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Module 7: Social Influence

Module Overview

The previous module discussed how we are influenced by the message. Persuasion, as we found, works by changing our attitudes or behaviors through the message that is presented. This module will focus on how we are influenced by real or imagined social pressure to change our behavior – conformity. This module will define conformity, investigate acceptance, compliance and obedience through classic studies as well as what motivates these types of conformity. We will also look at what factors affect conformity and what motivates us to choose nonconformity.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Define conformity and explain whether it is good, bad and the role individualism plays.
  • Clarify acceptance through Sherif’s classic autokinetic effect study, the emergence of social norms, and the motivations for conforming.
  • Explain compliance through Asch’s classic line judgment task study, motivations for conforming and the factors that impact our conformity.
  • Clarify obedience through Milgram’s classic study and conditions that impact our obedience.
  • Explain nonconformity through psychological reactance theory and the need for uniqueness.


7.1. What is Conformity?


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define conformity.
  • Exemplify acceptance.
  • Define compliance.
  • Define obedience.


7.1.1. Conformity: Good or Bad? Role of Individualism

In Module 3 on the self, we discussed the topic of our self-concept. Remember that the self-concept is an organized collection of beliefs about the self or answers to the question, “Who am I?” We learned that our answers were influenced by where we grew up. Our socialization in a western culture often impacts how we define ourselves. We focus on what makes us unique from others at a greater level than those socialized in non-western cultures. You might remember this term as individualism, or the independent self, and it is important to our discussion and understanding of conformity.

It is that socialized desire to be separate, unique and independent that results in a negative response to any suggestion that we might have been influenced by others to go along with the group. In fact, I believe it is fair to say that being called a “conformist” is intended to be an insult in our society. It suggests you don’t have an understanding of who you are, you aren’t being true to yourself or you aren’t strong enough to stand up for yourself or to stand alone. This is why if I asked you to tell me if conformity is good or bad – your initial reaction is probably that it is bad. Much of our adolescence is spent being coached to not just go along or fall to peer pressure because it is bad. If asked, I imagine it would be easy for you to come up with a list of things that would be bad for us to conform to — having unprotected sex, underage drinking, drinking and driving, bullying, the list goes on.

However, if we were to reflect further on the topic of conformity, we would see that conformity is in fact what holds our society together. We are social creatures and it is conformity (the real or imagined pressure of others) when we act differently than if we were alone, that keeps things running smoothly. Think for a moment of all the places that we wait in line. Most places we go in public require us to take turns being helped. Can you imagine if there wasn’t pressure to conform to standing in line? It might even be difficult to imagine this because we are socialized so well to conform in these situations. It might help to think of when we learn to wait in line: preschool or kindergarten. What does it look like when 3-5 year olds want something and haven’t yet learned to conform to lines? We might see a lot of shoving and pushing to be helped first. Our early socialization allows us to know that it is important to form lines, to not move ahead or cut in the line, and to wait patiently. So, it seems that conformity can be both good and bad. It can also be neither good nor bad — just neutral. It can be something like wearing a certain type of clothing to work, to church, to a dance or to play a sport. It is something we feel pressure to do, but it doesn’t make things better or worse for the person or society.       


7.1.2. Introduction to the Different Types of Conformity

As you have been imagining conformity, you might be thinking that it doesn’t always look the same. Sometimes conformity can take the shape of acceptance: we think that the behavior we are being influenced to follow is the correct thing to do in the situation. We agree with this behavior both publicly and privately. Let’s revisit our example of waiting in line. You accept that this is the correct thing to do. So, when it is appropriate, you wait in line and agree that it is what you should be doing. Can you think of other things you conform to with acceptance? Do you accept that people should stand or sit at a certain distance from someone else? Do you accept that people shouldn’t sit right next to you in the movie theater unless there aren’t enough seats?

There are many times though, where we publicly go along but privately, we disagree with or don’t want to engage in the behavior we are going along with. This type of conformity is called compliance. I always think of my husband as an example here. He hates to dress up and would rather live in t-shirts and jeans or track pants. However, it isn’t always appropriate to dress in this type of clothing. Sometimes you have to wear a suit and tie or wear more formal clothing. In all of these instances my husband is complying from the real or imagined pressure of others to wear a suit and tie to a funeral, to a wedding or to a job interview. You might love talking about politics, but feel pressure to not speak about it at social gatherings. So, privately you would choose to talk about politics all the time, but the pressure from the real or imagined others keeps you from starting political discussions.

The final type is actually a subtype of compliance, obedience. In these situations, you comply with a direct order from a perceived authority. A doctor tells you to take an antibiotic for 10 days. With obedience, we follow this direct order and take the medicine for the prescribed time period. Our agreement or disagreement doesn’t come into play. As the professor of this course, I might tell you that I will need you to turn something in by a certain date in order for you to receive credit. Everyone obeys this direct order and your own personal feelings don’t come into play. You might want to stop taking the medicine sooner because you feel fine or you might need longer to complete the assignment, but none of that matters when you receive an order from an authority — you just do as they request. In the next sections we will explore in greater detail each of these types of conformity (Cialdini & Trost, 1998; Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).


7.2. Acceptance


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe Sherif’s classic autokinetic effect study.
  • Define and exemplify social norms.
  • Clarify our motivation to conform through acceptance.


7.2.1. Sherif’s Classic Autokinetic Effect Study

Muzafer Sherif was convinced that our views of the world were shaped by those around us. This construction of our reality or truths was necessary to give our perceptions meaning. In order to empirically support these beliefs, he conducted a number of studies using the autokinetic effect. This is an illusion that when a pinpoint of light is projected in a dark space it appears to move even though it is actually stationary. This paradigm was the perfect situation for Sherif to test his idea that in an ambiguous situation we will seek out the right thing to do or a framework to interpret our perceptions (Abrahms & Levine, 2012).

In the mid-1930’s Sherif began his testing at Columbia University. In the individual studies, he would bring in participants, seat them 18 ft. from the wall, turn off the lights and shine a pinpoint of light for two seconds. They were to make a note each time they saw the light move and then to estimate as accurately as possible the distance the light moved in inches. They went through 100 trials. These experiments involved two consecutive days of testing. Confirming his hypothesis, Sherif noted that participants would develop a framework for making their estimates and this resulted in similar answers the second day. The group studies that were conducted used a similar procedure, but this time participants were either tested individually and then placed with two or three other people across three sessions of judging — OR — they were placed with two or three other people across three sessions of judging and then tested individually. Again, Sherif’s hypotheses were supported. He found that individual’s initial judgments would converge with the group judgments. In other words, if some participants established a framework of 2-5 inches of movement and another 6-10 inches when alone, once in a group together both would move their judgments to 4-7 inches as their new framework for making judgments. In the condition where the group responded first, participants’ framework stayed the same when they were later alone (Turner, 1991).  (SEE IMAGE)


7.2.2 Emergence of Social Norms

Sherif’s work was the first to demonstrate the emergence of social norms. Cialdini & Trost (1998) defined social norms as accepted group rules and standards that guide our behavior without the force of law. We can also think of norms as representing what we ought to do or the correct thing to do. They are the accepted way of thinking, feeling and behaving that the group supports. In Sherif’s study, we see these collective norms emerging when the group decides that the distance the pinpoint moved is in a certain range, 4-6 inches, for example. Another classic study from the 1930’s that was conducted at Bennington College, demonstrated the emergence of norms as well, but in a real world social setting (Alwin, Cohen, Newcomb, 1991). Researchers assessed the incoming freshmen who were often from wealthy, conservative families in the area and found that their belief systems lined up with their families. This longitudinal study followed the students through their college experience and after, finding that for the majority of them, the college became a new positive reference group and that the group’s more liberal norms were adopted. As exiting seniors, most followed the norms of the college and later assessments in these student’s lives found that these adopted norms prescribing more liberal beliefs, feelings and ways of behaving didn’t change (Turner, 1991).

I think for most of us social norms become the most obvious when someone violates them. Have you ever been somewhere and thought, “I can’t believe that person is doing that! Don’t they know that isn’t appropriate.”? There are many rules for appropriate behavior in public spaces. Often the groups we belong to and that we value, socialize us early on what is expected and acceptable ways of thinking and behaving. It is typically only through violation of norms that we are aware of their existence.

Having taught this course numerous times, I ask students to choose a social norm to intentionally violate. I ask them to describe how the people reacted to their violation and how it felt for them to violate the norm. I have learned quite a few things from this assignment. First, to always clarify there is a difference between a norm and a law. Don’t break the law! I have also learned that there are norms I was never aware of. For example, men have several bathroom norms, one involves which urinal is appropriate to use under what condition. I have also learned that for most people, it was easy to come up with a norm and it doesn’t matter who the person is, most people felt extremely uncomfortable violating the norm and almost immediately wanted to tell the people around them that their teacher made them do it for a class assignment. Can you think of some norms you may have violated recently or as it is often easier, can you think of someone who violated a norm around you? How did it make you feel? Did you feel like you needed to let them know that they were breaking a rule? What was the person’s reaction to your disapproval of their nonconformity?

Norms can vary in importance to the group and the reactions to the adoption or violation of the norm can vary in intensity. Most often, the social approval in following the norm is what encourages us to adopt it. For little girls, they are often showered with praise for following the gender norm expectations of wearing pretty dresses, bows and playing with dolls. Little boys experience greater negative reactions to norm violations. Boys who wear colors associated with girls or play with dolls are more harshly criticized by adults and peers. Children learn early the rules of their gender group. One of my nephews told me plainly that he couldn’t have the hot pink headphones he wanted because they were a girl color. The intensity of the response to the violation can vary from disapproval (“Those are girl headphones”) to punishment (making fun and calling names for wearing something that doesn’t fit the norm) to exclusion (we won’t play with you because you are wearing girl clothes or boy clothes.)


7.2.3. Motivation to Conform through Acceptance

The examples above demonstrate different motivations for conforming to social norms. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) suggest that there are two reasons we conform, normative influence and informational influence. We either conform because we want to be accepted by others (normative) or we conform because we think it is the right thing to do (informational). It is possible to be motivated by both types of influence, however in the case of acceptance, we typically are conforming because of informational influence, we believe what we are doing is the right thing to do. If you look back at Sherif’s studies, you will notice that informational influence is the motivating factor. These participants accepted the collective group norm for distance because they believed that the group knew something they didn’t, they had some knowledge that led them to a more correct answer. In the Bennington College example, it is possible that initially the girls were motivated to conform because of normative pressure. They wanted to be included and liked, so publicly they went along but privately, they disagreed. We will see in a moment that this is compliance. However, as the longitudinal study revealed the women’s motivation for conforming became informational, their liberal framework became the correct and right way of thinking, feeling and behaving. In situations of acceptance through informational influence we see long-term endorsement of the norms (Cialdini & Trost, 1998).


7.3. Compliance


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe Asch’s classic line judgment task study.
  • Clarify our motivations to conform through compliance.
  • Outline factors that influence conformity.


7.3.1. Asch’s Classic Line Judgment Task Study

We learned in an earlier section of the textbook about the hindsight bias. It is hard for us when presented with information to not feel like it is obvious or that we knew it all along. This is especially true for students in social psychology. As we are presented with research findings, we think this seems like common sense or why did we waste time doing this study — everyone already knows this. Every time I present the work of Solomon Asch, I like to first present what he found. The reaction of most students is “No kidding. This seems like common sense.”. It isn’t hard for them in hindsight to imagine that people would feel pressure from a unanimous group and conform to them. However, what if I told you that Solomon Asch did not predict his results and that his work was actually an attempt to show that Sherif’s findings on group conformity were the result of the ambiguous situation? However, Asch believed strongly that if the situation was straightforward and there was an obvious answer, people would not behave like sheep and they would resist conforming and say the correct answer.

So, in the mid-1950’s he set out to support this idea with what we refer to as Asch’s line judgment task study. He recruited male participants to an experiment called the visual discrimination task study. There were 7-9 men seated at a table, where one is the participant and the rest are confederates (they are working with the experimenter or aware of what is being tested). Everyone was asked to publicly announce which one of the three lines matched a standard length line. (See image) For the first two trials, all confederates answered correctly. The other trials all the confederates agreed on an incorrect answer. The participants were seated so that they heard all but one confederates response before giving their own. Results did not support Asch’s predictions and instead found that 76% of the participants adopted the clearly incorrect judgment of the majority, at least once. While 33% of the participants went along with the clearly wrong answer during 8-12 of the 12 possible trials (Cialdini & Trost, 1998).


7.3.2.  Motivation to Conform through Compliance

In Asch’s study we see that participants often did behave like sheep. They went along with the group even though the answer was clearly wrong. What would motivate them to conform in this way — to publicly agree, but privately disagree? Why not just say the correct answer? As you recall from earlier, there are two motivations for conforming based on the work of Deutsch and Gerard (1955). The first is accuracy or informational goals. We are searching for the correct and appropriate behavior in any given situation. There were a few participants who convinced themselves that they must have eyesight issues or that they didn’t hear the directions correctly. They are trying to find the correct frame of reference or norm for the situation. However, most of the participants in Asch’s study were motivated to conform from the social pressure or desire for approval from the confederates. We want to have meaningful social relationships with others. To create and maintain these relationships, we believe that by doing things others approve of, they will approve of us as well (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). In fact, the more we like someone, the more willing we are to comply with their request, even if we don’t agree (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). In Asch’s study, they have no intention of being friends with the strangers or interacting with them outside of the study. Why would they feel motivated to comply with strangers? Research by Burger et al., (2001) found several interesting findings. First, we tend to rely on heuristics for liking, similarity and reciprocity when we conform. This means that we are more likely to go along with others we like, others who we share similarities with and others who give us things and make us feel indebted. These situations most often occur with friends and family. The problem arises when situational factors are present that cause us to follow the peripheral route. In the case of high cognitive load, we fall back on these heuristics and apply them to interactions with strangers. This means we are now conforming to strangers who compliment us, or we think are attractive, or who wear similar clothes, or do us a favor, even though we don’t know them or have any intention of furthering our interactions with them. In fact, as you remember, people will try to use these against us, attempting to persuade us about their message and to go along with them (compliance). Another interesting finding was that even with limited exposure to a person and no interaction we still see increased compliance to that person’s request.


7.3.3.  Factors Influencing Conformity

We now have an idea of what motivates us to conform, but there are aspects of the situation and us as individuals that can influence the strength of our conformity. You notice in Asch’s line judgment task study that the participant is put into a situation where there is unanimity. Everyone agrees with the clearly wrong answer multiple times. Situations where a majority of people express the same viewpoint or behaving in the same way will result in increased conformity. Going against a majority is stressful and can elicit negative reactions from them, so it is easier to just go along (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). We also see that in situations where the group is cohesive there is greater conformity. What creates cohesion or closeness? One way to create cohesion is to give the group a common goal, making them interdependent. Several studies simply told the participants in the group that by working together they could win a prize. This new interdependence of working toward the prize increased conformity. Another way to create cohesion is to have group members with similarities — we like people like us. We are much more likely to conform to our friends who we share things in common with. We are even more likely to conform to a group of strangers if our similarities are pointed out (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). A study illustrating this effect found that psychology students who believed they were being evaluated by a fellow psychology major were more likely to conform than if the student evaluating was an ancient history major (Abrams, et al., 1990). An individual difference that contributes to the strength of our conformity is self-monitoring. You may remember learning about this in a previous module. Self-monitoring explains the way we pay attention to our surroundings and how we change to fit those surroundings and gain approval. If you remember how Sherif described our need to have a framework to navigate uncertain situations, the individuals who score high in self-monitoring are always looking for the framework so they can fit in and be approved by others in a situation. They have been described as social chameleons, always adapting their thinking and behavior to match the situation’s framework (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). It isn’t surprising then that people who score high on self-monitoring are more likely than low self-monitors to express false attitudes (Olsen & Zanna, 1982).


7.4. Obedience


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe Milgram’s classic obedience studies.
  • Clarify the factors that encourage obedience.


7.4.1.  Milgram’s Classic Obedience Studies

Stanley Milgram is one of the most famous psychologists. It is quite likely that you have heard of him or if not him, his famous shock study. Textbooks don’t often give you a lot of the backstory on the researchers of all these theories. It is worth briefly examining Stanley Milgram’s life to see how various aspects contributed to his work on obedience since this work has made such a great impact in psychology and the world. This very famous study is often connected to one of the most horrible tragedies in recent human history, the Holocaust. It has been used to better understand how something like this could have occurred and with that understanding, a hope to never let something like that happen again. Milgram was born in Bronx, NY in 1933 to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Europe around WWI. After WWII, the surviving members of his extended family from Europe came to live with them. The connection to the Jewish faith and his family contributed to his interest in the Holocaust.

His interest in conformity and obedience didn’t start until later in his schooling. He did his graduate studies at Harvard. During this time, for one year while Solomon Asch was doing a sabbatical at Harvard, Milgram was able to work with him and be exposed to his ideas. He influenced him so much that he completed his dissertation studies using an improved version of the line judgment task paradigm and extending it to compare different countries on their level of conformity. He collected data in the US, Norway and France. His interest in the Holocaust made him want to collect data in Germany, believing they would have greater tendencies toward conformity than other countries. Unfortunately, language and resources didn’t allow for it. Upon completion of his dissertation, he was offered a position at Yale University as an assistant professor of social psychology. At Yale, Milgram began the series of 21 obedience experiments, which ended in 1962 with about 800 volunteers (Blass, 1991; Blass, 2009).

The most widely known version of these studies is the one where the learner suffers from a heart condition. It is this version that we will use to describe the experimental paradigm. So, imagine if you will, that you have just been recruited to participate in a study on the effect of punishment on learning. You show up to the study with one other person. You draw out of a hat to determine which of you will be the teacher and which will be the learner. You don’t know that the drawing is rigged or that other person waiting is called a confederate and working with the experimenter. Both slips of paper say “Teacher,” so no matter what you will end up in that role. The other person is assigned the role of “Learner.” In this version, the learner is set up in another room with an intercom and light system. You follow the experimenter and learner into this room. You watch them being hooked up to electrodes and even get to feel 40 volts of electricity. It is explained to you that you will be giving the learner words to remember. If they get them right then you move forward with the next word, but if they get them wrong you shock them with the shock generator that is sitting in front of you (See image). Every time they give an incorrect answer, you are to increase the voltage 15 units. The end voltage reads 450 volts, DANGER SEVERE SHOCK. It sounds simple enough.

At first, the learner is doing great and getting them correct. Then he starts to get them wrong and you continue to increase the amount of shock until at 150 volts, the learner protests. He wants out, he is experiencing pain and his heart is starting to bother him. You might be thinking at this point that you would stop. You would never intentionally hurt someone. Well, at least 65% of you didn’t stop, you went all the way to 450 volts before you stopped. You kept going even when the learner yelled in pain from 150-330 volts and even when he completely stopped responding from 300 until 450 volts. Did people just sit and flip the switches, administering shock without any care for the learner? No. In most cases, they asked to stop. They told the experimenter they thought they should stop. They expressed concern for this person, but in all cases the experimenter would respond with one of the four following phrases, “Please continue or go on,” “The experiment requires you to continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and “You have no choice. You must go on.” It wasn’t until you said no to continuing the experiment after each of the four responses, that the experiment would end. You weren’t physically coerced — you were simply told to go on and most of you obeyed.

There are many aspects of these set of experiments that have made them so influential. I imagine that you are all thinking about a big one. The participants went all the way to 450 volts. What did it do to them? What did it do to you just to think that you could have been one of the 65% who would have just obeyed? This study inspired a wave of work on human ethics in research and experimentation. Questions about whether we should be deceiving our participants at all, arose from this work. For the time, without the institutional review boards of today (due in part to Milgram’s studies), Milgram believed that his work was worth the risk and in follow-up questionnaires almost all participants believed it was important and thought others should do it. However, no complete replication of Milgram’s work has ever been done. In a 2004 review of studies patterned after Milgram’s procedure, no evidence was found to refute Milgram’s work. There seemed to be no change over time in people’s level of obedience (Blass, 2004).

In 2006 Burger (2009) began a partial replication of Milgram’s study from the 1960’s. Let’s look back at Milgram’s study for a moment. Remember that 150 volts was the point where the learner first yelled out in pain. So, Burger decided this is the critical moment where you determine whether the person would most likely go all the way to 450 volts. He found that in the original work, 79% of people who continued past 150 went all the way to 450 volts. So, he proposed a study that stopped at 150 volts with the assumption that if you hadn’t stopped by 150 volts then you would most likely continue to 450 volts. Another change from the original work was that participants were told three times in different ways that they could leave the study at any point and they would still receive the $50 promised for participating. They also saw another participant choose to leave the study, refuse to continue. These changes should have made it even easier to resist authority, or at least that’s what was predicted. Burger found results similar to Milgram. It seems time doesn’t change our probability of obeying.


7.4.2. Factors that Encourage Obedience

There are however, factors about the situation that make obedience more or less likely. These situational factors include, closeness of the authority, dissent from others and the legitimacy of the authority. In experiment 7, when the experimenter left the room and asked them to proceed with a phone call (manipulating the closeness of the authority), the level of obedience dropped to 21% and those that didn’t keep going often lied saying they were obeying. In experiment 17 they added dissent from two confederates. Adding dissent of others dropped the obedience of going all the way to 450 volts to only 10%. In some studies, a clerk replaced the experimenter and again, obedience dropped to 20%. To obey, a legitimate authority must be present (Blass, 1991).

7.5. What Motivates Nonconformity?


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define psychological reactance theory (PRT).
  • Clarify the components of PRT.
  • Describe the need for uniqueness and its role in nonconformity and conformity.


Up until this point in this module and the previous module, all of the topics have been examining how the power of the situation influences us to go along. We might be going along with the message because of persuasion attempts or as we have seen by examining conformity, we go along because it’s the right thing to do, the pressure to receive approval from others is too strong, or we are being directed by an authority. This section will address what happens when the power of the situation elicits a desire to go against persuasion, conformity and obedience.


7.5.1.  Psychological Reactance Theory (PRT)

The threatening or elimination of our freedoms will result in reactance. It is this unpleasant feeling that motivates us to restore our threatened freedom (Brehm, 1966; Rosenberg & Siegel, 2018; Steindl et al., 2015). Your parents might tell you that you have to be home by 8 p.m. on school nights from now on. They moved your curfew up. It used to be 9 p.m. on school nights. They explain that your grades have slipped and they want you to have more time to study. However, you view it as an elimination of a freedom. We don’t believe all behaviors are freedoms, just the ones that we have done previously, are currently doing or could do in the future. In this case, we have been allowed to stay out until 9 p.m. already and feel like it should be something we are allowed to keep doing. It is likely that we will attempt to restore our threatened freedom by breaking curfew.


7.5.2. Components of PRT

A review of 50 years of PRT research has found that there are four components to the theory. The first is the presence of freedom. The second is the elimination or threat to that freedom. The third is the arousal that comes from the reactance and the fourth is the restoration of that freedom (Rosenberg & Siegel, 2018).

Let’s look a little closer at these components. First, as we mentioned before, people don’t consider all behaviors to be freedoms. Freedoms are subjective — each person’s list would be different. They are behaviors we feel like we should be able to do. For example, in the US, most of us believe that we should be allowed to marry for love. It is a freedom. If it was taken away, we would experience reactance and want to restore our freedom to marry whomever we want. The are other countries where this is not a freedom. They have always had arranged marriages and people do not feel reactance at being told whom they should marry. There might be people in that culture however, who have decided it should be a freedom and that is what makes freedoms subjective. This person experiences reactance because they think they should be allowed to marry whomever they wish. They then seek to restore their threatened freedom by convincing their family to let them marry for love.

In describing what is considered a freedom, we have touched on the second component. The elimination or threat of that freedom. So, in order to be considered eliminated, the freedom must be completely blocked. You can’t marry for love — it isn’t allowed. You can’t wear pants.  You can’t read these books. In all cases, the freedom has been completely removed. The other possibility is that your freedom has just been threatened — the possibility of removal is there but it hasn’t occurred. We are thinking of putting a book on the banned books list. We are going to put a fence around your beloved climbing tree. We will take away your phone if you don’t get your grades up. Again, you haven’t yet lost these freedoms, but in most cases, it is imminent.

The threat or elimination is a trigger for the arousal of reactance to occur. Not surprisingly, the stronger the threat, the stronger the reaction. We also see that the more you value a freedom, the more strongly you will experience reactance. Another interesting aspect of experiencing reactance is vicarious reactance. Your freedoms don’t actually have to be personally threatened or eliminated, simply hearing or observing someone else’s freedoms being threatened or eliminated can elicit reactance (Sittenthaler, Traut-Mattausch, & Jonas, 2015). This makes me think of my two-year old. I wonder if watching her cousins’ freedoms being threatened is triggering her to have more reactance than she would otherwise. Would the trip to Target be easier on us both if she wasn’t watching her cousin being told to sit down or to not touch things? Can you think of moments in your life where you have been glancing through social media or watching the news and someone else’s freedoms were being threatened or eliminated and it has made you feel reactance? You feel anger, resentment, or want to stand up against the source of this potential freedom loss.

The final component is restoration of our freedoms. The most obvious way to do this would be to engage in the restricted behavior. This has been termed the boomerang effect (Brehm, 1966, 1981). A great example of this comes from research looking at the rise in legal drinking age from 18 to 21 years of age. The newly underage students drank more alcohol than those who were considered legal at 21 years of age. They engaged in the boomerang effect by restoring the freedom they perceived was taken away (Engs & Hansen, 1989). Sometimes, we aren’t able to engage in the restricted behavior but we can feel like it has been restored by watching someone else engage in a similar behavior (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Can you think of examples of instances where someone else’s behavior helped restore a freedom you felt was threatened? As a woman, anytime I feel my freedom to work in a certain career or even walk alone at night has been threatened, seeing other women working in these careers or kicking butt and walking alone, I feel my reactance diminish and my freedom restored. Sometimes our negative feelings of reactance can be reduced by expressing anger towards or derogating the source of the threat. A tragic example of this occurred in 2018 at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida. The individual believed that attractive women had taken away his freedom to be with them by rejecting him. He experienced reactance and to reduce it, he expressed great anger through online videos derogating these attractive women who were blocking him from being with them. In this case, it escalated to violence and he opened fire at a yoga studio where these attractive women were located. This is also a good example of a situation where he perceived that he had no control over removing this block to his freedom and this is most likely what led to his act of violence. He felt helpless and the only thing he could do to feel better was express his outrage at the source of his blocked freedoms, attractive women.


One moderating factor, or something that can strengthen or diminish the experience of reactance, is the person’s appraisal of the threat to their freedom. Some individuals will see a threat and others see a challenge. In the case where people feel like they can grow from the loss, they have a positive reaction. This reminds me of situations where people take away their own freedoms. For example, they restrict what they eat. Those that appraise the restriction as a challenge to become healthier won’t boomerang or eat the foods that are restricted. However, during appraisal a lot of people will feel restricted, experience reactance and then eat the food in excess that they were not supposed to.


7.5.3. Need for Uniqueness (NfU)

Besides psychological reactance theory, there is another concept that can help explain the motivation to go against the majority and not conform, a need for uniqueness. This concept is seen as a trait or temporary motivation resulting from situational triggers. Some individuals exhibit a greater need to feel different from others or from the anonymous majority, and sometimes there are situations that create this need to feel unique. One situation that triggers this is when you feel too similar to others making the major position undesirable. In this case, you opt for nonconformity (Imhoff, et al., 2009).

Imhoff (2009) suggests that their conclusions can help us to understand why in Asch’s line judgment task study discussed earlier in the module, 25% of the participants never conformed to the inaccurate judgment, even under powerful normative influence. We know gaining social approval is important to functioning in a social society. Are their aspects of the person or situation that created a need for uniqueness? These researchers say yes. In our individualistic society, being unique has value and when the majority conforming feels wrong, it can trigger us to separate ourselves from them.

Module Recap

Hopefully, you now have a much clearer understanding of the power of the situation to motivate us to conform as well the rare moments when we defy the majority and stand alone. In this module, we covered the three main types of conformity: acceptance, compliance and obedience. We examined each by exploring the classic study that created the concept. We also discovered the different factors that could increase or decrease the experience of each. As we move into the next module, we will focus solely on the impact of the group on the individual. What are groups? How does the presence of others influence our behavior?

2nd edition


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