Social Psychology


There are THREE key areas of study. These are:




Introduction: Defining Social Psychology and Social Influence

According to the AZ of Psychology (Cardwell, 1996) social psychology is

“…an attempt to understand and explain how the thoughts, feeling and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others “

Social influence is the way in which people adapt their actions according to those around them. It has been described as,

“…the process by which an individual’s attitudes, beliefs or behaviours are modified by the presence or actions of others.”

(Saks  and Krupat, 1988)

…or that

“which involves the exercise of social power by a person or group to change the attitudes or behaviour of others in a particular direction.”

(Franzoi, 1996)


Social conformity has variously been described as…

“…a tendency for people to adopt the behaviour, attitudes and values of other members of a reference group.”

(Zimbardo, 1995)


“…a change in belief or behaviour in response to real or imagined group pressure when there is no direct request to comply with the group nor any reason given to justify the behaviour change…”

(Zimbardo and Liepe, 1991)

At its most basic level conformity therefore seems to involve:

  • Changes in an individual as a result of their interaction with others
  • A change in attitude or behaviour or both

Crutchfield (1962) offered us the much more simple definition of conformity as being:

“ Yielding to group pressures.”

(Crutcfifield, 1962)

…yet this is  too simplistic, ignoring differing factors and types of conformity Arguably, the best definition is  as follows:

“The essence of conformity is yielding to group pressures But it may take different forms and be based on motives other than group pressure.”

(Mann, 1969)

A precise definition of conformity appears surprisingly elusive. Crutchfield’s definition emphasises the importance of groups in conforming behaviour. Aronson (1976) on the other hand offers a more complex definition. He describes conformity as

‘…a change in a person’s (or a group’s) behaviour as result of real or imagined pressure from an individual or group of people’.

This is a more flexible conception of conformity as it allows for other types of compliant behaviour including obedience and minority influence. What the two definitions share is that they emphasise the importance of both covert and overt pressure in conforming behaviour.

As well as defining conformity it is also necessary to differentiate between different types of conformity. Kelman (1958) distinguished between three types of conformity. These are:

  • Compliance (Which involves behavioural shifts without attitudinal shifts)
  • Internalisation (Which Involves both behavioural and attitudinal shifts)
  • Identification (Which involves attitudinal shifts without the accompanying behaviour)

Compliance is easiest understood when people are offered sufficient incentive, either in the form of reward or punishment – they are then likely to comply. Compliance however is a shallow form of conformity and is likely to last only as long as the promise of reward or threat of sanction is in place. Importantly compliance need not involve a true change in belief or attitude and may simply be public compliance, that is, conformity for the benefit of an audience.

A true change of belief is better characterised as internalisation or identification. When a person accepts an idea as valid or true then they have internalised that idea; this is an example of true conformity. Similarly identification is a form of true conformity and occurs when a person accepts in a broad sense the ideas, values, norms and so on, of another person or group of people. Behavioural modification usually follows.

Insko 1985, suggested that there are two basic underlying reasons for conformist behaviour:

  • The need to be Right (Informational Social Conformity) and
  • The need to be Liked (Normative Social Conformity)

Normative conformity occurs when a person adopts the beliefs, behaviour or attitudes of others under the threat of rejection or promise of reward. In the normal course of events humans are motivated to avoid ‘standing out’. Being seen as different or awkward can lead to an uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment or heightened self-awareness. Unless there is considerable motivation not to conform people tend to go along with the group.

Informational conformity occurs when an individual finds themselves in a novel or ambiguous situation, not knowing how to act or respond they look to others for guidance: when people are unsure of themselves they look to others as a guide to how to behave.

This echoes the Dual Process Dependency Model formulated by Deutsch and Gerard (1955). The Dual Process Dependency Model seems to suggest that the two are separate types of influence.  We conform either to be liked or to be right. Yet most conformist behaviour is often a mixture of both influences. Nevertheless normative and informational social conformity remain important factors in explaining conforming behaviour.


The study of conformity in the laboratory begins with the work of Sherif (1935).

Sherif studied a curious phenomenon known as the autokinetic effect. The autokinetic effect occurs when a subject focuses on a point of light in a completely darkened room. Because of natural movements of the eye and in the absence of any frame of reference the light appears to jump around. This is an entirely subjective experience, the light is not really moving and is only perceived as if it were.

Sherif had his subjects estimate the degree to which they thought the light moved and found wide variations in subjects estimates. In a second condition subjects made estimates within earshot of each other. Under this condition the subjects’ estimates began to converge; without any instructions to do so the group produced a group estimate. Estimates in the group had converged as they established a ‘group norm’. This was close to the average of estimates they gave individually. Sherif’s study has been criticised on the following grounds:

  • Without any guide to what is the ‘right’ answer (indeed there is no right answer), it is fairly obvious that subjects would conform.

  • The ‘group’ used consisted of just three people.
  • There was no right or wrong answer, it was an ambiguous task

However Sherif’s study illustrates one of the most consistent findings from conformity research, that is, that people will look to others as a guide to behaviour when they are unsure of themselves.


The most widely discussed study of conformity in the laboratory was by Solomon Asch (1951). Asch developed a paradigm for studying conformity which has influenced much subsequent research.

The basic aim of Asch’s research was to discover whether individuals could be influenced through the presence and actions of others to give a wrong answer to a very simple task.

A single subject was placed in the midst of a group of confederates ranging from three to nine in number. At the outset the participants were placed in a straight line or round a table so that the real subject would respond last. The group where then shown two cards, one containing a single straight stimulus line the other containing three ‘comparison’ lines. The task of the group was to decide which line was the same size as the target line.

Pilot studies showed subjects never had any difficulty in identifying the correct answer. There were 50 trials in all and for the most part these were uneventful. In the control condition with no confederates to give a deliberately false answer there was a mere 0.7% error. However on 12 ‘critical’ trials the experimental confederates had been instructed to give an obviously false answer. The results were startling, despite the obvious falsehood of the confederates’ responses subjects often chose to agree with them. The ‘average’ subject made 3.84 conforming responses on the 12 critical trials, giving a mean average of 32% for conformity. It should be noted that Asch’s results were severely skewed, some subjects never conformed and others conformed on nearly all the trials.

By manipulating the experimental set up, Asch was able to investigate the factors which encouraged or discouraged conformity. The pertinent factors were as follows:

  • the characteristics of the group,

  • the characteristics of the subject and

  • the nature of task.

The number of group members had a significant effect: broadly speaking increasing group size encouraged conformity. However group size made little difference once the group size went beyond four. This is a surprising result; we would expect people to conform more readily to a large group than a small group, which in a limited sense is the case. However in Asch’s studies the addition of more group members beyond three or four did not bring with it a proportionate increase in conformity.

Asch also found that when the task was made more difficult by making the lines more similar in length then conformity showed an associated increase. This echoes Sherif’s findings, i.e., when the task is difficult or ambiguous people are more apt to conform. Asch varied the characteristics of the group and again this had a discernible and largely predictable effect on conformity. If the group was comprised of individuals seen as being expert in the task at hand or high in status then conformity increased. Similarly if the group was perceived as attractive, desirable or similar to the subject in some way then conformity increased.

Asch concluded that various factors may affect the level of conformity:

  • Three ‘stooges’ produced maximum levels of conformity. With very large numbers, conformity levels drop dramatically (This is sometimes referred to as the Wilder effect) *

  • Just one stooge not going along is enough to dramatically reduce conformity levels.

  • Difficult tasks tend to lead to more conformity

  • Ambiguous tasks tend to lead to more conformity as people may feel less certain of their own ideas.

  • Men may try to appear more independent because of social expectations.

  • Women tend to show more conformity than men do when their answers are said out loud, publicly

  • Low self-esteem may lead to higher conformity. This reflects low self-confidence or strong need for approval of others.

  • Conformity rates are higher when people are attracted to other members of the group.

*  Wilder (1977), offered a solution to this unexpected finding. Wilder speculated that as group size went beyond four or five some subjects began to suspect collusion between group members. Wilder suggested that the key factor is the number of perceived independent sources of social pressure. Wilder was able to show that two groups of two individuals were more effective in producing conformity than a single group of four people, if they were perceived as acting independently of each other. The important point is that social pressure is not always a direct function of the size of the group.

Criticisms of Asch’s work:

  • ‘It was time-consuming and uneconomical’. (Crutchfield)
  • ‘Tasks set not like real-life situations’. (Crutchfield) and therefore lacked ecological validity
  • Further, it did not account for minority influences
  • The social context i.e. the U.S.A. in the 1950s was a particularly conformist culture. Dissent from group opinions was viewed as a form of rudeness.
  • Participant representation – all males of a certain age.
  • The task was trivial and unimportant for the individuals involved.


Crutchfield (1954) carried out significant research into conformity and developed electronic apparatus that displayed the responses of the group to the subject without the subjects having to be in the physical presence of the group. In fact Crutchfield’s apparatus was a clever deception; Crutchfield was able to manipulate the responses seen by the subjects.

Crutchfield’s work differs from Asch’s studies in that the intense social pressures associated with having other members of the group in the immediate physical presence of the subjects were removed Under these conditions it would seem reasonable to expect lower levels of conformity.

In fact the level of conformity in Crutchfield’s experiments were comparable with those of Asch’s. In a replication of the Asch line judgement task, Crutchfield found an average level of conformity of 30%. On a trial in which a star and a circle were superimposed with the circle being about one- third larger than the star, 46 per cent of the subjects agreed with the false consensus that the star was larger than the circle. On a question asking for completion of a number series (like those found intelligence tests), 30% conformed.

Crutchfield investigated person-based variables related to the tendency to conform. He found that non-conformers when compared with conformers tended to show greater ego strength, better leadership skills, better social skills and were generally absent of inferiority feelings. They did not show excessive self-control or authoritarian attitudes and were more intelligent.


Another factor, which was important in Asch’s studies, was the circumstances under which the subjects made their response. When subjects were allowed to write down their responses while the other group members made their response publicly known, conformity dropped to 12.5% (Asch, 1957). Other studies Crutchfield, (1954), Deutsch and Gerard, (1955) have confirmed this finding. When the intense pressure of public scrutiny is removed then subjects are far less likely to conform. These finding represent compelling evidence that the conformity observed in these studies is best characterised as ‘public compliance’ rather than ‘true conformity’.

Overwhelmingly the most important factor in determining conformity in Asch’s studies was the presence or absence of social support for the individual who was the target of the social pressure. In a variation on the basic experiment Asch arranged for one of the confederates to make a dissenting response on some of the critical trials; Asch found conformity was virtually eliminated if the unanimity of the group was broken. This was true whether the ally chose the correct response or another obviously false response.

The importance of social support can be gauged from a replication of Asch’s paradigm by Miller (1975). He showed that the tendency to conform on a visual perceptual task was much reduced by the presence of a dissenting confederate, even if the confederate wore extremely thick glasses and was clearly short-sighted.

The important factor seems to be the fact an alternative position exists not the nature of this alternative position. The importance of social support in facilitating independent behaviour is underlined in another classic study of social influence. Milgram (1963) showed that subjects were prepared to deliver a powerful and potentially fatal electric shock to complete stranger when ordered to do so by an experimenter. As in Asch’s experiment compliance was virtually eliminated when the subjects had the opportunity to observe dissenting models. It seems reasonable to conclude that for most people social support is a powerful facilitator of independent behaviour. The point is underlined by the fact that in Asch’s studies, conformity returns almost to the same level once the dissenting confederate returned to a compliant role.


Early studies of conformity suggested women were considerably more conformist than men (e.g., Crutchfield, 1955). However subsequent studies have challenged this idea of women as being more compliant than males. Baron (1982) identified two sources of bias in conformity studies:

  • first, studies which find women to be more conformist than men have usually been carried out by males, Baron suggests that unintentional cues such as non-verbal communication and the experimental setting inflate levels of conformity in females.

  • Second, it has been argued that the stimulus materials used in early investigations of conformity were male orientated. Studies have shown that when stimulus materials are controlled for in terms of familiarity for males and females, gender differences disappear.  (Sinstruck and McDavid, 1971)



This experiment was designed to show conformity to social roles, this is an example of normative influence. Volunteers were given authority and asked to act as guards over other volunteers who were prisoners. It also aimed to see the psychological effects of making ‘normal’, ‘good’ people into prisoners or guards.


24 middle class, male college students, mentally sound in tests and no criminal records, were paid $15 per day and divided into prisoners or guards by the flip of a coin.


Prisoners were arrested at their homes at the start of the study, blindfolded and taken to Stanford University Psychology Department basement, which had been converted into a realistic prison! From then on the volunteers were treated as prisoners by the other volunteers who were guards.

Conclusions: The study was stopped after six days because the guards became sadistic and the prisoners became extremely stressed.

Philip Zimbardo and colleagues conducted one of the best-known and most controversial studies of conformity. He used a simulated prison set-up to see to what extent normal, well-balanced people would conform to new social roles when they took part in a role-playing exercise. Simulations attempt to imitate some aspect of a real-world situation. Participants are asked to act (role-play) as though the simulation was real. Psychologists use simulations in order to study behaviours to which they would not normally access.

How can we account for the guards- overzealous behaviour and the capitulation of the prisoners to the regime imposed by the guards? According to Zimbardo, these results demonstrate how easily people can come to behave in uncharacteristic ways when placed in new situations and given new roles. The adoption of new role-related behaviours might have been facilitated by the stereotypical expectations that the participants brought with them of how guards and prisoners should behave. Another possible explanation is that the volunteers might have tried to be -good subjects’ and behaved in the ways they thought the researcher wanted. (A tendency known as displaying ‘demand characteristics’).

Many criticisms have been levelled against his study, including the following made by Savin (1973).

  • participants did not give fully informed consent; they did not know, for example, they would be arrested at home, although they did sign an agreement drawn up by Stanford University to act as volunteers

  • Participants were humiliated and dehumanised by the initiation procedure when they arrived at the ‘prison’.

  • The ends do not justify the means and this study became -too real’ for those participating-, it should not have been carried out.

Zimbardo responded to these criticisms as follows:

  • After the simulation had been ended, Zimbardo and his colleagues held several sessions with the participants to help them deal with their emotional reactions to the experience. (debriefing)

  • During the year after the study ended, contact was maintained with all the student participants involved to prevent any negative effects persisting.

  • The reality of this study and its findings made people-uneasy because they preferred not to consider that they might have behaved in the same way!


Whereas early social influence research focused on the extent to which individuals could be made to comply with the group norm, later research has focused on the extent to which individuals (or minorities) may be able to exert influence on the group (or majorities).

In most of the variations conducted by Sherif, Asch or Crutchfield different factors tended to produce different levels of conformity. Variations such as the degree of difficulty of the task, the size of the majority, the presence or absence of dissenting models or the degree of unanimity in the group all raised or lowered the levels of conformity displayed.

One key feature of all of these studies was the extent to which some of the participants never conformed. In the original experimental manipulation conducted by Asch 26% never conformed once in any of the trials. In post experimental interviews Asch three factors in particular seemed to mark independent behaviour.


In addition further research by psychologists has identified two further markers of independent behaviour.



Non conforming Individuals sometimes possessed a high degree of confidence in their own estimates and could not be shaken from believing that they were right in their estimates.


A second group were slightly less confident in their estimates and felt the pressures of social influence. They posses sufficient belief that they were right to go against the group. In order to counter the pressures of social influence this group would avoid eye contact with other members of the group


This group were most vulnerable to the pressures of social influence. They experienced tension, discomfort, doubt and withdrawal and were least confident in their estimates. With this group a conflict had arisen between the pressures of the group and their own perceptions.


In contrast to the idea of normative social influence Maslach et al  (1987) formulated the idea that an equally strong pressure exists to express ourselves as individuals even where pressures to conform are high. We express our individuality from others.


Burger (1992) found that those who score highly in a desire for personal control are more likely to resist pressures to conform than those who possess low scores.


In commenting upon the relationship between majorities and minorities Wood et al (1994) argued that the direction of influence may be two way rather than one way.

“…Majorities are not only sources of influence, they are influence targets. Deviant minorities are not simply targets refusing to conform, but also sources actively challenging the validity of the majority position…”

There are numerous reasons to expect that on occasions minorities may influence majority opinion. The minority

  • may possess relevant or expert knowledge

  • may possess more experience in the matter in hand

  • may be viewed as a credible source of information

  • may be more persuasive in their arguments

In order to examine the dynamics of minority influence Moscovici et al (1969) conducted a series of experimental manipulations.

Six participants were asked to identify the colour of 36 slides. All the slides were blue but by adding various filters the brightness of each slide could be subtly altered. Two of the six participants were accomplices of the experimenter. They constituted the minority whose influence could be assessed in different conditions.

In the consistent condition, the two confederates called the slides green on all the trials. Results showed that naive participants (128 in total – 32 groups) yielded to the minority view that the slides were green in 8.42% of the trials. 32% of all participants yielded to the minority view at least once and denied the evidence of their eyes.

In the inconsistent condition, the confederates called the slides green on 24 occasions and blue on 12 occasions. Naïve participants yielded just 1.25% times.

Where the minority is consistent it is able to exert a substantial degree of influence. Where the minority is inconsistent the level of influence that minorities are able to exert drops substantially.

What exactly is consistency? According to Moscovici it is

“…resolution, certainty, clarity of definition and coherence…”

In addition Moscovici (1985) identified certain behavioural styles that minorities would need to possess in order to influence majorities.

These include

  • Consistency
  • Flexibility
  • Commitment
  • Relevance

In addition Hogg and Vaughn (1995) claim that influential minorities also possess the following characteristics.

  • They appear to be acting from principle rather than self interest
  • They make sacrifices or investments in order to hold on to their position
  • They possess similar social characteristics in terms of class, gender, age and occupation to the target majority
  • The minority opinion may be consistent with emerging social trend or norms

Four models of Minority Influence have been put forward by psychologists. These are



Latane and Wolf proposed a theorywhich attempts to explain the behaviour of individuals / minorities / groups in terms of three factors:

Strength and conviction

Status and Knowledge

Immediacy – either physical or psychological

The greater the degree of all three factors the greater the degree of either minority or majority influence.


According to Moscovici (1980) the way in which minorities influence majorities is different form the ways in which majorities influence minorities. This is called the dual process theory. Majority influence usually involves compliance only – a change in behaviour without the accompanying change in attitude. Minority influence on the other hands requires a genuine conversion of opinion. The influence target needs to shift their attitudes as well as their behaviour. For this reason minority influence,  when it takes place, is more durable.


According to Davis and Turner (1996) we are more likely to be influenced by those we perceive as members of our in group than those we perceive as being members of an outgroup. Exposure to minority or dissenting opinions where ‘in group’ cohesion was strong was less likely to facilitate minority influence, whereas where ‘in group’ cohesion is weak the possibilities for minority influence increase.


Perez et al (1995) formulated the dissociation model of minority influence. Here individuals and minorities regarded with suspicion and distrust are more likely to be influential where the ideas, arguments or judgements they make are not associated directly with them. The idea is that the influence permeates the majority with no memory of the original source. This is sometimes referred to as social cryptoamnesia.


“…a type of social influence whereby somebody acts in response to a direct order from another person. There is also the implication that the actor would not have behaved in that way without the order…”

Cardwell, 1996

“… the abdication of judgment in the face of some external social pressure…”

Milgram, 1992

“…behaving as instructed, usually in response to individual, rather than group, pressure. It is unlikely to involve a change of private opinion…”

Eysenck and Flanagan (2000)

The definition of obedience in the AZ of psychology makes reference to perhaps the most famous study in psychology, one that is even familiar to those who have never studied psychology. The research had the following interconnected aims:

  • To determine whether ordinary individuals could be made to act in a cruel and barbarous fashion towards other ordinary individuals

  • To determine the extent to which such behaviours possessed dispositional or situational attributions

In conducting such research psychologists have identified THREE factors which are likely to stimulate obedience in individuals who would claim that they would not participate in such behaviours.

TRANSFER OF RESPONSIBILITY. Here the authority figure relieves the obedient figure from any responsibility for their actions. When participants in the Milgram  procedures asked who would take responsibility for the harming the other individual they were told by the experimenter that he assumed all responsibility.

VISIBLE SIGNS OF AUTHORITY. Here the authority figure wears visible signs of their authority such as badges or uniforms. Many studies have shown the importance of visible signs of authority.

INCREMENTALISM. A well established principle of obedience research is that in order to shift an individual from a state of individuation to an agentic state request should be incremental and cumulative. Here the participant agrees to a small request  and then increasing demands are placed upon them. Each demand is a small step but the overall effect is large.


Milgram questioned whether dispositional explanations could fully account for certain types of behaviour. Milgram, reasoned that people could commit atrocities when they are given orders by somebody in authority.

Such explanations are situational – i.e factors present in the situation rather than the personality traits of the persons themselves cause the obedience.

Details of Experiment

Milgram tested his hypothesis by using a laboratory experiment.

The subjects were chosen from volunteers who had responded to a newspaper article. This means the sample was self-selecting. We must question whether or not Milgram had a representative sample, by using this study. Milgram chose to study only men, but from a variety of backgrounds and different ages. You might say that by using men this produced a sample that was biased, or did not reflect the general population. Men are thought to be more aggressive than women, so it would make sense to begin a series of experiments with them. Milgram did in a later experiment use only women, and achieved similar results to those produced by the men.

The men were paid to participate in the experiment. Milgram’s experimenter (Milgram had no direct contact with the subjects) made it quite clear that they were paid the money just for appearing at the laboratory, and they were free to leave at anytime without forfeiting the money. Having said this though, the experimenter did not remind the subjects of their right to leave subsequent to this initial assurance. Later in the experiment the subjects were to be told by the experimenter the exact opposite “You have no choice, you must go on”. This conflicts with ethical guidelines: subjects have the right to withdraw from any experiment without censure at anytime.

The experiment was conducted at Yale university. Again we should question this as a prestigious setting could add to the authority of the experimenter, and the willingness for the subject to obey. Milgram was aware of this possibility, and in a subsequent variation of his experiment, located in a shabby downtown office, found that the level of obedience was slightly less than the level reported in this original experiment.

A stern looking male experimenter was used. A mild mannered man played the part of the victim. Milgram chose a likeable inoffensive character to play the part of the victim, probably so there could be no apparent motive to harm him.

It was necessary to deceive the subject, by telling the subject that this was an experiment into the effects of punishment upon learning. Again this breaks the ethical guidelines, but we should not be too hard on Milgram unless you can think of a feasible alternative way of overcoming this problem of ‘Demand Characteristics’. So at the beginning of the experiment the real subject is introduced to another ‘subject’ (really the victim who is working for Milgram). It is explained that one needs to be the teacher and the other the learner (or victim). A draw is fixed so that the real subject plays the part of the teacher. The victim is strapped into a chair. His wrists are covered with an electrode paste, and electrodes are placed upon the paste. The subject (teacher) is left in no doubt that the learner (victim) can not escape receiving electric shocks and is given a short real electrical shock of approximately 45 volts, presumably to increase the degree of experimental realism.

The subject is taken into an adjoining room and shown the ‘shock generator’. The subject is led to believe that this machine can deliver shocks from 15 volts through to 450 volts to the victim, when really it produces nothing except an impressive electrical noise and a flashing blue light. The ‘shock generator’ has a switch for every voltage between 15 and 450 volts increasing in steps of 15 volts. Each switch is labelled, so as to give an impression of how severe the shock is (for example, ‘danger: severe shock’). The subject is offered a real sample shock of 45 volts (delivered from a battery connected to the appropriate switch on the generator). All of the foregoing is designed to convince the teacher that he is really giving shocks to the subject. The instructions are simple. The teacher reads a list of word pairs. The learner has to learn these (known as ‘paired-associate learning’). The teacher then tests the learner by giving him one of the words in a pair. The learner has to select the given word’s paired word from four alternatives given by the teacher. If the learner performs at chance level, then he should get one in every four answers correct. If the learner gets it right then the next question is given without any punishment. If the learner gets the answer wrong then he is administered a shock that is 15 volts higher than the voltage of the last shock delivered.

Note, the voltages are not decreased after a series of correct answers are given. You can work out that under these instructions it would be only a matter of time before any learner, regardless of ability, would receive the maximum shock of 450 volts! In this original experiment the victim is unable to talk to the teacher because of the intervening wall. The teacher communicates with the learner with a one way intercom. The victim gives responses after each question, until the 300 volt shock. At this point pounding on the wall is heard and no response to the question is received from the victim. As you might have expected subjects turned to the experimenter for guidance at this point. The experimenter instructs the teacher to treat the absence of a response as an incorrect answer. The victim pounds on the wall (you will gather by now his legs are not bound!) at 315 volts, and continues not to answer the questions. At higher voltages the victim gives no response whatsoever, giving the impression that he is at the very least unconscious, and at the worse dead! Naturally, subjects will turn to the experimenter for guidance, before administering shocks of greater than 300 volts. The experimenter gives one of four scripted prods.

1. Please continue

2. The experiment requires that you continue

3. It is absolutely essential that you continue

4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

The experimenter would initially use prod one, but if the subject refused to continue, the experimenter would try prod 2, and then prod 3 and finally prod 4, breaking off as soon as the subject continued. (How does this accord with the ethical point of allowing the subject to withdraw?) In the event of the subject asking about any danger to the victim’s health, the experimenter would give the following scripted prod:

“Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on”.

If the teacher pointed out that it would seem the learner wanted to withdraw from the experiment, the experimenter would say

“Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly. So please go on”.

The experiment would end either when the 450 volt shock had been administered, or when the subject walked out.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Why is it an advantage to script the prods?

  • Why perform the fixed draw to decide which person should be the teacher or learner? Milgram could have just told the subject to be the teacher.

  • Why did the subject witness the preparation of the learner (the strapping into the chair and the fixing of the electrodes)?

  • Did the sampling method produce a representational sample of the target population (American men)?

The dependent measure in this experiment is the maximum voltage the subject will go to before walking out, with a maximum voltage of 450 volts recorded for obedient subjects.


Psychology undergraduates were asked what percentage of subjects would continue to give shocks up to the maximum of 450 volts. The mean percentage given was 1.2%. In fact, 26 out of the 40 subjects continued to 450 volts. Only 5 dropped out at 300 volts when the pounding on the wall was heard. A further four dropped out at 315 volts.

Many subjects became extremely nervous. Evidence for this was: sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting lips, groans, digging fingernails into their flesh. Fourteen subjects demonstrated nervous laughter. Three subjects had seizures.

Further qualitative data reported by Milgram were the comments made by the subjects. In short, although many subjects administered shocks up to 450 volts, they experienced acute stress.

Discussion points

It would seem, that it is the situation that has produced these results and not the disposition of the subjects. The Yale undergraduates who predicted that only very few (perhaps psychopathic) individuals would administer shocks of 450 volts, were guided by their understanding of the morality that guides human behaviour. They were not in the situation. Observers looking at the experiment in progress, could not believe what they were seeing; Again, they were not in the situation. We judge people outside of the situation surrounding their action(s).

Other key studies that support these results are Zimbardo and Nisbett. Zimbardo also provides evidence to suggest it is the situation that people find themselves in rather than their disposition, that best explains their actions. Nisbett provides evidence to suggest we view the actions of others as though they are guided by their disposition; Yet we view our own actions as being the result of the situation we were in. The main conclusion, however, simply is that people tend to obey others in authority. We should not be unduly concerned nor surprised about this fact, because if few people obeyed orders, very little would get done, and a relatively complex society could not exist.

Milgram’s experiment breaks several of the ethical guidelines. Milgram deceives his subjects, by misinforming them about the true purpose of the experiment and by making them believe they are administering real electric shocks to a real subject. We would have to balance any criticisms with a consideration as to the necessity of deception. The main problem is one of demand characteristics, whereby if a subject knows the true purpose of an experiment, he might behave differently. It was good that Milgram stated at the start that the money paid to the subjects was theirs regardless of whether they continued with the experiment; However, during the experiment the prods used suggested that withdrawal was not possible for the subject. This is unethical. Even so, we should consider whether the experiment would have been valid if the experimenter kept reminding the subject about his right to withdraw. Many of the subjects were suffering from an enormous amount of stress, and this conflicts with the ethical principle of protecting the participant. Perhaps Milgram should have stopped the experiment as soon as the subject appeared to be suffering; But what sort of results could be recorded? Remember the perception of suffering is to some degree subjective, and therefore would not be a reliable indicator, if the voltage reached at abandonment of the experiment was to be used as the dependent variable. Some will argue that Milgram was not expecting the results that he did get, since many of his colleagues and students doubted whether many subjects would continue through to 450 volts. This is a weak argument, as this may explain why one or two subjects were allowed to suffer stress, but this does not explain why all forty subjects were allowed to suffer, or why Milgram repeated his experiment many times. In one of Milgram’s subsequent experiments the subject was asked to force an arm of the struggling victim onto the electrodes!

We should consider whether the experiment was ecologically valid. The subjects may well have obeyed the experimenter because they accepted that he knew best. Remember the subjects were reassured that the shocks were not harmful.


There are a number of arguments which both lend support to and criticise Milgram’s research.

  • According to Brown (1986) ‘…the slight personal risks involved are more than justified by the importance of the topic…’

  • Milgram had sought presumptive consent

  • Participants were informed of their rights of withdrawal at the outset

  • Milgram conducted extensive debriefing of all the participants for up to a year or more after the trials

  • 84% of participants said they were glad to have taken part in the procedures and had learnt something of value about  themselves

  • Deception may be justified when there is no deception free way of studying the matter in hand

  • Milgram obtained prior approval from the APA  (the American Psychological Association)

  • Coolican (1990) argues that the use of the prods constituted a violation of the right of withdrawal

  • Baumrind (1964) has suggested that the procedure caused Milgram’s participants extreme distress. Three participants had full uncontrollable siezures during the procedure and many more suffered from stuttering, groans, tremors, sweating and  gouging of flesh.

  • Participants were arguably displaying no more than demand characteristics. (One, 1962, 1969). They may also have suffered evaluation anxiety where participants are known to wish to be seen as ‘good’ participants’ in experiments.

  • The results may be seen under these circumstances as lacking ecological validity

  • In the original trial Milgram could not have foreseen the results. However in subsequent trials it was relatively easy for Milgram to predict the consequences of the procedures on participant’s psychological and physiological states.


A more ecologically valid experiment by Hofling et al, 1966, suggested that Milgram’s results were valid. In Hofling’s 1966 experiment, nurses in a hospital were asked over the phone by a bogus doctor to administer an overdose of a drug without obtaining authorisation. Twenty-one out of twenty-two nurses attempted to administer the drug (which, unknown to the nurses, was really glucose).

Identical boxes of capsules of glucose were placed in 22 wards of 22 hospitals in the USA. The boxes were marked ‘Astrofen’ maximun dosage 10 mg. The nurses were telephoned by the experimenter, calling himself Dr Smith and asked to administer 20 mg to a patient, Mr Jones. The experimenter said that he would arrive within 10 minutes to sign the authorisation. 21/22 nurses complied to the demands of the authority figure disregarding the dangerous and reckless nature of the act itself.


The work of early researchers into conformity has been criticised on methodological and conceptual grounds. Methodological criticisms focus mainly the highly artificial nature of these experiments. Conceptual criticisms of this work centre mainly on the interpretation that is placed on the results, the overemphasis of majority influence and the underestimation of the power of situations to shape behaviour. It has been suggested that these studies are low in ecological validity. It could be argued that the situation that the subjects find themselves in creates intense pressures in which conforming is easy and dissent difficult; a number of points can be made in relation to this claim. In these experiment subjects were obliged to give an opinion, in real-life situations people are normally able to withhold their opinion or seek clarification in situations in which they are unsure of themselves. In a real-life situations people rarely find themselves in a minority of one having to make difficult choices about trivial issues. Moreover, when we do find ourselves in a situation where we must make a difficult choice this will normally be in a familiar social context, i.e., it is likely that the people who constitute the ‘group’ will be friends, family, colleagues and so on. All these factors might serve to increase the level of conformity. Despite the validity of these points it should be remembered that the conforming behaviour observed in these studies was real even if the setting was artificial.

The work of Asch, Crutchfield and Milgram has usually been characterised as demonstrating high levels of compliance. However there is an alternative and equally valid interpretation of this research; in most of the variations of these experiments the majority of subjects chose not to conform or obey. It is perfectly reasonable to interpret these studies as studies of independent behaviour rather than compliance. These studies can be looked at from a different perspective.

Instead of asking the question which factors encourage conformity? we might reformulate this question as, which factors facilitate independence? If lack of social support is important in encouraging conformist behaviour then the presence of social support might be important in encouraging independence. In Milgram’s experiment, exposure to disobedient models vastly reduced obedience. Similarly in Asch’s studies the presence of an ally or another dissenting member of the group was enough to virtually eliminate conformity. The interpretation of these studies as studies of conformity rather than as studies of independent behaviour might be regarded as something of a conceptual weakness.  Given the intense situational pressure on people to comply in these experiments we should marvel at the courage and independence of spirit shown by human beings.

Some attempts have been made to investigate independent behaviour in the laboratory. Gamson, Fireman and Rytina (1982) investigated obedience to unjust authority in the laboratory but introduced some significant differences in their procedure compared with Milgram. The most important difference is that the experimenters tried to obtain compliance from groups of subjects rather than subjects working alone. The main finding was that when social pressure is applied to groups of people they find it much easier to in act in an independent way. However hidden within the results of the experiment is a far more interesting finding.

Gamson and his colleagues found that when the subjects rebelled they tended to rebel as a group, on the other hand when subjects conformed, they tended to conform as a whole. This experiment raises the interesting thought that the choice of subjects in these situations is not between compliance and independence but between obeying the orders of the experimenter or conforming to the group. This experiment underlines yet again the importance of normative social influence in determining behaviour. Gamson’s experiment reveals another important finding in relation to independence, making people aware of the dangers of a blind obedience to authority seems to make them less susceptible to the influence of unjust authority. At least one subject in this particular study refused to comply, citing the Milgram study as a reason for not complying with the experimenters requests.

As has already been noted many of the subjects be in Asch’s original experiment did not conform on any of the trials (13 out of 50). Asch himself carried out post of experimental interviews and was able to distinguish three main categories of independent behaviour.

First, one group of subjects chose to take an independent decision because they were confident that their perceptions were correct; this group considered themselves to be as expert as the other group members.

Second, a number group of subjects reported the need to act as individuals no matter what the others did. This group tended to withdraw from the situation, they tried to isolate themselves from the others by avoiding eye contact.

A final group acted in an independent manner but their independence was accompanied by tension and discomfort. Psychologists have attempted to identify personality traits and motivational needs associated with those who take an independent position. Although most people usually choose to go along with others in most situations they usually stop short of subsuming their personal identity to the group identity. In addition to our need to get along with others and to be liked we also seem to possess a desire for individuation – that is to be differentiated, in some respects others (e.g., Maslach, Santee & Wade, 1987; Snyder & Fromkin, 1980

Finally, Burger (1992) has demonstrated that people who score highly in desire for personal control are more likely to resist pressures to conform than those who have a lower need for control. The motivations behind independent behaviour seem to be as mixed as those that lead people to conform.

European social psychologists have beam critical of the over-emphasis of the impact of majorities on minorities. Moscovici (1976) starts off with the observation that innovation by its very nature must begin in small groups who are then able to win over and influence larger groups. To make his point he developed a procedure for testing minority influence in the laboratory. Moscovici replicated many of the features of Asch’s paradigm but instead of placing one subject in the midst of several confederates, Moscovici placed two confederates in the midst of four of real subjects. The surprising result was that minorities could be almost as powerful as majorities in producing behavioural change. The minorities were able to influence 32% of subjects to make at least one incorrect judgement. However, in order to obtain this level of compliance the minority had to remain consistent in its judgement, without appearing rigid, arrogant or dogmatic. Interestingly minorities are generally more effective when they advocate a position which is consistent with emerging social norms. Perhaps the most important finding from these studies is that the behavioural change produced by a minority is better characterised as internalisation rather than public compliance. This makes sense, as there is little incentive for a majority to the yield to power of a minority unless it accepts their position as valid or credible.

The greatest conceptual weakness of these studies is the implicit assumption that they tell us something very important about the subjects’ personalities. As we have seen early studies of conformity such as Crutchfield’s involved a search for individual differences in the tendency to conform. The fundamental attribution error is made when people underestimate the importance of situational factors in explaining the behaviour of others and overestimate the importance of dispositional factors. The phenomenon is familiar to social psychologists and is termed fundamental because it seems to reflect something basic about the way we process information about our social world. Aronson (1991) showed that 99% of students believed that they would not continue to the very end in Milgram’s experiment, thus clearly underestimating the power of the situation. It is not just students who have such optimistic beliefs, Milgram himself surveyed psychiatrists at a leading medical school. They predicted by that only 1% of subjects would continue to the very end and that these individuals would in all likelihood show symptoms of severe psychiatric disturbance. Psychologists themselves might be accused of making the fundamental attribution error in their interpretation of the work off Asch, Crutchfield and Milgram.

Ross, Bierbrauer and Hoffman (1976) analysed the Asch experiment in order to understand the subjects’ interpretation of events. Ross and his colleagues had argued that when people are presented with a situation that offers the option of conformity or dissent they can normally explain differences in belief, attitude and so on in terms of their experience. They can point to differences in the goals, incentives, availability of information and so on, all things, which would lead ‘rational’ people to express differences in belief. Asch’s experiment is somewhat different; here the subjects are presented with a divergence in belief which is not explicable in rational terms. To the subjects the correct response seems obvious and should be equally obvious to the other members of the group. To dissent runs the risk of appearing incompetent, foolish or possibly even mad. What is more dissent from the subject will be as incomprehensible to the other members of the group as their responses are incomprehensible to the subject; the subjects have been a denied a legitimate channel for dissent.

A similar analysis can be applied to Milgram studies. Compliance was encouraged and dissent made very difficult through various aspects of the situation. Milgram had subjects agree to take part in the study, sign a consent form and receive payment. Agreeing to do something and receiving payment is a powerful social norm in Western culture. Milgram himself has argued that one of the main motivations for subjects to continue in the experiment was the desire not to appear impolite. The experiment was carried out in a step-wise manner; the subjects found themselves in a position in which withdrawal would have involved acknowledging the immorality of their previous actions. If Milgram had ordered the subjects to deliver the highest level shock to the subjects at the very start of the procedure it is unlikely any of the subjects would have obeyed. Milgram had quite deliberately manipulated the situation so that the normal channels of dissent were closed to the subject. It is perhaps more surprising that so many subjects found the strength to disobey or dissent in these experiments, than that so many of them complied. Emphasising the importance of the situation is not to deny the existence of compliance in these experiments; the conformity in the Asch and Crutchfield situations was real as was the obedience in the Milgram studies. However the subjects behaviour in these studies is often taken to be very revealing of them as a person. The reality is that behaviour is always a product of a person and situation, any interpretation, which emphasises only one of these factors, is incomplete.

There is another danger is over emphasising the role of dispositional variables in explaining the behaviour of subjects in these studies. Mischel (1968) pointed out that behaviour is a product of the person and situation and that the situation is frequently more important. Mischel showed through analysis of behaviour across situations that people are highly inconsistent in their behaviour. McGuire (1968) found conformity across situations to be low; a person may be a conformist in one situation and a rebel in another. The emphasis on person based variables in explaining the behaviour of subjects in laboratory studies of conformity is not entirely justified; to ask why people comply in these situations is akin to asking why people behave in a sombre fashion at funerals, i.e., the situation demands it. This nomothetic approach to personality underestimates the unique nature of every social interaction and the unpredictability of people in social interactions. People will be influenced by features of the situation, underlying personality variables and present psychological functioning. Present psychological functioning is in turn affected by a host of variables including goals, norms, values and past experience. Take a subject in Asch’s experiment; they may be somebody who in the course of their work or personal life be generally prepared to take an independent line and make difficult choices, somebody who might be regarded as a prime candidate for dissent. However their usual independence and autonomy is associated with what they regard as important matters. Their reading of this situation is that the task is trivial and unimportant; in this case they may decide that it is not worth appearing foolish or incompetent over such an unimportant issue as the length of a line. The importance the individual reading of the situation is illustrated in the study by Gamson and his colleagues which attempted to induce obedience to authority to groups of subjects. As noted at least one subject had some knowledge of the Milgram studies and declined to go along with the experimenters’ requests, citing the Milgram studies as his justification (Gamson, Fireman and Rytina, 1982)


According to Turner, social norms and social influence are clearly bound up with each other

“The key in understanding what researchers mean by social influence is the concept of a social norm. Social influence relates to the process whereby people agree or disagree about appropriate behaviour, form or maintain social norms and the social conditions that give rise to, and the effects of such norms.”

(Turner, 1991)

Turner suggest that social norms are

“…a generally accepted way of thinking, feeling or behaving that is endorsed and expected because it is perceived as the right and proper thing to do. It is a rule, value or standard shared by members of a social group that prescribes appropriate or desirable attitudes and conduct in matters relevant to the group.”

(Turner, 1991)

There are many various sub-categories such as gender, age social class or religious affiliation within any one society (sub-cultural variations). For this reason Turner’s definition is more appropriate as it does not apply social norms to the whole of society but instead refers social norms to the context of the social group in which they exist. The social norms of one social group are not necessarily identical to the social norms of a differing group within the same society and certainly social norms or standards are far from universal.

Cultural factors have been found to have an influence on peoples’ tendency to conform. Milgram (1961) found the French were more conforming than Norwegians, Shoval (1975) found Israeli children more independent than their Russian equivalents, whereas American students have been found to be more conformist than Japanese students (Frager, 1970). Perhaps the best illustration of the importance of cultural factors in compliant behaviour comes from the wide variations which have been found in obedience in replications of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment. Milgram found a baseline rate of obedience of 65% among male subjects in his original study. Meeus and Raaijmakers (1986) report rates of up to 92% for a sample drawn from the Dutch general population, whereas Kilham and Mann (1974) reported an obedience rate of only 16% for a sample of Australian female students.

Leaving aside the important issue of how comparable these ‘replications’ actually are, there is fairly good evidence for cultural differences in the tendency to conform. One important finding in relation to adolescent conformity, which emerges from replications of Milgram’s work, is that students appear to be more complaint than the general population. Whether this is age related or indicative of some other sub-cultural factor is not entirely clear.

Meanwhile attempts at replicating Asch’s work have often produced disappointing results. Perrin and Spencer (1981) found very low rates of conformity for a group of British Engineering and Science students, with only 1 out of 396 critical trials producing a conforming response. The low levels or conformity evident in contemporary studies have led some observers to suggest that Asch and Crutchfield’s results are themselves a cultural artefact, reflecting the norms of a particularly conformist society, i.e. 1950’s America.  However this issue is far from clear cut as some contemporary demonstrations of conformity have yielded similar results to those early studies. In a review of 31 conformity studies using the Asch paradigm, Smith and Bond (1998) concluded that conformity rates tend to be lower in individualistic ‘western’ cultures and higher in collectivist cultures of South East Asia and Africa.


Questions of ethics are critical to psychological research. Ethical standards are a key feature of the professionalism of psychology. In this section we will consider some important ethical issues in detail and relate these to the social influence research in conformity, minority influence and obedience. At the end we will consider how psychologists deal with these issues using ethical guidelines.

Ethics in Psychology

Ethics are a set of moral principles used to guide human behaviour. There are no absolutes in ethics but any society or group of people develop ethics as a means of determining what is considered right and wrong for that group. The term “ethics” lends to be used when considering moral behaviour among professionals, such as doctors or lawyers. The term “morals” is used to refer to everyday standards of right and wrong, such as honesty and kindness. Ethics are determined by a balance between ends and means, and as such employ a cost-benefit analysis. Certain things may be less acceptable than others, but if the ultimate end is for the good of humankind, then we may feel that an undesirable behaviour (such as causing stress to an animal) is acceptable. The key ethical issues to consider areas follows:


Key amongst these are the use of deception, informed consent and the protection of the participants from harm or distress. Other issues include the rights of participants to withdraw, the right to a debriefing session and the stipulation that payment to participate in the trial should not be linked to any pressure to continue. These issues are particularly relevant to research into social influence because of the potential harm to participants in studies into obedience and conformity to social roles.

3. Consent and Informed Consent

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook

3.1 Whenever possible, the investigator should inform all participants of the objectives of the investigation. The investigator should inform the participants of all aspects of the research or intervention that might reasonably be expected to influence willingness to participate. The investigator should, normally, explain all other aspects of the research or intervention about which the participants enquire. Failure to make full disclosure prior to obtaining informed consent requires additional safeguards to protect the welfare and dignity of the participants (see Section 4).

3.2 Research with children or with participants who have impairments that will limit understanding and/or communication such that they are unable to give their real consent requires special safe-guarding procedures.

3.3 Where possible, the real consent of children and of adults with impairments in understanding or communication should be obtained. In addition, where research involves any persons under 16 years of age, consent should be obtained from parents or from those in loco parentis. If the nature of the research precludes consent being obtained from parents or permission being obtained from teachers, before proceeding with the research, the investigator must obtain approval from an Ethics Committee.

3.4 Where real consent cannot be obtained from adults with impairments in understanding or communication, wherever possible the investigator should consult a person well-placed to appreciate the participant’s reaction, such as a member of the person’s family, and must obtain the disinterested approval of the research from independent advisors.

3.5 When research is being conducted with detained persons, particular care should be taken over informed consent, paying attention to the special circumstances which may affect the person’s ability to give free informed consent.

3.6 Investigators should realise that they are often in a position of authority or influence over participants who may be their students, employees or clients. This relationship must not be allowed to pressurise the participants to take part in, or remain in, an investigation.

3.7 The payment of participants must not be used to induce them to risk harm beyond that which they risk without payment in their normal lifestyle.

3.8 If harm, unusual discomfort, or other negative consequences for the individual’s future life might occur, the investigator must obtain the disinterested approval of independent advisors, inform the participants, and obtain informed, real consent from each of them.

3.9 In longitudinal research, consent may need to be obtained on more than one occasion.

It is considered the right of participants, wherever possible, to provide voluntary informed consent. This means several things: being informed about what will be required, being informed about the purpose of the research, being informed of your right’s (e.g. the right to confidentiality, the right to leave the research at any time), and finally, giving your consent.

There are many situations where this is not possible:

  • When children or participants who have impairments that limit understanding and/or communication are involved. In this case, the informed consent of a responsible adult is sought, although some critics might feel that this is not sufficient

  • When deception is a necessary part of the research design, as in Asch’s or Milgiam’s experiment

  • In field experiments when participants are not even aware that they are taking part in a piece of psychological research. A classic study by Piliavin et al. (1969) involved a confederate pretending to collapse on an underground train with the aim of finding out how many people would offer help.

  • Bickman’s (1974) study of obedience was also a field experiment

  • Retrospective case studies, where data in the public domain are used as psychological evidence There is even the question as to whether truly informed consent is ever possible. How easy is it for a non-psychologist to understand the aims of psychological research and fully comprehend what is expected of him or her. When giving fully informed consent are we ever fully informed? Particpants may not anticipate their own behaviour or the psychological consequences of it even where they have given fully informed consent

Other ways to obtain consent

One possibility is to ascertain acceptability by asking the opinions of members oi the population from which the participants in the research are to be drawn. This is what Milgram did, and it is called seeking presumptive consent. An alternative approach is to gain prior general consent. This is what Gamson et al. (1982) did. In their study they gained participants’ consent using the following ruse: they advertised for participants and when interested individuals telephoned, the potential participants were asked whether they were willing to take part in any or all of the following kinds of research:

  • Research on brand recognition of commercial products.
  • Research on product safety.
  • Research in which you will be misled about the purpose until afterwards.
  • Research involving group standards.

Most people said yes to all four and then were told that only the last kind of research was in progress. However, they had agreed to the third kind of research and thus consented to be deceived.

4. Deception

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook.

4.1 The withholding of information or the misleading of participants is unacceptable if the participants are typically likely to object or show unease once debriefed. Where this is in any doubt, appropriate consultation must precede the investigation. Consultation is best carried out with individuals who share the social and cultural background of the participants in the research, but the advice of ethics committees or experienced and disinterested colleagues may be sufficient.

4.2 Intentional deception of the participants over the purpose and general nature of the investigation should be avoided whenever possible. Participants should never be deliberately misled without extremely strong scientific or medical justification. Even then there should be strict controls and the disinterested approval of independent advisors.

4.3 It may be impossible to study some psychological processes without withholding information about the true object of the study or deliberately misleading the participants. Before conducting such a study, the investigator has a special responsibility to (a) determine that alternative procedures avoiding concealment or deception are not available; (b) ensure that the participants are provided with sufficient information at the earliest stage; and (c) consult appropriately upon the way that the withholding of information or deliberate deception will be received

Deception may be necessary

Honesty is a key moral and ethical principle and there is a fundamental expectation to be given full information when you agree to take part in psychological research. However, deception is sometimes necessary. A well-known example of research involving deception is the work of Asch. If the participants had been told the experiment was designed to study conformity to group pressure, and that all the other participants were confederates of the experimenter, then this important study would have been pointless.

Most Psychological Research Employs Some Level of Deception

Deception is certainly widespread. Menges (1973) considered about 1000 experimental studies that had been carried out in the United States. Full information about what was going to happen was provided in only 3% of cases. One possible reaction is to argue that there should never be any deception in psychological experiments, even if that: means that some lines of research have to stop. However, most forms of deception are entirely harmless. Given the above you may wonder why there is a statement on deception in the ethical guidelines and principles published by the BPS. There are a number of reasons for this.

  • Psychology is a profession like law or medicine. It would be inappropriate for the

psychological profession to have no guidelines on deception in its ethical code of practice.

  • The presence of guidelines on deception has two main effects. It reminds psychologists

that they have duties towards participants and that participants have rights. Secondly, it reminds

psychologists that they should take every reasonable precaution against the use of deception

in the course of their research and where possible avoid it.

  • Deception may only be used as a means which justifies the end. In other words the information

gained from an experiment using deception is psychologically interesting or valuable.

  • The deception should be unavoidable.

  • Deception should not be a routine aspect of psychological investigations. It should be avoided

wherever possible.

Avoiding Deception

Psychologists could use role-play, which has in itself proved a powerful form of social investigation, in order to overcome the problem of deception. Role-play might not of course eliminate the distress participants experience as Zimbardo found in his Stanford Prison Experiment (1973). Similarly, a study by Meeus and Raaijmakers (1995), also involved role playing. Deception was largely avoided but there were also problems of distress. Zimbardo, (1993) spoke out against what he called ‘what if’ scenarios.

‘One of the subtle dangers arising out of the increase in concern for the ethics of experiments,

is it gives social psychologists an easy out. To do behavioural experiments is very difficult.

Its time consuming, it’s labour intensive and you can replace it with an “as if” paper-and-pencil,

30-minute self-report. The question arises, “is that the same thing?” If, in fact, you could discover

the same things about human nature from asking people to imagine how they would behave in

a situation instead of observing how they do, it clearly doesn’t make sense to do the behavioural


I think what you get from the Milgram study and my Prison study is very different from

self-report based ones. Indeed, Milgram asked 40 psychiatrists how people would behave

in his conformity experiment. To a person they all got it wrong: they predicted that fewer than

one per cent of the subjects would go all the way in shocking the innocent victim, when in

actuality two-thirds blindly obeyed the unjust authority figure. There are situations you

cannot imagine what it would be like until you are in them. So, if we are going to have a

psychology of “as if”, of “imagine this were the situation and how would you predict you

would behave?”

I think you are missing out on some of the powerful yet subtle dynamics of situational control.

The contribution social psychologists make is in understanding what people will or won’t do

in certain situations, typically, even if you describe the situation, people will underestimate

its power. There is no way until you are in it, that you begin to feel and become entrapped

in the power of the situation.’

5. Debriefing

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook.

5.1 In studies where the participants are aware that they have taken part in an investigation, when the data have been collected, the investigator should provide the participants with any necessary information to complete their understanding of the nature of the research. The investigator should discuss with the participants their experience of the research in order to monitor any unforeseen negative effects or misconceptions.

5.2 Debriefing does not provide a justification for unethical aspects of any investigation.

5.3 Some effects which may be produced by an experiment will not be negated by a verbal description following the research. Investigators have a responsibility to ensure that participants receive any necessary debriefing in the form of active intervention before they leave the research setting.

Debriefing Participants After Deceiving Them

Debriefing is an important part of using deception, a means of compensating for the dishonesty of deception. At the end of the research study participants should be told the actual nature and purpose of the research. They are then asked to ensure that they do not tell any future participants. Debriefing can also be used to reduce any distress that may have been caused by the experiment. However, the fact that participants are debriefed does not justify carrying out any unethical procedures.

According to Aronson (1986) participants should leave the research situation in “a frame of mind that is at least as sound as it was w/hen they entered”. This might not be the case even after debriefing. You might consider Milgram’s research in this context.

6 & 7. Withdrawal from the investigation & confidentiality

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook.

6.1 At the onset of the investigation investigators should make plain to participants their right to withdraw from the research at any time, irrespective of whether or not payment or other inducement has been offered. It is recognised that this may be difficult in certain observational or organisational settings, but nevertheless the investigator must attempt to ensure that participants (including children) know of their right to withdrawWhen testing children, avoidance of the testing situation may be taken as evidence of failure to consent to the procedure and should be acknowledged.

6.2 In the light of experience of the investigation, or as a result of debriefing, the participant has the right to withdraw retrospectively any consent given, and to require that their own data, including recordings, be destroyed.

7.1 Subject to the requirements of legislation, including the Data Protection Act, information obtained about a participant during an investigation is confidential unless otherwise agreed in advance. Investigators who are put under pressure to disclose confidential information should draw this point to the attention of those exerting such pressure. Participants in psychological research have a right to expect that information they provide will be treated confidentially and, if published, will not be identifiable as theirs. In the event that confidentiality and/or anonymity cannot be guaranteed, the participant must be warned of this in advance of agreeing to participate.

The right to withhold data

After the research, during debriefing, the participant should be offered the opportunity to withhold their data. In essence this gives them the same power as if they had refused to take part in the first place. However, this does not immunise participants from the potential harmful effects of having participated in the research in the first place.

8. Protection of participants from physical and/or psychological harm

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook.

8.1 Investigators have a primary responsibility to protect participants from physical and mental harm during the investigation. Normally, the risk of harm must be no greater than in ordinary life, i.e. participants should not be exposed to risks greater than or additional to those encountered in their normal lifestyles. Where the risk of harm is greater than in ordinary life the provisions of 3.8 should apply. Participants must be asked about any factors in the procedure that might create a risk, such as pre-existing medical conditions, and must be advised of any special action they should take to avoid risk.

8.2 Participants should be informed of procedures for contacting the investigator within a reasonable time period following participation should stress, potential harm, or related questions or concern arise despite the precautions required by the Principles. Where research procedures might result in undesirable consequences for participants, the investigator has the responsibility to detect and remove or correct these consequences.

8.3 Where research may involve behaviour or experiences that participants may regard as personal and private the participants must be protected from stress by all appropriate measures, including the assurance that answers to personal questions need not be given.There should be no concealment or deception when seeking information that might encroach on privacy.

8.4 In research involving children, great caution should be exercised when discussing the results with parents, teachers or others acting in loco porentis, since evaluative statements may carry unintended weight.

Protection from Harm

Of course, psychologists have a general duty to protect participants in psychological research from any adverse physical or psychological consequences of their participation.

Physical harm

It may same odd that participants in a psychological experiment could come to harm as a consequence of their participation in an experiment, but it does occasionally happen. Participants in conformity studies experienced elevated levels of physiological arousal and in certain cases suffered extreme anxiety and stress. (Bogdanov, 1965). In the Milgram procedure, some naïve participants suffered from tremors, lip biting, gouging of fingernails, trembling, sweating, seizures and fits. Though Milgram could not have anticipated the ill effects on the first trial, he knew that participants did suffer these effects before embarking on subsequent trials. We have to question the ethics of this. Similarly, Zimbardo did not abandon his Prison simulation study until six days into the experiment even though the effects of the role play were clear after 24hrs. Furthermore a pilot study conducted by Zimbardo accurately predicted the behaviour of the guards towards the prisoners. The BPS guidelines are clear. Where investigators detect that physical harm of the participants is either occuring or is a likely consequence of proceeding, the investigator must take steps to:

“…detect and remove, or correct, these consequences…’ (BPS Guidelines, January 2000)

Psychological harm

Psychological harm is much more difficult to quantify. There is no doubt that many studies infringe what might be called psychological safety. Loss of self-esteem would also constitute psychological harm.

9. Ethical Principles in observational research

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook

Studies based upon observation must respect the privacy and psychological well-being of the individuals studied. Unless those observed give their consent to being observed, observational research is only acceptable in situations where those observed would expect to be observed by strangers. Additionally, particular account should be taken of local cultural values and of the possibility of intruding upon the privacy of individuals who, even while in a normally public space, may believe they are unobserved.

10. Giving Advice

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook

10.1 During research, an investigator may obtain evidence of psychological or physical problems of which a participant is, apparently, unaware. In such a case, the investigator has a responsibility to inform the participant if the investigator believes that by not doing so the participant’s future well-being may be endangered.

10.2 If, in the normal course of psychological research a participant solicits advice concerning educational, personality, behavioural or health issues, caution should be exercised. If the issue is serious and the investigator is not qualified to offer assistance, the appropriate source of professional advice should be recommended.

10.3 In some kinds of investigation the giving of advice is appropriate if this forms an intrinsic part of the research and has been agreed in advance.

11. Colleagues

The Guidelines as stated in the BPS Handboook

Investigators share responsibility for the ethical treatment of research participants with their collaborators, assistants, students and employees. A psychologist who believes that another psychologist or investigator may be conducting research that is not in accordance with the principles above should encourage that investigator to re-evaluate the research.

Ethical committees

One way of trying to ensure that psychological research is ethically acceptable is by setting up ethical committees. Most institutions (e.g. universities, research units) in which research is carried out now have their own ethical committee, which considers all research proposals from the perspective of the rights and dignity of the participants. The existence of such committees helps to correct the power imbalance between experimenter and participant. However, if all the members of an ethical committee are researchers in psychology, they may be disinclined to turn down proposals from professional colleagues. For this and other reasons, it is desirable for every ethical committee to include some none psychologists and at least one non-expert member of the public. In the United States every complaint against psychologists is investigated by the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Scientific and Professional Ethics. If the complaint is found to be justified, then the psychologist concerned is either suspended or expelled from the Association.

The Cost-Benefit Approach: The cost-benefit approach involves weighing up the potential findings of the research (benefits) against the-potential harm (costs).

  • First of all it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict both costs and benefits prior to conducting a


  • Second, even after the study it is hard to quantify them, partly because it can depend on

who is making the judgements. A participant may judge the costs differently from the researcher,

and benefits may be judged differently in years to come.

  • Finally, cost-benefit analyses tend to ignore the substantive rights of individuals in favour of practical, utilitarian considerations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s