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Do people often imitate one another automatically and without conflict? Why do TV producers insert canned laughter into situation comedies as a way of increasing viewer responsiveness?
Of course one does not need to be a social psychologist to realize that we have an impact on each other’s behavior. The question that poses itself here is how can this be possible and with what effect? In this essay I will discuss influences that come in different shapes and sizes, pressures that are exerted on a person due to conformity.
As social animals, people are vulnerable to have influences on each other. We often yawn when we see others yawning and laugh when we hear others laughing. To demonstrate the point a researcher stopped on a busy street in new York city, looked up at the sixth floor window of a nearby building. Films shot from behind the window indicated that about 80 percent of passers-by stopped and gazed up when they saw these researchers looking up.
Social psychologists talk of conformity as the tendency for people to change their perceptions, opinions, and behavior in ways that are consistent with group norms. Baring this definition in mind, one can call oneself a conformist or a non-conformist. Applying this on myself, I need to ask myself some questions. Do I ever feel pressured to follow what others are doing? At first, I may want to deny the tendency to conform and, instead, declare my individuality. Have I ever attended a wedding dressed in blue jeans or remained seated while my grandparents entering my room. People find it remarkably difficult to breach social norms. To illustrate this point, in the same book by Milgram & Sabini (1978), a social psychology research assistants were supposed to ask subway passengers to give up their seats which is an obvious violation of the norm. However, many of the researchers could not carry out the assignment. Those who tried this experiment became so anxious that they pretended to be ill just to make their request appear justified.
It is evident that conformity exists in everybody everywhere. it is interesting however ironic that psychologists who ask researchers to do a certain assignment will often not dare to do it themselves. Instead, they reinterpret the task and rationalize their own behavior as a way to see themselves as non-conformist and as independent.
People have mixed feelings about conformity. Anyway having some conformity is required if a person needs to coexist peacefully. However, at some other times, conformity can have some harmful consequences as smoking among teens in my school or telling offensive jokes because others are doing the same. What matters for a social psychologist is to understand the conditions in which people follow along and the reasons for that particular behavior.
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