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Influence of individual differences on independent behaviour

Personal factors that influence individual ability to resist pressures to conform or obey

Locus of control



What are individual differences?
Individual differences are personal factors that mean people will respond to situations in different ways. In the context of independent behaviour, they are personal factors that make some people more able to resist pressures to conform or obey than others. Examples of individual differences include gender, personality, education and culture.

Milgram (1963) argued that people will obey an authority figure because of the situation they are in at the time. He found, for example, that having the authority figure in close proximity to the person receiving orders made them more likely to obey, as did making sure the person following orders could not see the victim. However, obedience always fell short of 100% and so some factor other than purely the situation must affect obedience.

The effect of personality on independent behaviour
Locus of control
Rotter (1966) introduced the concept of locus of control as a type of personality. This essentially says that some people feel they are entirely in control of their actions, whereas others are victims of fate. Those who feel they are in control of what happens to them have an internal locus of control, and those who feel helpless to control events have an external locus of control. Rotter argues that everyone is on a continuum between strong external locus of control and strong internal locus of control.
  • People with an internal locus of control believe that what happens to them is consequence of their own behaviour, and they can succeed in difficult or stressful situations.
  • People with an external locus of control believe what happens to them is controlled by external factors, such as luck or fate, and they are relatively helpless in difficult or stressful situations.


The link between locus of control and independent behaviour
Holland (1967) used Milgram’s electric shock procedure to investigate the link between locus of control and obedience, but found no relationship. However Blass (1991) reanalysed Holland’s data and found, using modern statistical analysis techniques, that people with an internal locus of control were more likely to resist obeying than those with an external locus of control. Participants with an internal locus of control were especially resistant to obedience if they suspected they were being coerced or manipulated by the experimenter.

A study by Schurz (1985) using Austrian participants who were asked to give increasingly painful bursts of ultrasound to a learner, and who were told that the highest level could cause skin damage, revealed no link between locus of control and obedience among the 80% of participants that went all the way to the maxim ultrasound level. However, the participants who were classed as having an internal locus of control tended to take more responsibility for their actions than those with an external locus of control.

Blass (1991) reviewed many studies of locus of control and independent behaviour, and concluded that there is no clear link between the two as many studies supported a link and others found no link. There is, however tentative evidence that participants with an internal locus of control are more able to resist pressures to obey than those with an external locus of control.

Test your own locus of control on the PsychTeacher(UK) games and psychological tests page.

The effect of gender on independent behaviour
Gender and obedience
Milgram (1963) found that men and women were equally obedient in his electric shock experiment, although he only conducted one study using a relatively small sample of 40 female participants. Female participants did however report higher levels of stress and tension than male participants, perhaps because women are generally more empathetic than men.

A meta-analysis (Blass, 1991) of 9 studies using Milgram’s electric shock procedure on male and female participants found that only one study reported a significant difference between men and women in levels of obedience (Kilham & Mann, 1974 - Australian study with 40% obedience in men and just 16% in women).

There does not therefore appear to be any real difference between men and women in their ability to resist obeying an authority figure.

Gender and conformity
Much early research into gender and independent behaviour looked at rates of conformity rather than obedience, and generally found that females were more conformist and therefore less independent than males. There was, however a problem with much of the research as the tasks used tended to be gender biased towards male interests and abilities, and so it is unsurprising that females seemed to conform more. To illustrate this, Sistrunk & McDavid (1971) looked at conformity rates in males and females to typically male and typically female items.

Sistrunk & McDavid (1971) exposed males and female participants to social pressures to conform when identifying typically male and typically female items. There were three conditions in which all participants took part: stereotypically male items such as mechanic’s tools, stereotypical female items such as sewing equipment, and gender neutral items such as popular rock stars. The findings were that males conformed more when identifying stereotypically female items, females conformed more when identifying stereotypically males items, and males and females conformed equally when identifying stereotypically neutral items. This illustrates the problem of researching the effect of gender on independent behaviour, and explains why females may appear to conform more.

Conformity could also be higher among females due to the social roles into which males and females are expected to conform (Eagly, 1987). In Western cultures, men are expected to be strong and independent in stressful situations, whereas women are expected to be more agreeable and supportive of one another. This could explain why women conform more in public situations as they feel pressured to fit into the role they are expected to play, but in private situations where decisions can be made without an audience, there is less difference in conformity/resisting conformity between males and females.

The effect of culture on independent behaviour
Asch (1951) has been criticised as being a child of its time, meaning that conformity rates change dependent on social and cultural pressures present at the time. Perrin & Spencer (1980) repeated Asch’s line experiment with British university students on science and mathematics courses, and found far lower rates of conformity than those reported by Asch. They then repeated the experiment again, but this time with participants who were young offenders and confederates who were recruited from probation officers, and found similar rates of conformity to the original Asch experiment. As British students who were used to making judgements about the physical properties of things conformed less, and British young offenders who perhaps were unwilling not to conform because they feared sanctions from their probation officers were more likely to conform, then Perrin & Spencer concluded that the social and political situation people are in has a considerable influence on their tendency to conform.

Smith & Bond (1998) found that people who belong to individualistic cultures, such as American and British cultures, are more likely to behave independently than those from collectivist cultures such as China and Japan. In collectivist cultures, group decision making is highly valued, but in individualistic cultures people are more concerned with their independent success than the well-being of their community.

Culture can therefore affect levels of independent behaviour both in terms of the culture itself (Smith & Bond, 1998), and in terms of the situation within the culture at the time (Perrin & Spencer, 1980).

A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
Outline the effects of individual differences on independent behaviour (6 marks)
6 AO1 marks. You should discuss the effects of locus of control (Holland, Schurz, and Blass), gender (Milgram, Blass and Kilham & Mann), and culture (Perrin & Spencer and Smith & Bond). Look at the number of marks required and make a decision as to which of these you are going to discuss in detail, but you should briefly mention all of them.