Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

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If someone in a position of authority told you to like, stop walking on the grass, you
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would stop walking on the grass, right? And if they told you to help someone’s grandma
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cross the street, or pick up your dog’s poop, or put your shoes on before you go into a
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store, you’d probably comply.
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But what if they ordered you to physically hurt another person? You’re probably thinking
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“No way! I could never do something like that.” But there’s a good chance you’re wrong.
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In the early 1960s, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began what would become one
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of social psychology’s most famed and chilling experiments.
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Milgram began his work during the widely publicized trial of World War II Nazi war criminal Adolf
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Eichmann. Eichmann’s defense, along with other Nazis’, for sending millions of people to
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their deaths, was that he was simply following the orders of his superiors. And while that
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may have been true, it didn’t fly in court and Eichmann was ultimately executed for his
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crimes. But the question got Milgram to thinking, what might the average person be capable of
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when under orders?
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So, for his initial experiment, Milgram recruited forty male volunteers using newspaper ads.
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He built a phony “shock generator” with a scale of thirty switches that could supposedly
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deliver shocks in increments from 30 volts up to 450 volts, labeled with terms like “slight
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shock” to “dangerous shock” up to simply “XXX.” He then paired each volunteer participant
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with someone who was also apparently a participant, but was in fact one of Milgram’s colleagues,
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posing as a research subject. He had them draw straws to see who would be the “learner”
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and who would be the “teacher.” The volunteers didn’t realize that the draw was fixed so
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that they’d always be the teacher, while Milgram’s buddy would be the learner. So the fake learner
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was put into a room, strapped to a chair, and wired up with electrodes. The teacher,
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the person who was being studied, and a researcher who was played by an actor, went into another
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room with a shock generator that the teacher had no idea was fake.
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The learner was asked to memorize a list of word pairs, and the participant was told that he’d
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be testing the learner’s recall of those words and should administer an electric shock for
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every wrong answer, increasing the shock level a little bit each time. From here, the pretend learner
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purposely gave mainly wrong answers, eliciting shocks from the participant. If a participant
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hesitated, perhaps swayed by the learner’s yelps of pain, the researcher gave orders
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to make sure he continued. These orders were delivered in a series of four prods.
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The first was just “Please continue,” and if the participant didn’t comply, the researcher
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issued other prods until he did. He’d say “The experiment requires you to continue”
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and then “It’s absolutely essential that you continue” and finally “You have no choice but to continue.”
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Even Milgram was surprised by the first round of experiments. About two-thirds of the participants
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ended up delivering the maximum 450 volt shock. All of the volunteers continued to at least
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300 volts. Over years, Milgram kept conducting this experiment, changing the situation in
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different ways to see if it had any effect on people’s obedience. What he repeatedly
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found was that obedience was highest when the person giving the orders was nearby and
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was perceived as an authority figure, especially if they were from a prestigious institution.
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This was also true if the victim was depersonalized, or placed at a distance such as in another
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room. Plus, subjects were more likely to comply with the orders if they didn’t see anyone
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else disobeying, if there were no role models of defiance.
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In the end, Milgram’s path-breaking work sheds some seriously harsh light on the enormous
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power of two of the key cornerstone topics of social psychology: social influence and
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We all conform to some sort of social norms, like following traffic laws or even obeying
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the dress codes for different roles and environments. When we know how to act in a certain group
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or setting, life just seems to go more smoothly. Some of this conformity is non-conscious automatic
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mimicry, like how you’re likely to laugh if you see someone else laughing or nod your
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head when they’re nodding. In this way, group behavior can be contagious.
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But overall, conformity describes how we adjust our behavior or thinking to follow the behavior
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or rules of the group we belong to. Social psychologists have always been curious about
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the degree to which a person might follow or rebel against their group’s social norms.
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During the early 1950s, Polish-American psychologist Solomon Ash expressed the power of conformity
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through a simple test.
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In this experiment, the volunteer is told that they’re participating in a study on visual
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perception and is seated at a table with five other people. The experimenter shows the group
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a picture of a standard line and three comparison lines of various lengths, and then asked the
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people to say which of the three lines matches the comparison line. It’s clear to anyone
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with any kind of good vision that the second line is the right answer, but the thing is,
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most, if not all of the other people in the group start choosing the wrong line. The participant
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doesn’t know that those other people are all actors, a common deception used in social-psychological
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research, and they’re intentionally giving the wrong answer. This causes the real participant
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to struggle with trusting their own eyes or going with the group.
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In the end most subjects still gave what they knew was the correct answer, but more than
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a third were essentially just willing to give the wrong answer to mesh with the group. Ash,
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and subsequent researchers, found that people are more likely to conform to a group if they’re
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made to feel incompetent or insecure and are in a group of three or more people, especially
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if all those people agree. It also certainly doesn’t hurt if the person admires the group
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because of maybe their status or their attractiveness, and if they feel that others are watching their behavior.
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We also tend to conform more if we’re from a culture that puts particular emphasis on
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respect for social standards. This might sound a little bit familiar, like, all of high school,
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fraternities or sororities, the big company you work for, or any other group that you’ve ever been a part of.
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The classic experiments of Milgram and Ash showed us that people conform for lots of
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different reasons, but they both underscored the power of situation in conformity – whether
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that situation elicits respect for authority, fear of being different, fear of rejection,
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or simply a desire for approval. This is known as normative social influence, the idea that
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we comply in order to fuel our need to be liked or belong.
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But, of course, groups influence our behavior in more ways than just conformity and obedience.
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For example, we may perform better or worse in front of a group. This is called social
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facilitation and it’s what might, say, help you sprint the last hundred meters of a race
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if people are cheering you on, but it’s also what can make you nervous enough to forget
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the words to that poetry you were supposed to be slamming in front of a crowd.
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But that’s what can happen in front of a group, what happens when you’re actually part of
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a group? Do you work harder or start slacking? One study found that if you blindfold students,
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hand them a rope and tell them to pull as hard as they can in a game of tug-of-war,
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the subjects will put in less work if they think they’re part of the team instead of
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pulling by themselves. About 20% less, it turns out. This tendency to exert less effort
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when you’re not individually accountable is called social loafing. That’s pretty good.
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You can now add the word “loafing” to your scientific vocabulary.
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But a group’s ability to either arouse or lessen our feelings of personal responsibility
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can make us do more dangerous things than just phone in some group homework assignment.
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It can also lead to deindividuation, the loss of self-awareness and restraint that can occur
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in group situations. Being part of a crowd can create a powerful combination of arousal
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and anonymity; it’s part of what fuels riots and lynch mobs and online trolling. The less
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individual we feel, the more we’re at the mercy of the experience of our group, whether
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it’s good or bad.
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And it should come as no surprise that the attitudes and beliefs we bring to a group
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grow stronger when we talk with others who share them. This is a process psychologists
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know as group polarization, and it often translates into a nasty “us” vs “them” dynamic.
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And you know what is great at polarizing groups? The internet. The internet has made it easier
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than ever to connect like-minded people and magnify their inclinations. This can of course
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breed haters, like racists may become more racist in the absence of conflicting viewpoints,
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but it can, and often does, work for good, promoting education, crowd-sourcing things
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like fundraising, and organizing people to fight all kinds of worldsuck.
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And group dynamics can not only affect our personal decisions, they can also influence
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really big decisions on a larger, even national scale. Groupthink is a term coined by social
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psychologist Irving Janis, to describe what happens when a group makes bad decisions because
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they’re too caught up in the unique internal logic of their group. When a group gets wrapped
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up in itself and everyone agrees with each other, no one stops to think about other perspectives.
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As a result, you get some big and bad ideas, including some enormous historical fiascoes,
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like the Watergate cover-up and the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Chernobyl nuclear reactor
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accident. So while two heads may often be better than one, it’s important to make sure
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those heads are still open to different opinions or they could do some really dumb stuff.
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In the end, it’s best to understand ourselves and our decisions as informed simultaneously
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by both individual and group factors, personality, and situation. And don’t get too freaked out
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about what people are capable of; I mean, just think back to Milgram’s experiment. For
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the two-thirds of us who would shock someone to death in the right circumstance, there’s
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another third who wouldn’t, reminding us that while group behavior is powerful, so is individual choice.
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Today you learned about the power of social influence, conformity, and authority. We looked
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at the shocking results of the famous Milgram experiment, the concept of automatic mimicry,
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and how Solomon Ash proved the power of conformity in situation. You also learned how normative
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social influence sways us, how social facilitation can make or break your performance and how
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social loafing makes people lazy in a group. And finally, we discussed how harmful deindividuation,
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group polarization, and groupthink can be.
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Thank you for watching, especially to all of our Subbable subscribers who make Crash
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Course possible for themselves, and for everyone else. To find out how you can become a supporter,
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just go to subbable.com
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This episode was written by Kathleen Yale, edited by Blake de Pastino, and our consultant
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is Dr. Ranjit Bhagwat. Our director and editor is Nicholas Jenkins, the script supervisor
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is Michael Aranda, who is also our sound designer, and the graphics team is Thought Cafe.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video.