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Social Psychology – Norm Formation

Answers the Question

What is Truth?

How it Began

Muzafer Sherif, one of the founders of social psychology, stands out as one of the main forces behind its growth in the in the 30’s. His work with group processes and inner group conflict following social norms still serves as a reference point to researchers studying groups today.

Muzafer Sherif conducted a classic study on conformity in 1936. Sherif put subjects in a dark room and told them to watch a pinpoint of light and report how far it moved. Psychologists had previously discovered that a small, unmoving light in a dark room often appeared to be moving. This was labeled the autokinetic effect.

Realizing that an experience that is completely “in people’s heads” might be readily influenced by suggestion, Sherif decided to study how people were influenced by other people’s opinions, in their perception of the autokinetic effect.

Stand out from the Crowd

First Sherif studied how subjects reacted to the autokinetic effect when they were in a room by themselves. He found that they soon established their own individual norms for the judgment—usually 2 to 6 inches. In other words, when given many opportunities (trials) to judge the movement of the light, they settled on a distance of 2-6 inches and became consistent in making this judgment from trial to trial.

In the next phase of the experiment, groups of subjects were put in the dark room, 2 or 3 at a time, and asked to agree on a judgment. Now Sherif noted a tendency to compromise. People who usually made an estimate like 6 inches soon made smaller judgments like 4 inches. Those who saw less movement, such as 2 inches, soon increased their judgments to about 4 inches. People changed to more resemble the others in the group.

Sherif’s subjects were not aware of this social influence. When Sherif asked subjects directly, “Were you influenced by the judgments of other persons during the experiments,” most denied it. However, when subjects were tested one at a time, later, most now conformed to the group judgment they recently made. A subject who previously settled on an estimate of 2 inches or 6 inches was more likely (after the group experience) to say the light was moving about 4 inches. These subjects had been changed by the group experience, whether they realized it or not. They had increased their conformity to group norms.

Key Terminology

Group norms; agreed-upon standards of behaviour. Sherif’s experiment showed group norms are established through interaction of individuals and the leveling-off of extreme opinions. The result is a consensus agreement that tends to be a compromise…even if it is wrong.

Autokinetic effect; An illusion whereby light in a darkened rooms looks like it is moving, although it does not actually move. However, people almost always believe that it does.

Conformity; The act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to group norms.  The tendency to conform occurs in small groups and/or society as a whole, and may result from subtle unconscious influences, or direct and overt social pressure. Conformity can occur in the presence of others, or when an individual is alone.

Norms; Implicit, unsaid rules shared by a group of individuals, that guide their interactions with others and among society or social group.

In Brief

Groups have influence on ambiguous and unambiguous situations people often adopt the opinion of other group members and converge to social norms.  These social norms reflect group evaluations of what is right and wrong. As a result of converging to groups’ opinions, people become more alike when interacting in groups.

People conform to the opinion of other group members and converge to social norms, because of their need to master the world and the need to be connected by others. Private conformity occurs when people truly believe that the group is right, whereas public conformity occurs when we are pressured to conform to group norms. When publicly conforming, people still privately think the group is wrong.

The degree of conformity is higher in collectivistic cultures, where they view conformity as a social glue, than it is in individualistic cultures, where conformity is seen as something negative.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

Group consensus is highly valued because we think we can trust the outcome of multiple individuals coming to the same conclusion. However, we cannot trust a consensus if (1) people adopt a consensus without carefully considering the relevant information themselves; (2) people are contaminated by shared biases; or (3) people publicly conform to norms.

When different people independently come to the same conclusion, consensus is valid. However, when people do not consider relevant information themselves, consensus is reached without consideration, and does not have much value.

People are less influenced by views from a group than by views from separate individuals. This is perhaps because of the possibility for group consensus to be contaminated.  People often go along with group norms to get along. This destroys the reliability of the consensus. Disagreeing people feel fear, and anticipate negative reactions. A single supporter helps us to resist majority pressure.

When a group becomes more interested in reaching agreement than in how agreement is achieved, ineffective decisions may be made. When this desire or pressure to reach an agreement interferes with effective decision making, norm formation has an negative impact on sustainable performance.

Unhelpful norm formation can be avoided by making sure all available evidence is considered; dissenting information should not be avoided or suppressed. The OD practitioner should appoint or play the devil’s advocate if groupthink is suspected.  A second way in which norm formation can be disrupted is through group membership being selected for diversity, making sure members’ views are independent from each other.

Finally, people should state their private opinion in public votes, tolerance for disagreement should become higher, and the role of powerful and respected members should be minimized.