The Dilemma of Obedience    




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Minority Influence

So far in all of the studies considered such as Asch etc., a majority have had influence over a minority, such as six stooges influencing one participant.  However, in real life if this were always the case, and the minority always went along with the majority, there would be no change in Society.  For change in ideas, religions, politics etc. there are times when a minority of people with different views have to exert their influence on the rest of us.  This so called minority influence tends to be a slow process, but it does bring about a change both in public and privately held opinions.  This is relatively straight forward if the minority has a good power base, but very often they start from a position of weakness so how do they manage to exert influence?

Real life examples:

The suffragette movement changing attitudes towards women’s rights, Galileo’s ideas on planetary movements, the Nazi’s reign in Germany etc…

Psychological experiments:

Moscovici et al (1969): ‘calling a blue slide green’

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to remember this study, ‘cos ‘minority influence’ is a likely question and this is the only study to use!


32 groups of six female participants are told they’re taking part in a study on perception.

Each group are presented with 36 blue slides differing in intensity of shade and are asked to say what colour the slides are.  However two of the participants are stooges and these answer in one of two ways:

  1. They always say the slides are green
  2. They say the slides are green on two thirds of occasions.


  1. When the stooges say ‘green’ every time: 8% of the majority agree
  2. When the stooges are less consistent this falls to 1.25%

These figures aren’t very high, however, 32% of participants conformed with the minority on at least one occasion.  Remember also that the slides are quite clearly blue and NOT green. 


From this Moscovici concluded that consistency is vital for minority influence to occur.  If the minority consistently give the same answer they are more likely to sway a majority. 

Variations on the procedure

If participants were allowed to write down their answers (private response) as opposed to the usual verbal (public response) you may be surprised to find that conforming to a minority actually increased… bet you thought it would go the other way!  To reiterate… when participants were shown a slide that is clearly blue, but a few stooges claim its green, then real participants are more likely to secretly agree with them than do so openly! 

Moscovici concluded that the reason more people (more than the 8%) didn’t conform in the original study, was because they didn’t want to be seen going along with a minority view.  Secretly it seems they were being convinced!

Nemeth et al (1974) agree that consistency is important but is not always enough in itself.  They carried out a variation on the procedure but allowed the participants to answer with a combination of colours. This time there were three conditions:

  1. The stooges randomly answer ‘green’ on half of the trials and ‘blue-green’ on the other half.
  2. The stooges answer ‘green’ to the brighter slides and ‘green-blue’ to the darker slides
  3. The stooges answer ‘green’ on every trial.

Assuming Moscovici et al to be correct, we would expect the third condition, in which the stooges are consistent to have the greatest influence on the minority.  However this was not the case.









Findings and conclusions:

The majority were most influenced by condition 2 since it is seen as flexible.  21% of participants were influenced by the minority in this condition.

In the other two conditions few participants were influenced.  In the first there is lack of consistency, (supporting Moscovici’s findings), and in the third there is a total lack of flexibility and no attempt for the stooges to use the more complex descriptions allowed.

Moscovici concluded that minorities are more likely to be influential if they are consistent but not to the point of being dogmatic.

Hogg & Vaughan (1995) claim that the following are important for minorities to be influential:

  • Principle: if the minority seem to be acting on principle rather than out of self interest
  • Sacrifice: if the minority have had to make sacrifices to maintain their position
  • Share characteristics with the majority:  if the minority are similar in age, race, social class etc.
  • Social trends: if the views of the minority are in keeping with social trends.  For example current trends in Western Society are tolerance and liberalisation.  Therefore calls by a minority for equal rights for a minority group are more likely to meet with acceptance.


Evaluation of Moscovici experiment:


The experiment uses stooges so deception is employed.  Whenever there is deception consent cannot be informed.              


It lacks ecological validity since it is a very trivial exercise, i.e. a silly disagreement over a slide that is very obviously blue.  This is not the sort of thing we normally disagree over, so does it tell us anything about minority influence in real life when very weighty matters of principle tend to be involved


How minorities exert their influence

According to Moscovici minorities with opposing views to ours create social conflict resulting in discomfort amongst the majority.  According to Moscovici the minority must:

  • Challenge the established norm by creating doubt in the minds of the majority
  • Make itself highly visible (e.g. public campaigns, marches etc).
  • Show that there is an alternative viewpoint
  • Demonstrate certainty and confidence in their view
  • Avoid compromise or even a hint of it
  • Suggest that the only solution to the conflict is for others to move towards their position.

Think of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in relation to the above!

Atkinson et al (1990) report the following study:

Students were asked to read out summaries of a discussion on gay rights supposedly written by other students like themselves. 

Four of the summaries focused on one viewpoint

One of the summaries focused on the other viewpoint.

When asked to share their views publicly all of the students tended to favour the majority view.  However, when asked to write down their views privately they tended to favour the minority view. 

It was concluded that the majority creates conformity by the granting or withholding of social approval (compliance) but don’t necessarily create a change of opinion.  On the other hand the minority have the power to create internalisation (a real shift in privately held views).


Explaining minority influence

Conversion theory

Moscovici: if we encounter a viewpoint different to our own conflict is created (similar to cognitive dissonance).  Generally we don’t like conflict so we are motivated to take steps to reduce it.  Okay so far, but this next assumption seems dodgy to me (not to be quoted):

According to Moscovici, if a minority of people hold a different view to our own we examine their argument very closely to find out why their view differs to the majority.  However, if a majority of people disagree with our viewpoint we simply fall into line and alter our own view to fit.  The fact that we examine the minority’s argument more closely means we concentrate more on the content of their message and as a result are more likely to be swayed by it on a private level (we are more likely to internalise their viewpoint).

Mackie (1987) disagrees.  We all like to think that others share similar thoughts and viewpoints to ourselves (so called false-consensus theory).  As a result when a majority disagrees with us we spend longer examining their arguments and weighing up the evidence.  When faced with a minority that disagrees we’re generally not that bothered… after all we’re still in the majority. 

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