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The Importance of the Task

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Still another determinant of conformity is the perceived importance of the decision. The studies of Sherif, Asch, and Moscovici may be criticized because the decisions that the participants made—for instance, judging the length of lines or the colors of objects—seem rather trivial. But what would happen when people were asked to make an important decision? Although you might think that conformity would be less when the task becomes more important (perhaps because people would feel uncomfortable relying on the judgments of others and want to take more responsibility for their own decisions), the influence of task importance actually turns out to be more complicated than that.

Research Focus: How Task Importance and Confidence Influence Conformity

The joint influence of an individual’s confidence in his or her beliefs and the importance of the task was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Baron, Vandello, and Brunsman (1996) that used a slight modification of the Asch procedure to assess conformity. Participants completed the experiment along with two other students, who were actually experimental confederates. The participants worked on several different types of trials, but there were 26 that were relevant to the conformity predictions. On these trials, a photo of a single individual was presented first, followed immediately by a “lineup” photo of four individuals, one of whom had been viewed in the initial slide (but who might have been dressed differently):

Figure 6.7 Experiment Conducted by Baron, Vandello, and Brunsman (1996) 

The participants’ task was to call out which person in the lineup was the same as the original individual using a number between 1 (the person on the far left) and 4 (the person on the far right). In each of the critical trials, the two confederates went before the participant and they each gave the same wrong response. Two experimental manipulations were used. First, the researchers manipulated task importance by telling some participants (the high-importance condition) that their performance on the task was an important measure of eyewitness ability and that the participants who performed most accurately would receive $20 at the end of the data collection. (A lottery using all the participants was actually held at the end of the semester, and some participants were paid the $20.) Participants in the low-importance condition, on the other hand, were told that the test procedure was part of a pilot study and that the decisions were not that important. Second, task difficulty was varied by showing the test and the lineup photos for 5 and 10 seconds, respectively (easy condition) or for only ½ and 1 second, respectively (difficult condition). The conformity score was defined as the number of trials in which the participant offered the same (incorrect) response as the confederates.

Figure 6.8 Task Importance 

On easy tasks, participants conformed less when they thought that the decision was of high (versus low) importance, whereas on difficult tasks, participants conformed more when they thought the decision was of high importance. Data are from Baron et al. (1996). As you can see in Figure 6.8, an interaction between task difficulty and task importance was observed. On easy tasks, participants conformed less to the incorrect judgments of others when the decision had more important consequences for them. In these cases, they seemed to rely more on their own opinions (which they were convinced were correct) when it really mattered, but were more likely to go along with the opinions of the others when things were not that critical (probably a result of normative social influence). On the difficult tasks, however, results were the opposite. In this case, participants conformed more when they thought the decision was of high, rather than low, importance. In the cases in which they were more unsure of their opinions and yet they really wanted to be correct, they used the judgments of others to inform their own views (informational social influence).

Key Takeaways

  • Social influence creates conformity.
  • Influence may occur in more passive or more active ways.
  • We conform both to gain accurate knowledge (informational social influence) and to avoid being rejected by others (normative social influence).
  • Both majorities and minorities may create social influence, but they do so in different ways.
  • The characteristics of the social situation, including the number of people in the majority and the unanimity of the majority, have a strong influence on conformity.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a time when you conformed to the opinions or behaviors of others. Interpret the conformity in terms of informational and/or normative social influence.
  2. Imagine you were serving on a jury in which you found yourself the only person who believed that the defendant was innocent. What strategies might you use to convince the majority?


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