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Informational Social Influence

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Informational Social Influence

The autokinetic effect is a phenomenon that causes light observed in a dark environment to appear as if it’s moving. An everyday example of this would be how stars appear to be moving in the night sky. This happens because your eyes make a lot of slight movements, especially when staring at a fixed point for a long period of time. In an attempt to make your vision clearer, your brain removes distracting shakiness from your vision; but in doing so, makes you unable to tell if it is your eyes or the object moving. This makes still objects appear as if they are moving, which is especially noticeable when a bright object is visible on a dark background.

In this article, we will explore the Sherif 1935 experiment and the informational social influence.

Sherif's 1935 experiment

  • Sherif wanted to see how group norms are established. Group norms are long-lasting, agreed-upon ideas that occur as a result of a process called ‘norm crystallisation’. Norm crystallisation is the process of a group of people reaching a consensus together. For example, you may be asked to tackle a group task at school or college. Together with your group, you will reach an agreement on how to carry out the task. Sherif was also interested in investigating normative social influence vs informational social influence. Let’s take a look at what these terms mean.

Normative social influence is an explanation for conformity which is driven by our need to fit into a group. It occurs when we feel social pressure from others, our environment, or society.

For example, if your friends all like a particular band and talk about it often, you may feel pressured to listen to them too, even if you don’t actually enjoy the music.

Informational social influence is an explanation for conformity that is driven by our wish to be correct. It occurs when we lack information (an ambiguous situation) about something and look to others for guidance.

An example of this would be if you have just started college and weren’t familiar with the location of your psychology classroom. If a group of students are talking about the subject, you might be tempted to follow them, assuming they know where the classroom is.

How was the Sherif 1935 experiment conducted?

Sherif’s experiment was a lab experiment. The apparatus (equipment used for the experiment) consisted of a black screen and light. As a result of the autokinetic effect, the light would appear to move when projected onto the screen.

Informational Social Influence Sherif autokinetic effect experiment StudySmarterSherif autokinetic effect experiment apparatus, brocku.ca

The participants were asked to individually estimate how much the light had moved in inches. It was established that estimates ranged from two to six inches. After the individual responses were recorded, Sherif placed participants into groups of three. He selected the groups based on their responses so that two group members would have a similar estimate and the third would have a very different one. Participants were then asked to say aloud what their estimate was.

What were the results of Sherif’s 1935 experiment?

Sherif hypothesised that people would conform to group norms when they were put in an ambiguous situation, which is why he chose for his experiment to have no clear correct answer from the participants’ point of view.

Sherif found that the member of the group with the most different estimate from the others would change their answers to the two members’ with similar estimates, thus, showing that people would always conform to the group norm.

As nobody was sure of the answer, they looked to the other members of the group for guidance, therefore, this experiment is an example of informational social influence.

The results from this study confirm that when in an ambiguous situation, people will look to others for guidance to follow the norm.

Criticisms of the Sherif 1935 experiment

Sherif’s study was not without its criticisms. Below, we will go through some of them.

Was there a group?

Usually, when we talk about conforming to group norms, we are referring to large, homogeneous groups and their social norms. However, this study only dealt with groups of three at one time, where only two members would initially agree with one another.

It could be argued that this doesn’t count as a group, especially when later studies such as Asch’s line study demonstrated that conformity was as low as 12% when the confederate group consisted of two people.

Was the task too ambiguous?

Since there was no actual right or wrong answer in this study, the ambiguity of the task could be considered an interference variable, which may have made it hard to determine if conformity was actually occurring.

In comparison, Asch (1951) had right and wrong answers in his study, ensuring that it was actually conformity that was affecting the results, which made the results valid.

Informational Social Influence - Key takeaways

  • Sherif (1935) wanted to see how group norms occurred, and how ambiguous situations may encourage conformity to these norms.
  • Sherif used the autokinetic effect to make a light appear to move. The participants’ task was to estimate how far the light moved.
  • Participants were asked their estimates. They were then put into groups of three. Sherif put two participants with similar estimates together, then introduced the third member with a differing estimate.
  • When reading their estimate aloud, the participant with the differing estimate would conform, estimating a closer number to the other participants.
  • Sherif concluded that people were more likely to conform in ambiguous situations.
  • The task may have been too ambiguous, making it hard to tell if conformity truly occurred.
  • This experiment’s groups may have been too small.

Frequently Asked Questions about Informational Social Influence

Sherif’s autokinetic experiment was a conformity experiment. Participants were asked to estimate the movement of a stationary light that appeared to move due to the autokinetic effect.

An example of informational influence is when you don’t know the answer to a question in class so you listen out for others talking about it, assuming they might be correct.

Sherif used the autokinetic effect to study conformity because he believed that the ambiguity brought about by a process that is in the participants’ minds would affect conformity.

Asch had control over his participants. Sherif did not.

Informational influence mainly occurs because we wish to be correct. In situations where we are unsure of our own knowledge, we look to others for information they might have.

Final Informational Social Influence Quiz

Question

What was Sherif’s autokinetic experiment investigating?

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Answer

Sherif’s autokinetic experiment was investigating how group norms are formed and how ambiguity can influence conformity.

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Question

What is the autokinetic effect?

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Answer

The autokinetic effect is an optical illusion that makes still objects appear as if they are moving.

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What are group norms?

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Group norms are agreed-upon ideas that occur as a result of a process called ‘norm crystallisation’

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What is norm crystallisation?

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Norm crystallisation occurs when a group comes together to reach a consensus on an issue and forms a new group norm as a result.

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What is normative social influence and why does it occur?

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Answer

Normative social influence is an explanation for conformity. It occurs when someone conforms due to perceived social pressure from other people, the environment or society.

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What is informational social influence and why does it occur?

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Informational social influence is an explanation for conformity. It occurs in situations where someone is unsure of their own knowledge, so they look to others for guidance.

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How did Sherif choose which groups participants were put into?

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Sherif selected group members based on their estimates of how far the light moved. He put two participants with similar answers together with one who had a dissimilar estimate.

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What happened when participants were asked to say their estimates aloud? 


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Answer

 When participants were asked to say their estimates, the participant with the dissimilar estimate changed their estimate to be closer to those of the other two.

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Which explanation for conformity caused participants to change their estimates?

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Answer

Participants changed their estimates due to informational social influence.

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What occurred when the groups ended up agreeing on similar estimates?

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When the groups agreed on similar estimates, this was an example of norm crystallisation.

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Why did Sherif choose the autokinetic effect for his experiment?

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Sherif believed that since this would mean there was no true answer to the question about the light movement, that this would cause a level of ambiguity that would encourage conformity.

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What are the main criticisms of Sherif’s study?

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Answer

Sherif’s study’s groups were too small for the results to truly indicate anything about homogenous groups. The situation was also too ambiguous, so it was hard to tell if it was the ambiguity that caused the results or actual conformity.

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