Two experiments demonstrate the powerful influence of others’ views on individual attitudes and attitude expression. Those around us can influence our views through persuasion and information exchange, but the current research hypothesizes that exposure to alternate views even without discussion or exchange of persuasive arguments can also alter what attitudes are expressed, and even generate long term shifts in attitudes. In an initial study, naïve participants were asked their attitudes on a range of standard survey items privately, publicly in a group with trained confederates, and again privately following the group setting. Findings indicate significant attitudinal conformity, which was most pronounced when participants were faced with a unanimous (versus non-unanimous) group. The group experience continued to influence participants’ views when they were again asked their views in private. A second experiment varied whether participants heard views from live confederates or via computer, demonstrating that these effects could not be attributed only to issue-relevant information provided by or inferred from group members, and that attitude change persisted long after participants had left the laboratory. In summary, when people are asked their attitudes publicly, they adjust their responses to conform to those around them, and this attitude change persists privately, even weeks later. Accordingly, such purely social processes of attitude change may be every bit as important as more traditional cognitive informational processes in understanding where people’s political attitudes come from, and how they may be changed.
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Although researchers use the term “conformity” in various ways, it generally indicates a continuum such that individuals may be more conforming or nonconforming (see Willis 1963; Nail and MacDonald 2007). “Movement toward an influence source is the most prominent operational definition of conformity in the literature…” (Nail and MacDonald 2007, p. 195). Thus, we use “conformity” to mean a shift in expressed attitudes to be closer to (but not necessarily identical to) the views of others. This is especially appropriate for views in groups, in that individuals in groups rarely hold identical views, making being identical to a group operationally unclear.
Note that we do not hypothesize that later private attitudes will be exactly the same as attitudes expressed in the group, only that they will be more like those of the group than initial private attitudes had been.
Informational influence may, of course, also play a role, and will be held constant in tests of normative influence.
The results of both studies are presented in order to demonstrate a basic finding and an extension, and to demonstrate the reliability and robustness of these results, in accordance with the recommendations of King (1995).
For those who are less familiar, the within-subjects design is an experimental design in which a participant experiences more than one experimental condition (see, e.g., Keppel and Wickens (2004) for further discussion). Counterbalancing is employed for maximum internal validity. It enables causal conclusions, and is particularly valued in fields like medicine and psychology because each participant serves as their own control group, enabling greater power and efficiency than a between-subjects design. Within-subjects designs are especially well suited to circumstances when: (1) individual differences are expected to be large enough to obscure treatment effects by generating large within-group variability, or (2) trials are quite brief (as in our study), making it more efficient to have a participant take part in several different trials, rather than having multiple participants take part in only one brief trial apiece. In this study, there is an additional benefit: if participants were assigned to only one condition across attitudes, hearing their group members responding the same way on every trial would undoubtedly generate unnecessary suspicion.
Suspicious participants questioned the naivety of the confederates, and a few mentioned group influence or verbal conformity. No participants guessed that we were examining persistent or private attitude change. Related research suggests that demand effects make attitudes less prone to our predicted social influences because of concern about appearing weak-willed to the experimenter (Deutsch and Gerard, 1955), minimizing concerns about demand effects.
Attesting to the robustness of these results, t tests confirm that participants’ attitudes became more like the group attitudes to which they were randomly assigned (whether liberal or conservative).
Dependent variables included those already discussed, and a three category variable (move toward, stay, move away). Interpretation was substantively similar across dependent variable codings (Online Resource, Appendix F).
Due to the multi-stage responses of participants, nested logit models and conditional logistic regression models were also estimated. These models reduce to a multinomial logistic regression as a result of the structure of this data. The multinomial results closely resemble presented results (Online Resource, Appendix F) because too few participants polarized away from the group to provide additional leverage. Parallel logistic regression models were also run to examine subsequent responses contingent on behavior in the group. Again, results did not change substantively (Appendix F). Multilevel modeling proved untenable due to the cross-nesting of within-participant observations across times and conditions, and the need to use the outcome at time 1 to condition the effects in later stages.
Predicted probabilities throughout the paper were calculated based on the relevant logistic regressions, holding all other variables at the mean. Discussion of change of predicted probability indicates that the probability changed by the number of percentage points indicated.
Throughout, we individually tested the interactions between our covariates (party id, sophistication, and attitude strength) and our key variables of unanimity and distance. We had no a priori hypotheses about such interactions. All were non-significant, except where noted. Here, we found a marginal interaction between unanimity and political sophistication (p < .1), replicated in two of four subsequent analyses (Online Resource, Appendix E).
A scripted group discussion also took place for ½ of study 2 participants to test orthogonal hypotheses. This took place after participants’ reported their attitudes in the group, and therefore after conformity was assessed. Somewhat unexpectedly, this had no 1st or 2nd order effects on any of the results discussed herein.
Given the nesting of responses within individuals and issues, we cluster the responses within participants. As noted by Gelman and Hill (2007), multi-way clustering is not an option due to perfect nesting, making clustering by the participant the more conservative test of the null hypothesis. Parameter estimates do not change as a function of clustering choice (by issue or item). Analyses of individual issues provide the same basic pattern of results, although with less power, so results presented here are collapsed across issues.
Here, the effect of unanimity was qualified by an unexpected significant sophistication by unanimity interaction, such that the buffering effect of sophistication against social influence was reduced under conditions of unanimity (see Appendix E). Attitudinal distance and party id also interacted significantly, b = 2.44, SE = 0.67, p < .001, but this interaction did not replicate in study 1 or in other study 2 analyses, and so is believed to be a statistical anomaly.
Sophistication again unexpectedly interacted with unanimity such that sophistication was less of a buffer against attitude change in unanimous groups than non-unanimous groups (Online Resource, Appendix E).
As expected, participants who took longer to complete the follow-up exhibited less long term attitude change. These effects are not fleeting, but may slowly diminish over time, as participants’ everyday circumstances and social networks exert their own pressures (e.g. Huckfeldt et al 2004a). As noted by a helpful reviewer, this finding also rules out a regression to the mean account, in that the strength of movement toward the group changes over time. Since the mean remains constant, it must be our experimental procedures that generate this change.
Two significant interactions (unanimity by strength, b = 2.15, SE = 0.85, p = .01, and distance by attitude strength, b = − 3.18, SE = 1.48, p = .03) did not replicate in any preceding analysis, and are probably statistical anomalies.
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The authors would like to thank the editors and several anonymous reviewers who have contributed thoughtful comments. We would particularly like to thank Stanley Feldman and Joel Simmons for their comments and advice on earlier drafts of this manuscript. We would also like to thank our colleagues at Stony Brook University for their helpful input. Perhaps most importantly, we would like to thank the research assistants who worked behind the scenes to make this research possible: Natasha Beckford, Michael Cohan, Jordan Cushner, Christopher Horn, Natalie Mercedes, Angelo Monforte, James O’Donnell, Jason Rose, Daniel Shapiro, and Tiffany Yip. Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Midwestern Political Science Association, and the International Society for Political Psychology.
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Levitan, L.C., Verhulst, B. Conformity in Groups: The Effects of Others’ Views on Expressed Attitudes and Attitude Change. Polit Behav 38, 277–315 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-015-9312-x
- Social influence
- Political attitudes
- Group processes