The human psyche is ingrained with a desire to be right and to be liked by our peers and one way in which to achieve this state is to follow the example of the larger group. In a conformity study conducted Sherif in 1935, participants were subjected to a perceptual illusion in which a small light on a backdrop of darkness appears to be in a state of movement when it actually is not. The participants were asked to observe the light and examine how far it had moved.
When when tested individually, the answers the participants gave varied widely but when they were placed in groups with one another, the estimates they gave quickly merged into a spectrum more aligned with that of others in the group. When placed into the same individual test, the subjects still reverted to the estimates which conformed with the groups and when asked if they had been influenced by the groups answers in any way, they claimed repeatedly that they had not. The same result to a greater degree of poignancy was achieved by Asch in a study of Opinions and Social Pressure in 1951.
The experiment consisted of 18 trials in which the participants had to look at a piece of paper in which there was a standard line and three other lines of varying length and to determine which line of the three was the same length as the standard line. In each group there was only one real paricipant and the rest were instructed by the experimenter to give obviously wrong answers on 12 out of the 18 trials which took place.
The seating was arranged so that the real participant was the last one to answer. A second group was tasked with taking the test individually. The results of the test showed that on 32% of tests in which the participants had given the wrong answer, the real participant had agreed with them. 74% of participants conformed at least once and, 26% did not conform at all while 5% conformed with every wrong answer.
From the above situations, it is very clear that conformity is a desire to be accepted and liked among a group. If the participants were clear on an answer and saw that the rest of the group was incorrect, they may have been forced to conform by a desire not to be the only one correct in the entire group. They could have feared that they would be looked upon with distaste if they were the only one to provide a correct answer within a group.
Also, if the participants were not clear as to the answer, they could possibly have reasoned with themselves that even though they were wrong, they would not be the only one getting the answer incorrect. If there was some sort of reprisal it would not only be them who received some form of punishment but the rest of the group as well. These desires are also reflected in everyday life: people conform to a fashion as they do not wish to be singled out by dressing differently or they may act in a certain way to avoid being perceived as different when they do not desire it. It even occurs in those who profess to be individuals: they still conform to the habits, appearance and actions of other so called individuals.
Just like conformity, obedience also plays a large and essential part in todays society as people obey authority figures in everyday life police officers, teachers, bosses at work and so on. However, past research and history has shown that the human desire to obey orders can have very sinister consequences. Throughtout history, there have been incidents of people inflicting pain and suffering upon other human beings because they were obeying the orders of someone in a position of authority.
From the horrific acts commited by various Nazis during World War II as well as the more recent incidents against P.O.W.s in Iraq, the human mind has shown that it is vulnerable to the instructions passed down by an authoritative figure. In the Behavioural Study Of Obedience by Milgram in 1963, a group of ordinary Americans were tested to see if they would obey the instructions of someone in authority to inflict pain on a complete stranger. The participants were put in groups of two by an experimenter and then were given either teacher or learner roles (the real participants were always given teacher roles while the participants put in by the researchers were always learners).
The learner then had to go and sit in a chair attached to wires carrying (fake the learner was acting) voltages ranging from 15 to 450 Volts. The teacher then asked the learner a series of questions from an adjacent room, the learner visible through a glass screen, and if the learner gave the wrong answer the teacher would be seen to shock him. As the experiment progressed, the shocks were increased by 15 Volts for every wrong answer and the learner protested visibly at every shock.
At 180 Volts, the learner would claim he couldnt take the pain anymore. At 300 Volts he would scream and claim his heart was causing him problems. At 320 Volts the learner proceeded to thump repeatedly against the wall and refused to answer anymore questions. Some of the participants in the experiment were not given any instructions by the researcher that it was imperative that the experiment continue all of these people stopped shocking at a very low voltage.
However, all of the participants who were told to do so continued giving shocks up to 300 Volts and 65% continued to give shocks up to the 450 Volt level (which was marked as Danger: Severe Shock). Another experiment which mirrors the results of the above is that conducted by Hofling et al in 1996 in a hospital. A nurse on night duty would be telephoned by someone claiming to be a doctor responsible for a certain patient. Then, the nurse would be asked to check the medicine cabinet for a drug before being instructed to administer twice the allowed dosage to the patient. 95% of the nurses obeyed the instruction and were about to administer the drug before they were stopped by a hidden observer.
As these experiments show, its clear that people easily obey commands set before them by an authority figure. It is said that the situation at the time determines the obedience level of a person who is given an instruction: in a situation where the authority figure is respected, trusted and well known, people will be more ready to obey an instruction set before them. Another factor in determining obedience will be the personality and past experiences of the person in question.
In an investigation by Miale and Selzer in 1975, it was seen that the majority of Nazi war criminals were shown by the Rorschah tests to be characterised as having tendencies toward violence, depression, a rejection of responsibility, an absence of guilt for others and a concern for their personal status. Other aspects which may create an authoritarian personality is their upbringing they may have been neglected or subject to a very strict childhood. From the above, it is clear that conformity and obedience are double edged swords in their relation to society. On one hand, they are what makes our society work in a civilised and efficient manner but on the other, they can be adapted to suit the needs of individuals with a much more sinister purpose.