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Chapter 7 Influencing and Conforming

Death by Alcohol

Sam Spady.

Sam Spady had it all. During her high school years she was not only homecoming queen but also an honor student, as well as class president. As a 19-year-old college student at Colorado State University, Spady had many dreams for her future, all of which never materialized, as she died on September 5, 2004, after hours of binge drinking.

Spady, who was celebrating with friends at the school’s biggest social event, consumed over 30 alcoholic beverages over a period of 11 hours and was then left at a fraternity house to sleep it off. Another student and fraternity member later discovered her body while showing his mother the house.

An estimated 1,400 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related incidents each year, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Unfortunately, things have not changed since Spady’s death. People still feel as though they’re invincible and bars are enticing students to drink by offering alcohol at inexpensive prices.

Have you ever decided what courses to take by asking for advice from your friends or by observing what courses they were choosing? Have you picked the clothes to wear to a party based on what your friends were wearing? Can you think of a time when you changed your beliefs or behaviors because a person in authority, such as a teacher or a religious or political leader, gave you ideas about new ways to think or new things to do? Or perhaps you started smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, even though you didn’t really want to, because some of your friends were doing it.

Your answers to at least some of these questions will be yes because you, like all people, are influenced by those around you. When you find yourself in situations like these, you are experiencing what is perhaps the most basic of all social psychological processes—social influenceThe processes through which other people change our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and through which we change theirs., defined as the influence of other people on our everyday thoughts, feelings, and behavior (Hogg, 2010).Hogg, M. A. (2010). Influence and leadership. In S. F. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 1166–1207). New York, NY: Wiley.

This chapter focuses on the social influence that leads individuals, sometimes against their will, to adopt and adhere to the opinions and behaviors of others. The outcome of this social influence, known as conformityThe change in beliefs, opinions, or behaviors as a result of our perceptions about what other people believe or do., refers to the change in beliefs, opinions, and behaviors as a result of our perceptions about what other people believe or do. We conform to social influence in part to meet cognitive goals of forming accurate knowledge about the world around us, for instance, by using the opinions and recommendations of others to help us make better decisions. But conformity also involves affective processes. Because we want to be liked and accepted by others, we may sometimes behave in ways that we might not really have wanted to if we had thought about them more carefully. As an example, we may we engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or alcohol abuse, simply because our friends are engaging in them.

There are many types of conformity, ranging from the simple and unconscious imitation of the other people around us to the obedience created by powerful people who have direct control over us. In this chapter we will consider both conformity and leadership, which is the ability to direct or inspire others to achieve goals. We’ll look at the potential benefits of conforming to others but also consider the costs of doing so. And we will also consider which people are most likely to conform.

Although conformity sounds like it might be a negative thing (and in some cases it is), overall the tendency to be influenced by the actions of others is an important human adaptation. Just as birds conform to the movements of those around them when they fly together in a flock, social influence among humans probably increases our fitness by helping us live and work well together (Coultas, 2004; Fincher, Thornhill, Murray, & Schaller, 2008; Henrich & Boyd, 1998; Kessler & Cohrs, 2008).Coultas, J. (2004). When in Rome…An evolutionary perspective on conformity. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 7, 317–331; Fincher, C. L., Thornhill, R., Murray, D. R., & Schaller, M. (2008). Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275, 1279–1285; Henrich, J., & Boyd, R. (1998). The evolution of conformist transmission and the emergence of between-group differences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19, 215–242; Kessler, T., & Cohrs, J. C. (2008). The evolution of authoritarian processes: Fostering cooperation in large-scale groups. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 12, 73–84. Conformity is determined by the person-situation interaction, and although the situation is extremely powerful, different people are more or less likely to conform.

As you read this chapter, keep in mind that conformity is another example of the ongoing interactive dynamic among people. Just as you are conforming to the influence that others have on you, your behavior is also influencing those others to conform to your beliefs and opinions. You may be surprised by how often these influences are occurring around you.