What does research into conformity and obedience tell us about social change?
How does minority influence lead to social change?
Social change is the process that occurs when a society adopts a new belief or way of behaving which then becomes widely accepted as the norm
Research into minority influence
Moscovici et al (1969)
Moscovici investigated whether or not a consistent minority could influence a majority to give an incorrect answer in a visual perception task. Groups of 6 participants were asked to estimate the colour of 36 slides. All of the slides were blue, but of varying shades, and 2 of the participants were confederates of the experimenter. There were two conditions: in the consistent condition the 2 confederates consistently stated that the slides were green not blue; and in the inconsistent condition they stated the slides were green on 24 of the 36 trials, and blue on the other 12 trials. Participants in the consistent condition conformed to the minority on 8.4% of the trials (compared with 1.3% in the inconsistent condition), and 32% of participants conformed at least once. This shows that a consistent minority can influence members of a majority to make an incorrect judgement.
Behavioural styles of influential minorities
According to Moscovici (1985) an influential minority must possess several behavioural characteristics if it is to succeed in creating social change. These include consistency, commitment and persuasiveness.
- Consistency. This characteristic can be seen in Moscivicci’s (1985) research into minority influence in which the consistent minority was almost eight times more successful than the inconsistent one.
- Commitment. A committed minority shows the majority just how much it believes in its cause. The Suffragettes, for example, committed many public acts of protest and many members were arrested on many occasions, showing that they were committed to the cause of female equality to the point that they were willing to accept criminal records and imprisonment.
- Persuasiveness. The ability to put across a persuasive argument that makes sense. If a majority member is to convert to the minority viewpoint, then they must believe and internalise the argument so that it becomes their own. Public speeches and intelligent use of language are examples of persuasive techniques.
The power of minority influence
Minorities are essential to change in society. If minorities did not exist and were not influential then we would simply go along with the majority all the time, and there would never be any change in society, no new ideas (innovation) would enter our culture, no unfairnesses would be challenged, and society would never improve. There are many examples in history of minority influence leading to social change (e.g. the Suffragettes, civil rights movements in the USA, Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa, and many more), and even a lone dissenter can be a catalyst for social change (Rosa Parkes for example). Even when a minority is wrong it can have an important influence in creating productive thinking among majority members of a society and social change can result (Nemeth, 1986). An example of a ‘wrong’ minority is a group that uses terrorism to get its message heard. Although the terrorist group may be dismissed as extremist and evil, its message gets heard by many and inequalities or injustices may be addressed by the majority.
Why do people yield to minority influence?
The snowball effect
The snowball effect (Van Avermaet, 1996) describes one way in which minorities convert majorities. Members of the majority slowly move towards the minority, and as the minority grows in size it gradually picks up momentum so that more and more majority members convert to the minority opinion. Eventually the minority grows into a snowball so large that it becomes the majority.
In-groups and out-groups
In-group is a term used to describe people like us, and an out-group consists of people that do not share the same characteristics as us. Hogg & Vaughan (1998) argue that we are most likely to be influenced by members of our in-group than we are by members of an out-group. An example might be the British government of the early 1900s who, as it consisted predominately of upper class male MPs, was more likely to listen to the message being put forward by Suffragette women if the Suffragettes were also upper class.
When social change occurs in a society, the attitude or opinion becomes an integral part of the society’s culture, and the source of the minority influence that led to it is generally forgotten. Very few women who vote in the UK consciously thank the Suffragettes for the fact that they can vote, rather women voting is now a normal and expected part of society. This forgetting of the source of social change is called social cryptoamnesia (Perez et al, 1995).
How do minorities become majorities?
- When a minority has an effective message, it creates conflict in the minds of the majority.
- The majority are forced to examine the minority message, and may internalise it.
- When the message is internalised by majority members, they are said to have been converted.
- The message is then passed on to many other majority members through the snowball effect until the minority becomes the majority.
- In time, the source of the message is forgotten and all that remains is the new social norm. This is called social cryptoamnseia (Perez et al, 1995).
Anti-apartheid in South Africa
Many years of discrimination against black South Africans by the white government was ultimately ended by the actions of the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela. The ANC used many techniques to get their message across in a consistent, persuasive and committed way. Nelson Mandela famously showed his own level of commitment to ending apartheid by leading the ANC when he knew he could be imprisoned for doing so, and in fact he spent 27 years in prison as a result.
In late 19th and early 20th century Britain, members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies campaigned for women’s rights including the right to vote. The women were mostly middle class and educated so they were able to put forward a persuasive message. They showed commitment through their protests, in particular through their hunger strikes when imprisoned for their protests. In response the the hunger strikes, the government introduced the Cat and Mouse Act which meant that the women could be imprisoned until they had starved themselves long enough to be of concern to their health, at which point they were released and then reimprisoned once they had regained their strength, a process which was often repeated many times.
A Level exam tips
Answering exam questions (PSYA2 AQA A specification)
What are the implications for social change of research into social influence? (6 marks)
6 AO1 marks. Define social change. Discuss minority influence by outlining Moscovici’s colour perception experiment. State the characteristics required for a minority to be effective. Explain the snowball effect and social crypto amnesia. Link what you have discussed to real examples of social change.