What Are Society’s Impacts on the Individual?

Human brains are practically wired for herd mentality. But how does this heard identity transcend upon the individual?

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Though the term “herd mentality” is often met with criticism, it simply means that you are a part of a larger group in terms of your opinions and actions. If we stop and think about it, we’re all apart of a herd in one way or another. Some of us are Republicans, some are Democrats, some are punks, some are religious, and the list goes on.

The concept of herd mentality is anything but new. Yet, it’s likely very few of us ever stop to consider why we conform to a group. Or why we obey authority. Or how these roles affect our behaviors.

Social influence has strong implications on an individual’s opinions and behaviors. This has been knowledge for decades now.

Psychologists have taken a strong interest on this topic as it could lead to understanding mental health in a different light. Maybe our stresses are coming from our perceived authority. Maybe our ill behavior is demanded by a particular social group.

By understanding herd mentality and our role within a herd, we can develop a much better comprehension of ourselves as individuals.

The Acceptance of Social Influence

Have you ever stopped to consider why you accept social influences without second thought? We encounter these influences constantly and, yet, most of the time we don’t question it.

For example, when you’re hired on a new job, you’re likely going to do whatever it takes to please your supervisor. Or, if you make a new group of friends, you’ll most likely adopt (or, at least, play along with) their opinions and perspectives.

Though reasons can be found for every particular situation in which we conform to a herd, it begs the question, why do we conform to the herd in the first place?

Confirmation

Psychologists have observed that the role of acceptance is extremely important to most individuals. Beyond the group itself, humans are practically conditioned to seek out confirmation for their beliefs and actions. Simply put, we want to feel good about ourselves and our decisions. ¹

So, we hop on a bandwagon and participate in behaviors that complete our identity. For example, fans of a sports team are bound to wear the same clothing as the teams they’re apart of. Or, in a group of friends, it’s possible for them to wear similar clothing for the sake of feeling as though they belong.

Cooperation

Out of our desire for acceptance, we’re also looking for something more within a group. Namely, to share and experience similar ideas and situations. In other words, we want to cooperate with people to achieve a shared goal – whatever that may be. ²

In many groups, cooperation is key to success. For example, let’s take a charity group located in a small community whose goal is to improve their environment. One way they may go about doing this is by picking up litter along a highway.

Such a goal cannot be accomplished by an individual – or, at least, it’d be much more difficult. Therefore, a herd mentality is necessary for cooperation.

Collective Thought

Still, even though cooperation can have a lot of positive effects, it’s not without its negatives. One of the biggest downsides to herd mentality that psychologists have observed is it almost forces people into collective thought (sometimes referred to as “group-think”).

Through collective thought, everyone involved will develop a select set of convictions and actions. Most of the time, in order to further pursue their goals.

Yet, when an opposing group or individual comes along with different views, there’s often criticism to be met. And, most of the time, collective thought rejects criticism at all lengths.

In turn, people who participate in group though are often deficient when it comes to critical thinking. Without a critical thinker within the group, there’s a likely chance the group as a fall will lose affluence. ³

This is due to the fact that critical thinking allows us to identify and evaluate our values and behaviors and, through this, change when conditions require us to.

Unity

However, one of the greatest accomplishes of herd mentality is it allows a society to flourish without the risk of negative actions being taken upon by individuals.

This can be acutely observed in laws and regulations. Broader laws, such as the prohibition of violence and theft, protect everyone within a community, state, or country. Such laws also allow us to continue pursuing society without finding ourselves in risk of danger.

Still, in order for these laws to work, herd mentality must be enacted. We all must conform to these laws and regulations as normal and, as individuals, we all must act accordingly.

“People would rather live in a community with unreasonable claims, than face loneliness with their truth.” – Bangambiki Habyarimana

Why Do We Conform?

When looking at aspects of herd mentality such as unity, we can pull apart a lot of positive aspects of this way of thinking. But psychologists aren’t necessarily interested in the positives. In fact, most research conducted seeks out how herd mentality is puts people at a disadvantage.

As mentioned, the biggest disadvantage herd mentality procures is its lack of critical thinking. When one enters a group, they’re expected to conform to a tapered set of views and behaviors.

Such tapering often discourages individuals from coming up with innovative ideas – some of which may be able to improve a group. It also scares people from questioning and debating the group’s set of beliefs.

Behaviors such as those mentioned above are often associated with cults where the authority of the group has complete manipulation over the individual’s beliefs and actions. However, these disadvantages can play out on nation-wide scales.

The Nazi Party of World War II’s Germany is a prime example. It’s often forgotten that Adolf Hitler practically started from nothing – herding together only a selection of individuals and conforming them to his fascist beliefs. With enough time, Hitler took this herd mentality to an unprecedented scale.

Of course, it can’t be overlooked that many Germans simply conformed to Hitler’s beliefs. But why would they do so even if they internally questioned the authenticity of such beliefs?

There are two reasons each of us conforms to beliefs, no matter how radical they may appear in context:

  • Informative Social Influence – To conduct ourselves based on an informed point of view.
  • Normative Social Influence – To relate to the convictions and conduct of a social group.

Hitler may be an extreme example of how social influence plays a role in our lives. But this isn’t about the extremity of one leader’s actions. It’s about the nature of human thinking within a social construct.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is Informative Social Inflence?

Information is one of the most powerful tools when it comes to social influence. Each of us seeks out information constantly and, many times, we find ourselves not sure whether our knowledge on a particular subject is accurate.

Take, for example, an actor who’s playing a role much outside the bounds of his comfort zone. In order to garner an understanding of this role, he will naturally have to do some research. Though this research is helpful, it doesn’t offer him acceptance.

So, he turns to others, offers them a quick tidbit of the role and, based on their knowledge of the personality, seeks out their acceptance.

No matter what the spectators tell the actor, they will offer him knowledge in one way or another. And if the actor is still lacking the confidence in his own knowledge, it’s likely he’ll accept there’s – regardless of whether or not the information is accurate.

This is informative social influence and it’s happening all around us at all times. What makes it so vital to the human condition is it plays a major role in our perspective outlook.

Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif knew this and wanted to demonstrate it. Through a 1935 experiment using the autokinetic effect, he achieved exactly what he set out to do.

Sherif had participants isolated in a darkened room where a single motionless light was projected onto a wall. According to the autokinetic effect, if a person doesn’t have another object that allows them to judge the lights position, it will appear as though it’s moving. ⁴

One group of Sherif’s participants were asked how much they saw the light move. Their reports came back claiming the light had moved in widely varying distances and was completely based upon each participant’s perspectives.

A second group was asked the same question about the light’s movement, only this time they were to give their answers in front of other members of the group. Sherif discovered that though each participant would mention an initial varying distance, the majority reported that the light’s range became smaller over time.

Sherif observed that most of his participants were unsure of the light’s movement at this point and, when unsure, sought out available information from other members of the group. In turn, the answers from other members became their opinion and there was a noticeable conformity among this group of participants.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton

What is Normative Social Influence?

Normative social influence is a bit more direct and easier to pick up in terms of social influence. Simply put, it’s when a person wants to “fit in” among his colleagues.

Normative social influence is determined by a number of factors, but is namely dictated by the belief that a person wants to maintain their position within a group of people. This means that person will create their values and opinion based on the group in order to be liked and respected. ⁵

Not to mention, this person will also alter their attitudes and conduct in order to become more equal to that group.

This behavior can be looked at in a number of different ways. For a group of friends, it may appear through fashion trends. For a religious group, it may appear in rituals and traditions. For popularity’s sake, a person may find themselves participating in things they weren’t initially interested in.

“Most people do not have a problem with you thinking for yourself, as long as your conclusions are the same or at least compatible with their beliefs.” – Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Conformity in Public and Private

As we’ve discussed, a person may conform to a group even when they don’t agree with the opinions of that group. Still, over time, it’s likely this person’s opinions will change to better match the need of the group. With that, they adopt a set of behaviors in order to continue their allegience.

These behaviors can appear in two different ways: ⁶

  • Public Conformity – making sure one’s behaviors are equal to the expectations of those within a group while, in private, holding a different perspective. For example, a high school student may claim he likes rap music when among his peers. But at home, he much prefers to listen to rock.
  • Private Conformity – when one finds their opinions changing no longer for the sake of the group, but rather because they genuinely feel a difference. For example, that student who pretended to like rap music may eventually become fond of it. His opinions have changed in his private life and, therefore, he’s produced private conformity.

With everything we’ve discussed so far, the real question remains, why do people conform in this manner? What is their motivation?

“A bad conscience is easier to cope with than a bad reputation.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Solomon Asch’s Findings

Solomon Asch was a 20th century Polish psychologist who has been hailed as one of the most-cited researchers on the topic of conformity. In the 1950’s, Asch conducted a number of experiments in order to understand the conditions that lead a person to conforming. ⁷

At Swarthmore College, Asch conducted an experiment where he showed participants a printed line that was a specific length. Following that was a series of additional lines of fluctuating lengths. One of these lines was the same length as the initial while the other two were much different.

Asch then asked his participants to tell him which of the lines they thought was the same length as the first. And he asked this in a group setting.

This left the participants in a tricky situation. Many had come up with the line they had felt was identical to the first. However, many of their answers were contradicted when other members of the group spoke out.

It came down to a crucial decision – follow the herd or report back with their private opinion.

By using an experimental design, Asch made sure that participants weren’t succumbed to informative influence. He did this by making the matching line lengths completely obvious.

Still, even through this palpable clarity, participants were more likely to conform to group norms. Even when they knew the answer was wrong!

What Asch’s study revealed was that people doubt their own knowledge if it doesn’t fall in line with the majority of group members. Many would rather participate in public conformity.

“Sometimes, if you want to change a man’s mind, you have to change the mind of the man next to him first.” – Megan Whalen Turner

The Three Types of Conformity

According to Herbert C. Kelmen, a Social Ethics professor at Harvard University, there are three types of conformity. These are as follows: ⁸

Identification

Identification is similar to public conformity. A person may individually identify with a group and adopt their opinion and behaviors. The purpose of this identification will vary depending on the person. For example, some may simply seek to gain a favor while others are looking for social acceptance.

However, though one identifies with the group, they don’t embody the standards of the group. Again, we can use the example of the high school student who tells his peers he likes rap music when, in private, he prefers rock.

Internalization

Internalization takes shape when a member of the group (more particularly, a new member) adopts views and opinions from the groups influence. Not only will this person publicly advocate their group’s opinions, but often times, they’ll claim them as their own beliefs.

This is most notably seen within religious groups when a spiritual leader (i.e. a priest) proclaims an opinion that his/her follows adopt. However, this can also be seen in the political landscape as well as in cults.

Compliance

Compliance is probably the most obvious sign of conformity. This is when an individual or the entire group complies with a particular set of instructions produced by another. Compliance doesn’t require private conformity as an individual or multiple members of the group may doubt the instructions they’re given.

Compliance is most notably seen when authority figures play a role within a group. An easy example is when a person sees red and blue headlights behind their car, they’re most likely going to comply and pull over as they view a police officer with authority.

Still, the same can be said about a teacher requesting something from a student or a father requesting something from his child. As long as the receiving end looks towards the instructor with authority, compliance will be met.

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” – Leonardo da Vinci

The Obedience of the Individual

One of the most public forms of conformity is obedience. This is when a person alters their behavior in order to obey another. Most of the time, this “another” appears in the form of authority. ⁹

Obedience does not involve private opinion. A person can still have different beliefs than the authority, but follow through with the desired behavior of said authority.

In common day life, we often see obedience appear in hierarchical relations. For example, a child is expected to obey their parents or a soldier is expected to take commands from their superior officer.

More often than not, people obey primarily out of fear of consequences. The child is afraid of being grounded whereas the soldier is afraid of being prosecuted.

The Power of Obedience

In many regards, obedience can be a fundamental way to keep order within a society. Yet, at the same time, it can also be used to promote chaos.

There is no better example than Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s testimony during the Nuremberg trials. In question as to why he willingly participated in war crimes which led to the Holocaust, he responded that he was simply following orders of higher-ranking officers.

This struck the curiosity of Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist. Milgram wanted to know how an individual could obey orders even when such actions led to such enormity.

In order to observe this psychological mystery, he conducted a study where participants were asked to play the role of a teacher. Each teacher was given a set of controls that allowed him/her to administer electric shocks to the learner. ¹⁰

Teachers were told to punish the learner only when they gave an incorrect answer. They also had the ability to adjust the level of shock they gave.

Of course, not every teacher felt encouraged to administer shock upon a student who didn’t know the right answer. Though, some were intrigued by the authority it gave them.

What Milgram concluded was participants all obeyed the teachers in order to avoid being shocked. However, each participant obedience varied depending on a number of factors.

The first was how much they perceived the teacher as an authority figure. One with less authoritative qualities (i.e. confidence, decisiveness, and persuasiveness) were less likely to gain obedience.

Secondly, there were situational factors that played a role. For instance, there were varying levels of morality between participants. It was also discovered that the environment a participant found themselves in also had an influence on their conduct.

Milgram’s Agency Theory

In 1974, Milgram offered what he termed “Agency Theory” as a means of explaining the tendencies individuals feel when obeying authority. This theory claimed that an individual is most likely in one of the following two states at any given moment: ¹¹

  • Agentic State – when an individual perceives someone else to be in a position of authority, they’ll obey whatever orders this figure initiates. In many regards, the individual is acting as an “agent” on behalf of the authority figure. If the individual eventually perceives that the behavior s/he is conducting is a mistake, then they’ll place blame on the authority rather than feeling guilty him/herself.
  • Autonomous State – an individual who feels his/her behavior is a product entirely developed by their own beliefs and responsibilities. If this individual makes a mistake, they tend to feel guilt and regret for their actions.

It’s important to note that these two states are interchangeable. For example, if a person feels as though the authority figure will take full responsible for any mistakes that may occur, they can quickly switch from an autonomous state to an agentic state. Milgram considered this an “agentic shift.”

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” – Henry David Thoreau

What Makes Us Conform?

There are a number of factors leading to the reasons as to why we conform. These include:

  • The Size of the Majority – Most psychologists have come to the conclusion that conformity is more likely to happen when the size of the majority increases.
  • Cultural Influences – Many cultures will have different influences when it comes to conformity. This is primarily based on whether the society believes in individualism or collectivism. For example, in places such as the United States or United Kingdom, where individualism is valued, conformity is lower.
  • The Difficulty of a Task – If a person finds a task to daunting to complete on their own, they are more likely to conform to a group that will help perform this said task.
  • Unanimity – Within conformity, there is usually a voice of reason. If every member of the group agrees to an opinion, then they will conform. However, if even just one person disagrees, there’s a likely chance other members will start to conduct themselves more independently.

Of course, these aren’t the only factors that play a role in conformity. There are a number of traits such as an individual’s personality, the persuasiveness of the authority figure, and the overall goal of a particular group that can play a role.

Final Word

The brain is one of the most complicated machines and psychologists consistently find more and more about it each day. Though we have a very good idea of how conformity works and how a society impacts individual behaviors, we don’t know everything.

The purpose of this article was simply to give you a basic idea of how your psychology is influenced by authority.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning what society’s impacts on individual behaviors could be?

We invite you to ask these questions in the comments section below. If you have any further information you’d like to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ American Psychological Association: The pain of social rejection

² The Royal Society Publishing: Culture and the evolution of human cooperation

³ Brookings: The Danger of Groupthink

⁴ Cornell University: Autokinetic effects and Social Norms

⁵ Social science & medicine (1982): Understanding the sources of normative influence on behavior: The example of tobacco

⁶ Consciousness and Cognition: Quantifying compliance and acceptance through public and private social conformity

⁷ Babson: Asch, S.E., Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgements.

⁸ Harvard University: Compliance, identification, and internalization: Three processes of attitude change

⁹ McCombs School of Business: Obedience to Authority

¹⁰ frontiers in Psychology: Beliefs about Obedience Levels in Studies Conducted within the Milgram Paradigm

¹¹ UNCP: CommonLit: The Milgram Experiment

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