Being Human. Chapter 7: Processes Of Social Influence: Conformity, Compliance And Obedience

Now imagine the following graduation exercises at a typical North American university. They were designed to create a memorable occasion with the aid of majestic music, ritual words of graduation, and students being uniformed in their academic regalia. It is also, to the social psychologist, an opportunity to observe the forces of social influence up close. Somehow, some 4,500 students from the Oregon state University in Corvallis, Oregon, manage to have their individual degrees delivered with an almost factory like efficiency that perhaps represents best U.S. society. At the same time, the faculty are dressed in their medieval academic regalia, and are without doubt authority figures to many. Students obey directions, even standing up to two hours in line. The students line up in a particular order and conform to the requests, which determines the sequence in which they receive their prized document. Then they follow in majestic formation the Scottish band that precedes the parade through the university campus. When all are seated in the university stadium, with the president, deans, and honored guests on the podium, the ceremonies begins. There are places for the audience to participate. Standing up for the national anthem produces universal conformity. The students and faculty also know that women may keep their hats on, while men, with one exception, bare their heads. There is also time to graduate military officers with a holy oath to defend the country from all enemies, foreign or domestic. This is followed by a roaring display of approval from the tens of thousands of family and friends. The applause from students and faculty is nearly universal. However, the individual who does not bare his head during the anthem evidently does not approve of the military and may be observed sitting with his hands folded. Several of his neighbors now apparently feel the same way, as they also refrain from clapping. A minority of one seems to have influenced the behavior of those who can observe his nonconformist behavior. Then the alma mater is sung where the audience pretends to be in love with a non-personal entity, the university. Here the president and deans outdo themselves in demonstrating their fidelity to the institution even though many are relatively new to the university and must quickly have adopted these new feelings.
Could you imagine such a ceremony in for example a random Norwegian or Dutch university?

The above-sketched picture illustrates some of the processes of social influence, the subject of this chapter. In described situation we can observe people comply with the requests of authority figures, being persuaded by the audience to stand at various times, take their hats on and off, yell their approval of the military. The experience reflected informational conformity, for example responding to the need to know where to stand in the line. It also reflected normative conformity as in the universal rising for the anthem. Not one person refused to do that so the national anthem must have exerted a great deal of social pressure. The graduation ceremony also demonstrated obedience to authority, reinforced by the status of those leading the events, and academic gowns with symbols of status, authority, and expertise.

None were hurt by the conformity on display. Everyone obtained his/her degree in an efficient manner. Of course they all would anyway whether they participated or not, since they had completed the requirements for graduation before the ceremony. Still, other than the mindlessness it promoted, there was no real harm done. Some might even have benefited in participating. To have public recognition of achievement is experienced as very rewarding by many.

Not all conformity has such beneficial results, as we shall see. Were those who participated in the massacre at My Lai (Vietnam) only following orders? Or were the war criminals at Nuremberg excused by their obedience, in particular Adolf Eichman? The past century has been marked as a time of cruel and repeated genocides. We saw this cruel obedience in Cambodia, we saw it in Bosnia, and we saw it again in Rwanda. And now the same cruelty is being played out in the Darfur region of Sudan in Africa, and countless other places. Are people really that cruel? Is it in human nature to behave in such manifest barbaric ways?

In the US they say, “you have to go along to get along” indicating that conformity is essential to successful social functioning. Often conformity is of the type manifested at the graduation ceremony where people are told in indirect or more or less subtle ways as to what is appropriate behavior. At other times people are commanded to obey by those who have the appearance of legitimate authority. In fact all genocides appeal to and are sanctioned by the authority and ideology of the prevailing society. Usually there is preparatory indoctrination that allows the participant to feel that the genocide is justified and the right thing to do.

In this chapter we shall examine the whole range of social influence, from that which is an expression of social solidarity to those behaviors that reflect destructive ideology and obedience to evil demands. Are people who participate in evil just evil people? Or is it within the capacity of most people to behave in cruel ways? Is obedience to inhuman demands a consequence of unleashing the evil in all of us, a consequence of being human and therefore normal? To what extent does the power of the situation define whether we follow or not the slippery slope to participation. Social psychology has some answers. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 8: Persuasion

Nearly all human interactions involve some form of persuasion. Parents urge their children to study hard, children will ask parents for favors. Medical doctors recommend life styles that prolong life and your dentist tells you that brushing your teeth may prevent tooth decay. Turn on your television and you are bombarded with persuasive messages from a variety of companies that want you to buy their products. Everywhere we are pestered with persuasive messages trying to convince us of the value of the product and company. You see ads in the newspapers, hear them on television and the radio, and see posters in a variety of locations. Some companies operate in more subtle ways by sponsoring educational television, or having their logo displayed at sporting events.

Sometimes there are public service announcements urging people to stop smoking to avoid cancer. Other efforts at persuasion seek to stop the use of illegal drugs among the young. Some of these public persuasion efforts in the United States have achieved measured success and produced a considerable reduction in numbers of college students who use marijuana (from 50% to 21 %). Other education efforts helped reduce smoking in the US, which plunged dramatically since 1954 from 45 percent to 28 percent (Gallup, 1989). In recent years moreover we have been made aware of the destruction of our environment as a consequence of global warming and many are personally motivated to improve energy efficiency.

In the evening news, government officials make appearances and try to convince citizens that they are pursuing wise policies. During elections people are persuaded to vote certain ways, often in brief messages that extol the virtues of the candidate. In the US, political communications also denigrate the opponent in stereotypical ways by associating the candidate with negative images.

If we examine history we can also observe the persuasive efforts of political and social movements. Hitler thought persuasion important enough to have a cabinet post for a minister of propaganda. The Nazi’s had little respect for the average person’s ability to utilize factual evidence, and therefore made emotional appeals in a variety of ways. Goebbels, the propaganda minister, controlled all the media and produced vivid persuasive displays of national and party solidarity that depicted marches and other pageantry. Movies produced in the Nazi era extolled the German people and denigrated those considered subhumans. Many other propagandists were at work persuading the German people about the correctness of Nazi ideology, and judging from the historical events, these efforts were successful. When the outcome sought involves the manipulation of people in pursuit of one-sided and bigoted political goals, we describe these efforts as propaganda.

We live in a world of constant persuasion, no wonder that social psychologists undertook systematic studies of persuasion early in the historical development of our discipline. Persuasion may be either positive or negative depending on whether it is aimed at empowering and educating people, or is being used to manipulate for bigoted and destructive goals. The so-called Yale School of Communication completed the first systematic social psychological study on persuasion (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). These researchers conducted many experiments that sought to understand what conditions were most likely to produce persuasion. The researchers in the Yale school sought to study communication in a paradigm where the influence examined is exerted by someone (who) that is communicating a message (what) to a target audience (whom). Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 9: Hostile Inter-Group Behavior: Prejudice, Stereotypes, And Discrimination

Prejudice is a common attitude in all cultures and societies. We only have to look at the headlines of a daily newspaper to see the dimensions of destructive behavior as a consequence of prejudice. Recent history has seen the liquidation of millions of people as these victims were dehumanized by prejudice allowing for their annihilation. In Europe we thought that after the massacre of the Second World War people would have learned the sad and terrible lessons of prejudice. However, since then we have seen the destructions of thousands of people in former Yugoslavia where Christians killed Muslims and vice versa.

Some group differences may be important, but most stereotypes underlying these killings are based on myths of no real consequence in truth. Religion rather than being the great unifier has provided the ideology for killing regardless of culture and society. In India and Pakistan, Hindus are pitted against Muslims. In Palestine those who identify with Jewish ancestral myths are pitted against those who believe in Muhammad. In Rwanda the ethnic Hutu’s are against the Tutsi’s. The list goes on and on, encompassing all societies.

The Vietnamese have reservations about the Chinese, the Chinese think ill of the Japanese. Can you think of any society which does not display negative feelings toward other ethnic or national groups? Do you remember the conflicts in East Timor, the continued struggle in Kashmir (Hindus versus Muslims), in Sri Lanka (Muslims versus Buddhist), the struggle in Northern Ireland within a single religion (Protestants versus Catholics), and Iraq (Shia versus Sunni)? All these examples demonstrate intergroup enmity as a prominent and decisive element of the human condition.

Within society, there is also prejudice. Many, if not most societies, display gender prejudice against females. Under China’s one child policy, more boys are born than girls. One result is the presence of many lonely men when the sexes grow into adulthood. In India parents seek to know the sex of a prospective child, and female fetuses are often aborted. Unequal salaries between the two genders continue for equal work in many societies. In the western world we also observe prejudice toward those who do not fit ideal body images. Fat people are viewed negatively, and unhealthy thin body forms are promoted as we have seen in chapter 3.

All minorities are subject to some prejudice. The US has is a long and distressing history of prejudice toward ethnic nationalities and minorities. The prejudice toward the native (Indian) population initially led to attempts to use them as slaves. When they proved unsuitable for that, native societies were largely destroyed and survivors placed in controlled reservations. The long and painful history of slavery in the US is known to all. This ended only with the civil war in 1865. The legislation which followed ensured that black people were kept segregated in inferior status and allowed for their continued exploitation. Only in the 1960s did the civil rights movement put an end to the worst visible forms of discrimination in our society. However, even today Black people continue to bear the consequences of a prejudicial society. Poverty, poor housing, disease, and crime continue to afflict those who live in America’s racial ghettos. Similar results of prejudice can be found in other nations which also have produced divided and segregated communities.

The presence of prejudice can also be observed in the many derogatory terms used against nationalities in the US. Hispanics are called spics, greasers, or wetbacks; Asians are described with words like slants, slopes, chinks, or japs; Blacks are called niggers, coons, jigaboos, or jungle bunnies; Germans are stereotyped as krauts, and Italians, as wops or dagoes. During the war on Vietnam, the Vietnamese were called gooks by the American soldiers. These terms are all pejorative words used to denigrate the human value of these national groups. Together these words serve the cause of prejudice by increasing social distance between groups and thereby allowing for the brutalities. Every society can find similar prejudice toward their ethnic and social minority groups.

Not only minority groups are targeted, the dominant groups are also subject to prejudicial distortion. Prejudice is indeed a two way street, where any group can be subject to common ignorance. Today the US is still dominant in the world. However, Americans are also subject to prejudice (Campbell, 1967). Americans are seen by the British to be pushy and excessively patriotic. Some of these stereotypic views are very resistant to change, as certain views have been present for several centuries (Schama, 2003). The prevalence of prejudice suggests that it is part of the human condition. Is that true? If true, we could do little to change the conditions of hostility in the world. As we shall see, prejudice is complex, but is largely learned and can therefore be unlearned.

With the complexity of human behavior, we are not likely to find any one theory or set of principles that can explain all causes of prejudice. Why is it present in every society? What can be done to ameliorate the effects of intergroup hostility? These are questions that will be addressed in this chapter. As we noted, prejudice is an attitude. Elsewhere we have noted that attitudes have affective, cognitive, and behavioral components. Larsen (1971a) demonstrated the importance of both the affective and cognitive components in making social judgments. These three components are also found in prejudicial attitudes. We call the affective component prejudice, the cognitive component which sustains the attitude is a stereotype, and the behavioral component is discrimination manifested toward the target group. Often the three components are just referred to in the social psychological literature by the inclusive term “prejudice”. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 10: Aggression: The Common Thread Of Humanity

Not a day passes without reminders of the violent world in which we live. Pick up a newspaper on any given day and you will see multiple reports of aggression at the interpersonal as well as at group or international levels. Wars continue despite efforts to make the First World War the “war to end all wars”. Genocide is committed as we write these lines in Darfur and other regions of the world despite all protestations of “never again”. It is not possible to live insulated lives as violence affects individuals, families, communities, the nation, and the international system.

Many people are keenly aware of the misery caused by aggression and are trying to change political systems to ameliorate the consequences. Thousands of Americans and Europeans have moved their protests to the streets angered by the apparent indifference of politicians in bringing the current wars, like in Iraq and the Middle-East, to an end. Today’s paper also reports on the racism (see also chapter 9) that still lurks in our societies, on school children being killed in Thailand, on plans to introduce new missile systems in Poland with radar support in the Czech republic. The Palestinians have not yet come together in a unity government and see their efforts dismissed by Israel, another chapter in that ongoing conflict. Elsewhere the police has unraveled a drug smuggling gang and found, along with money and drugs, many guns. As you read this chapter today it is probably but an average day of continued violence in the world.

Aggression stimuli can be found not only in the media, but now also consumes significant space in the ever-growing Internet. The content of violent pornography is related to violence, as we shall see later in this chapter. Video games are often vivid depictions of massive and terrible violence. Some researchers have related these stimuli to real life aggression, facilitated by the ease of obtaining guns, particularly in the United States. Daily television programming yields numerous violent episodes with nonchalant killing at the center of the action. Violent movies sell, and based on the results of social learning theory, they must have an effect on impressionable audiences.

Unlike in European countries that are less violent tens of thousands of people are murdered each year in United States. However, not only in the U.S. do we observe the phenomena of school killings, or men attacking others at their workplace. In recent years it has also happened in Germany and in The Netherlands, but with less frequency and scale compared to the US. At Columbine High School in 1999 two students turned guns and explosives on fellow students in an attack that costs several innocent lives. Their actions were an example of anger-based aggression as they went to their school with the intent and determination to hurt fellow students and staff. Similar episodes have occurred in other states (Newman, Fox, Harding, Metha, & Roth, 2004). Recently (April 16th, 2007) a 23-year old student in Virginia killed 32 people and wounded 25 others before he took his own life. A similar act of violence happened on November 7th, 2007, in Tuusula (Finland). An 18-year-old shot seven students and the headmistress inside his high school in southern Finland, before turning the gun on himself. He, calling himself Sturmgeist89’, published a manifesto online on youtube demanding war on the “weak-minded masses” and pledged to die for his cause.

The difference in violence between Europe and the United States suggests the importance of cultural values. Some societies are more acceptant of violence whereas other countries have built into social inhibitions and control of aggression cues. The stimuli of guns in many homes in America, and their indifferent use in the media, are not independent of the actual violence in society.

Daily news also provides many sad examples of more intimate violence. Child abuse is common, as are other forms of domestic violence often associated with drug and alcohol use. The fact that societies have created centers where women can escape violence speaks volumes about the prevalence of family aggression and intimate violence. Rape centers present everywhere in the Western world, also point to the prevalence of aggression in society.

Since violence is everywhere in human society and in the animal world, is there an evolutionary basis for aggression? Do we still have these biological components present in our genetic coding? Yet, the behaviors that had a survival function in our common early history are today dysfunctional. Predisposition to aggress may kill us one-by-one, or we may all die in the feared nuclear cataclysm of the future. We should remind ourselves that the carnivorous dinosaurs of the past are all gone. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 11: Altruism And Prosocial Behavior

In 1964 a shocking incident occurred in New York City that caused distress and concern among social psychologists. A young woman, Kitty Genovese, was walking to her home when a stalker attacked her. What was especially distressing was that she was stabbed repeatedly over a 35-minute time span while crying out for help. It was not as if no one heard her cries. According to several news reports in the days that followed she died while 38 of her neighbors saw the attack and did nothing. They watched the attack unfold from windows above the street and the only intervention occurred when someone yelled, “leave that girl alone”, at which point the attacker left temporarily. However, after a short interval the attacker returned and stabbed her 8 more times, sexually assaulted her, and left her for dead. When finally police were called, there was nothing that could be done as Kitty had died.

When the neighbors were later interviewed and asked why they did not intervene, some indicated that they felt no personal responsibility to help, whereas others misconstrued the situation as one that did not require intervention. Although recent research indicates that the news reports had not been quite correct about every detail of this incidence (Manning, Levine & Collins, 2007), more importantly social psychologists were motivated by the news stories about this crime to try to understand what caused such indifference to suffering. In a more positive sense it also led to the desire to know why on the other hand some bystanders in other situations do display concern and intervene in order to help (Darley & Latane, 1968). We will come back to this research later in this chapter.

When September 11, 2001 came to New York, we saw this different side of the human nature, a desire to help and intervene. That day close to 3,000 people died in a massive attack on the World Trade Center. However, there were also hundreds of people who died trying to help these victims and in the process sacrificed their own lives (Lee, 2001). Most of the people who displayed extraordinary courage and selfless behavior on that day were ordinary people just like those who decided not to help Kitty Genovese. The helpers were average human beings who found themselves faced with an extraordinary situation that demanded their attention. Most of the workers in the building did the natural thing and fled to safety. However, there were some who stayed behind and helped the physically handicapped, there were those workers who saw to it that others were led to safety first, and there were hundreds of firefighters who lost their lives trying to save others (Stewart, 2002).

In both of these incidents the possibility of behaving in altruistic and helping ways presented itself. Why did those who watched Kitty Genovese die not help? Why did altruistic heroes arise out of the catastrophe at the World Trade Center? These and other issues dealing with altruistic and prosocial behavior will be addressed in this chapter. Human history shows the selfish and dark side of humanity, but also records people who are willing to sacrifice even their lives to help those in need. For social psychologists these anecdotal examples create questions as to whether willingness to help has a basic genetic component, or whether it is a consequence of learning. Is there such a thing as a pure altruistic motive in helping people or are all such behaviors at least partly motivated by self-interests? Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 12: Morality: Competition, Justice And Cooperation

As we watch the news each day, and interact with others in society, our sense of right and wrong may often be aroused. There is a great deal of evidence in social psychology pointing to the negative effects of selfish and unbridled competition. People at times express extreme egoism in their behavior to the detriment of others, and the remedy may require legal sanctions. Fortunately, as we saw in the last chapter there are also people who seek to act in cooperative ways, and try to reconcile people in conflict. Conflict situations often call for moral judgment. What is right and wrong in the dispute and where is the common ground? Do you approve of murder as long as it is your enemy? How about killing in a just war as you have defined it? What about infanticide where illness or lack of resources makes the future seem impossible for the child? How about assisted suicide for the hopelessly ill? These issues and many other challenges all require moral judgment.

Perhaps you have taken note of how people live in other countries and cultures. Some behaviors like polygamy or polyandry may strike you as odd, but do they also require moral judgment? In that case we can see that moral judgment is not universally similar as social conventions vary on marriage and other social practices in different cultures. How about a situation where parents deliberatively starve their children to death? Is that universally rejected, do you think people find that acceptable in any culture? Deliberate killing of children is probably not acceptable in modern societies, so there is also evidence for some universality of moral judgment.

1. Moral judgment and culture
How we define morality is of primary concern in moral judgment. What do we use to guide our thinking as we make judgment about right or wrong, good or bad? People rely on guides to live a life that is ethically acceptable. Some people use religious or humanistic scripture to make moral choices. Others believe they hear a little internal voice that warns them of moral compromise. Ethical principles determine a great deal of social behavior, from the paying of money owed to the election of government leaders and political parties. Moral judgment is central in the so-called war on terrorism. It has influenced both sides in the war on their attitudes toward killing and who might be considered innocent parties to the conflict. One side thinks that there are no innocent “infidels”; the other side defines all military opposition as terrorism. Nevertheless both positions are moral judgments based on ethics, which are derived from custom, religion, and social categorization.

1.1 Defining moral behavior
Morality is defined as the principles that guides our lives and which we use in making judgments about the behavior of others (Haidt, 2001). In a broader sense morality is what we consider ideal the utopian society that we hope for in the future. Moral principles incur obligations on us, and to a large extent determine our behavior toward self and others. Moral principles in society generally apply to all people. We would consider it hypocritical to tell our children to behave in a certain moral way, if we ourselves do not practice the same ethical principle. Likewise for a country if the morality of a society calls for peaceful relations with others it is hypocritical to carry unprovoked war to the shore of other nations. Moral principles are inclusive applying to everyone within the group, be it religious, nation, or other society. Human behavior is far from perfect, and we all violate moral obligations at times. Society, for instance, imposes a requirement not to steal from others in the community. If a member of the community violates this obligation society imposes sanctions. Sanctions vary widely in various cultures from a figuratively slap on the wrist to actually cutting off the offending hand in some Middle Eastern societies. Like in China, many states in the U.S. still have capital punishment for some crimes. Read more

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