Independent behaviour

Resisting pressures to conform or obey

What has Asch (1957) told us about resisting pressures to conform to majority influence?

What has Milgram (1961) told us about resisting pressures to obey an authority figure?
What is independent behaviour?
Independent behaviour refers to the ability to resist pressures to conform to a majority, or resisting pressures to obey the orders given by an authority figure. It is not the same as anticonformity because anticonformists are, by actively acting in the opposite way to a majority, actually conforming themselves. A better example of independent behaviour would describe an individual who actively behaves in a way that they feel is right and that pleases them, even if their behaviour may sometimes be the same as the majority’s, or they may be a person that follows orders when they think they are justified but disobeys them when they feel that are unjustified.

Resisting pressures to conform
Lessons from Asch (1951) line experiment
The variations Asch (1951) made to his original line paradigm revealed situations in which participants were less likely to conform and more likely to behave independently:
  • Size of the majority. When the group size was reduced to just two (one confederate) there was almost zero conformity. A majority of two confederates yielded a small degree of conformity, and groups with three or more confederates produced the highest rates of conformity. This shows that in smaller groups (a majority of 2 or less) it is easier to behave independently.
  • Unanimity of the majority. Asch repeated the initial experiment but this time he instructed one of the confederates (usually the 3rd or 4th to answer) to go against the majority and give the correct answer. In this situation conformity rates dropped and the real participant was less likely to conform to the obviously incorrect answer. The presence of another group member going against the majority opinion (a dissenter) lends social support, and other group members are less likely to feel alone and are more likely to behave independently and stick to their own opinion. However, when the dissenting confederate wore glasses the reduction in conformity was less noticeable, perhaps because the opinion of a group member with eyesight difficulties was less valid in a task that required a visual judgement to be made.
  • Nature of the task. When the task was made more difficult (by making all three lines more similar to the reference line) then conformity rates increased. This shows that when a task is easy and the correct answer is obvious, individuals are more likely to stick to their guns and behave independently.

Factors that make conformity to a majority influence less likely
  • Desire to retain a sense of individuality. Sometimes we may want to be different to other people around us, to be individuals rather than members of a group. This is particularly true in Western cultures where it seems that people may feel uncomfortable if they are the same as others around them all the time. Snyder & Fromkin (1980) compared two groups of American students to see which was most likely to conform. One group were told they had attitudes that were the same as 10,000 other students, and the other group was told their attitude was very different to 10,000 other students. The group who were told their attitude was the same were more likely to resist conforming than the group who were told they had individual attitudes. This showed that students who were led to believe they already had a conforming attitude made extra effort to assert themselves as individuals.
  • Desire to maintain control. Most people like to feel they have control over the things that happen to them in their lives, and if pressured to conform they may feel their control has been threatened. Burger (1992) used a rating scale to classify people as either high or low in their desire to be in control. Those who were low in their desire to be in control were more happy to receive help with a difficult puzzle than those who scored highly. High control scorers reacted with irritation at the offer of help as they felt their ability to remain individual was being threatened.
  • Prior commitment to making a public opinion. People who have expressed an opinion in public are far less likely to be swayed in their opinion than people who have kept their opinion private. Simply making a public statement seems to create a commitment to an idea that people do not want to ‘back down’ and change.
  • Time to think and find social support. Where people are given time to consider whether or not to conform to an attitude, opinion or behaviour they are more likely to resist conforming. It seems that sometimes people are swept along by the social pressure placed on them, but given time to think they will perhaps resist that pressure.



Resisting pressures to obey
Lessons from Milgram (1963) electric shocks experiment
Milgram (1963) varied his original experiment by introducing buffers between the participant and the victim. When buffers (such as being able to see the victim, a remote authority figure, or carrying out the experiment in a downtown office building) were introduced, participants found it easier to resist the pressure to obey and they asserted a greater amount of independence. This shows us that certain situations can make independent behaviour more likely than others.

Factors that make obedience to an authority figure less likely
  • Feeling responsible and empathetic. Some of Milgram’s participants refused to continue delivering electric shocks when they thought the victim was distressed or in pain. When participants were able to see or even touch the victim, obedience dropped to 40% and 30% respectively.
  • Disobedient role models. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to obey the orders of a bus driver when he told her to allow a white person to sit down, and in so doing became a disobedient role model for other black people to resist white control. In Milgram’s experiment, participants found it easier to refuse to obey the order to give electric shocks when they could see another participant also disobey.
  • Questioning motives and status of authority. When people are able to question the legitimacy of an authority figure, they find it easier to remain independent. When Milgram moved his experiment to an office building, obedience rates dropped to 48% because the status of the building conveyed the idea to participants that the authority figure was less legitimate.
  • Time for discussion. Rank & Jacobson (1977) repeated Hofling et al’s (1966) obedient nurses experiment, but this time they increased the realism of the situation by using valium (a drug the nurses were familiar with) at three times the recommended dose. When the research pretending to be a doctor telephoned, he introduced himself as a doctor the nurses would have heard of, and the nurses were in a position of being able to discuss the order with other nurses before carrying it out. Only 2 out of 18 nurses followed the order. The increased realism of the experiment, and the discussion with a colleague had lowered obedience rates in exactly the same way that Milgram’s addition of a dissenting confederate had done.
  • Reactance. Reactance is the psychological process of doing the opposite to what is being asked. It often results from overly harsh attempts to restrict a person’s freedom so that eventually the person reacts in a negative way. An example might be the recent (2011) uprisings by the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya who effectively overthrew their oppressive governments.


A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
What do psychologists mean by the term ‘independent behaviour’? (2 marks)
2 AO1 marks. This is a simple definition and elaboration. Independent behaviour describes how some people are able to resist pressures to conform or obey.

Outline 2 explanations for independent behaviour (4 marks)
4 AO1 marks. Choose 2 of the explanations on this page - a good idea would be to choose 1 that explains resistance to conformity (e.g. the desire to retain a sense of individuality) and 1 that explains resistance to obedience (e.g. disobedient role models). Explain each one and give an example from psychology research or of a well known case.