were told they were superior and seated in the front rows of the class and brown-eyed students sat in the back rows. Blue-eyed children were instructed to only play with each other and to ignore brown-eyed children. The two groups were not permitted to drink from the same water fountains. Sure enough, similar to the results obtained by Zimbardo in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the students quickly adapted to their roles. Blue-eyed children behaved in a bossy and arrogant manner whereas brown-eyed children became passive and submissive.

There have been multiple examples of genocide resulting in the loss of millions of lives in the past century (e.g., Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Darfur, and Rwanda). The social psychology research helps us explain how such inhumane behaviors can occur. We can describe the types of parenting practices and experiences likely to result in prejudice, stereotyping, scapegoating, obedience, bystander apathy, discrimination, and violent role playing. Every one of these acts has been demonstrated under controlled and realistic conditions. Every one of these acts is a component of genocide. Every one of these acts is taught. Every one of these acts can be prevented and discouraged.

Teaching Heroes

Heroes are those who can somehow resist the power of the situation and act out of noble motives, or behave in ways that do not demean others when they easily can.

Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo (2007, pp.2, 289) begins and ends The Lucifer Effect with a discussion of M. C. Escher’s fascinating reversible image (see video). At the end, what do you see? It will depend on what you perceive as the figure and what as the ground. If blue is the background, you will see a bunch of white angels in the foreground. If white is the background, you will see a bunch of blue devils. Zimbardo suggests we are all like Escher’s print; we all have it in us to be devils or angels. We all have the possibility of undergoing a reversal from one to the other.

The title of the last chapter of Zimbardo’s book (2007, pp. 444-489) is “Resisting Situational Influences and Celebrating Heroism”. It is in this chapter, that he considers the implications of the knowledge we have acquired from social psychological research to address “our better angels” (Dickens, 1841). In the same way that Zimbardo (and Milgram) argued for rejecting the attribution of evil deeds to an evil disposition, he argued for rejecting the attribution of heroic deeds to a heroic disposition. Zimbardo supports a situational model, providing multiple examples of how the very same experiences that produce obedience to authority and conformity to anti-social roles can result in pro-social attitudes and behaviors. We can build a Pyramid of Love.