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Theories of Conformity

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It is not uncommon for us to hear of happenings around the globe that are both shocking and life changing. Various theories have tried to explain the ways in which people conform to certain standards, lifestyles or opinions. Three scholars namely Bibb Latane, Kurt Lewin and Serge Moscovic have come up with various theories that try to explain the occurrence of this phenomenon. This paper focuses on Bibb Latane’s social theory of conformity and how it can be applied to certain real life events. His theory will be supported by two other theories, these include; John Potterat’s Tipping point theory and the late Stanley Milgrams’s theory of obedience.

Bibb Latane was born in 1937 in the United States. He is a social psychologist at the same time author and co-author of various books. He has received numerous awards including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. He currently is the chair of Psychology at Florida Atlantic University. Mr. Latane’s wife Deborah Richardson is also a social psychologist and they are married with three kids, two girls and a boy. Mr. Latane has done major literary works but is most popularly known for the development of the Social Impact theory.

The social impact theory argues that as the number of people increase within a group or setting so does the group’s strength and rate of conformity increase. In other word Bibb means that each person is only responsible for an equal proportion of effort base on the number of people in a group. Latane applied this theory to the results of several conformity studies and it accurately produced the actual amount of conformity that occurred within groups. This theory simply states that the probability of an individual will be based on three things namely strength, immediacy and numbers.

The strength aspect can be described as follows. The authority and power that the group possesses greatly influences your perception of the group and determines whether one will conform to the ideas and policies behind the group. The more magnified a group is, so is the possibility of one being affiliated to the group. In general ones conformity will be determined by how important the group is to the individual. Immediacy refers to how close, in terms of space and time; the group is to the individual at the time of the influence attempt. If it is largely comprised of family, friend or colleagues, there is a higher chance that the individual will conform to the groups’ standard than when the individual is in the midst of people at a bus stop or at the store. Number refers to the quantity of people within a group; this largely influences the ability of one to conform. The larger a group is, the more quorum therefore people are likely to agree on a particular subject and defend it rather than a smaller group which may have people that are afraid of speaking out. The theory’s effect is most powerful when everyone in the group comfortably agree

Testing of the theory by Latane in 1981

In a restaurant setting, he noted that groups of six people who had individual checks left an average of a nineteen percent tip while groups of six people on a single check left an average tip of thirteen percent per person. This supports the principle of numbers that supports Latane’s theory. Latane is also famed for the passive bystander affect. In 1970 he co-wrote a book named The Unresponsive Bystander: Why doesn't he help? Here the writer’s developed a series of steps that an individual undergoes prior to responding to a situation. They include; take note that something is happening, correctly analyze the situation, assume responsibility then take action. These steps are very helpful in an emergency situation. The bystander effect argues that one person is more likely to help in an emergency than a group of people. If there are more people at an emergency situation there is less of a responsibility for an individual in the crowd to respond to the situation, this is because, in a group a person is anonymous and is not immediately regarded as one who can help. Another factor is that one can feel that they are misreading the situation and does not want to be embarrassed when reacting to the situation. Since no one else in the group reacts, every individual feels that there is no reason for them to react.

Latane’s social impact theory is reinforced by theories developed by fellow scholars, Potterat and Milgram. The tipping point theory can be best described as follows; it is that point in time when a policy, principle, idea, trend or behavior reaches a threshold, is accepted and snowballs into a norm. This work of writing, in which Potterat effectively interprets the tipping point theory, is already transforming the way people globally think. It has mostly help in the business aspect of making sales and generally disseminating ideas. The connection to Latane’s by stander and social impact theories is obvious in that both interpret the ways in which people react to particular thing. Potterat’s theory explains how an ideology becomes accepted in a particular setting; Latane’s theory backs his theory by the principle of numbers. The greater the numbers the more an ideology is accepted and implemented in a society.

Theory of Potterat's

A literal example of Potterat’s theory is that of a fashion trend. In this day and age fashion trends are constantly evolving, what was in today could most certainly be out by tomorrow depending on the reaction of people. We often see trends that were big in the 80’s returning and being embraced as high fashion now. What was poplar at a particular point in time can fade away and something entirely different pops up and is literally in vogue. Once people determine that a particular look or style of dressing is flattering, it takes that ‘tipping point’ and the trend is immediately embraced. The masses can once again decide that a particular item is unfavorable and the idea again tips and is rejected, all depending on numbers.

Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram’s theory of obedience states that virtues such as loyalty, discipline, and morality that people value so highly, if used in the wrong way, are the very qualities that create destructive designed engines of war and bind men to vengeful systems of authority. Persons or leaders with good intentions for their beneficiaries can make wrong decisions or choices while thinking that they are doing more good than bad fro their subjects. Numerous examples can help explain this situation better. In one example; a political leader with all good intentions of protecting the country’s citizens can instruct the military attack of a particular nation at war with them. When the people in the warring country are attacked numerous innocent lives are lost that are not part of the conflict.

Looking at the theory in another aspect, the obedience theory is often determined by the authority figure. A real life example of the obedience theory is a popular incident that occurred at a Mac Donald’s restaurant. In 2004, a former worker was framed by a man impersonating a police officer that she was a criminal. This man called the owner of the restaurant and informed her that her employee was a criminal and it was required that he investigates her. The restaurant owner agreed and the officer arrived to perform a body search on her accompanied by the restaurant owner. The owner soon had to leave and invited her husband to come and assist the phony officer in conducting the body search. No sooner had the lady owner had left than the officer pointed a fun to the two and forced them to perform heinous sexual acts on each other.

Regardless of them being moral and honest people, the two fearfully preformed the sexual act due to the authority that this fake police officer was putting upon them. Had they known that the officer was a phony, they probably wouldn’t have done it. The fake officer was later discovered and arrested but his act made two innocent people do the wrong things in terms of how the society views things. The opinion however hit a ‘tipping point’ when it was discovered that the officer was a phony as the two people who were regarded as immoral were now ‘forgiven’ as they were forced to do these acts. The obedience theory is therefore seen in that people often react to whoever is in authority. The more power and influence one has, or a particular idea has, it often draws people towards it, regardless of their moral standings. Many different situations were used to test this theory, all of which proving that people obey when there is a presence of authority.

The largest accidental oil spill in history

On 20th April 2010, a drilling rig belonging to the oil company BP one mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, exploded leading to the largest accidental oil spill in history (Hart, 2010). After a series of failed efforts to contain the leak, on July 15 BP said that it had plugged what it had named the Macondo well, meaning that oil was not leaking into the gulf. Months after the calamity authorities declared the well dead, after experts confirmed that cement that had forced onto the bottom of the well and formed an efficient final, seal. The Macondo well and the two relief wells were to be abandoned, following standard industry practices. Approximately five million barrels of oil had spilled from BP's well, according to estimates by experts and scientists, an amount that overshadows the estimated 3.3 million barrels that gushed into the Campeche rig in Mexico in 1979.

The oil from the spill first began its encroachment in Louisiana, later in June it was confirmed that balls of tar and oil layers had reached the shores of Mississippi, the states of Alabama and Florida. Not long after that it began to reach the shores, polluting tourist beaches, seeping onto the shorelines of small coastal communities and into fishing bays By August, the mousse began dissolving faster than BP said anyone expected. The long term effects caused by the explosion, is still unclear because enormous amounts of oil remained underwater instead rising to the surface. On Aug. 20, confirmed facts mentioned the existence of a large plume of dispersed oil deep in the Mexican gulf and confirmed that it had not dissolved as believed, raising the probability that it might be a threat to life forms for months or years.

As Hart (2010) explained in his article, it was revealed byRead it was  two researchers at Columbia University that the authorities, after numerous missteps, had accurately estimated the magnitude of the spill at nearly 172 million gallons to 185 million gallons, an approximate match when the margins of error are considered. Numerous other effects will likely show for a long time to come: investigations by the police and justice forces into the cause of the spill, new rules imposing tougher policies for deepwater drilling and most obviously new leadership for BP oil company as it struggles to repair and fix a shattered reputation.

The contractor hired by BP to provide cementing services, had spent the past several weeks cementing each new segment of the well into place. Drill logs from the Deepwater Horizon say that not long after midnight on the day of the explosion, attention had majorly shifted to temporarily plugging and capping the well so the rig could disconnect howeverInformation coming from various sources still suggest that the seal was not properly cemented therefore there have been reports of people swimming at the beach or fishing in bays and still coming across large amounts of oil layers BP itself and experts have raised concerns about the cementing, questioning the seal and suggesting thus it might have been faulty and failed to keep oil from rising in the well. According to BP, the containment work took longer than usual, and there were questions that the quality of the cement might have been reduced due to its mixture with mud. The contracted company executives argued that they strictly adhered to the instructions given by BP concerning the cementing of the well.

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Residents and businesses owner who were affected by the explosion, seeking  settlement from BP's 20 billion dollar compensation fund will most likely ignore their right to sue not only BP, but also all the other major companies and affiliates involved with the spill. Persons affected by the spill seeking compensation face a choice similar to that faced by the 9/11 victims: If they opt to sue BP instead of going for a settlement, they could face years of litigation; and if they opt for  the settlement, it could come before the full extent of damage from the spill is established.

 The fund is being administrated by the same lawyer who was in charge of the 9/11 funds thus people are confident that there will be no corruption involved relating to the fair manner in which the 9/11 victims were compensated. Lawyers and experts maintain that the criteria that will be used for oil spill settlements, including proximity to the area of damage, make perfect sense, but they will exclude large portions of businesses and residents that were indirectly but nonetheless affected by the explosion.

As state and government officials, individuals and businesses continue to seek additional compensation, beyond the minimum fines that BP is required to pay under constitutional law, the company has refused to comply unless it continues its operations in the Gulf. While reports place responsibility on the oil giant for misjudgments  made it still attempts to undermine the fact that the company operated with gross negligence, they are still far from the definite cause of the explosion, as several other government institutions which include; the Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Relating the various theories of conformity to this major world event, we see that when the oil rig burst and began spilling into the gulf, people world wide began talking about it but did not put too much emphasis on it but as the media began placing so much attention on it, more and more people began talking about the rig as if it had happened days before. As the Hypermediation increased so did the tendency of people to talk about it. The situation completely escalated and people even began relating it to the 9/11 attack and how it affected peoples lives. It is of no doubt that the spill had and still has major effects both to human, wildlife and other natural resources but propaganda made the situation snowball and make it into a major world issue.

Spread of the Gulf Of Mexico oil spill in the mass media

We have seen numerous panels and commissions start up solely for the discussion of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. A presidential commission is beginning to prove that the Mexican gulf oil spill was as a result of bad decisions by ambitious companies with misplaced priorities. The moment major news networks such as Fox News, Aljazeera and CNN began highlighting this story, a lot of talks began that drove people into a frenzy.

The news of the spill was all over the not only television media but also newspapers, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, on the radio and even articles and journals. Other countries, mostly Caribbean, began cautioning and guarding themselves in fear of the oil spill effects solely due to the excessive Hypermediation around it. Latane’s Bystander theory clearly comes into effect when looking at this Gulf spill. The reaction of people was clearly determined by the amount of publicity placed on the situation. In this paper, we apply these theories to intervening into environmental problems and acting in a more environmentally sustainable and responsible way instead of being inclined towards an issue, simply due to its monetary value.

The principle of numbers from the Latane theory of social impact is the concept that is mostly brought out in the Gulf of Mexico situation. People conforming toward pre conceived ideas without bothering to look for facts and develop opinions of their own. As discussed earlier, we saw affected people rushing for the settlements simply because they have been misled that there are going to be largely compensated, this is however not the case as it has been confirmed that the fund will follow a strict eligibility criteria in which affected persons will be compensated.

We also see people largely blaming BP for the disaster, although it is true that the rig was theirs and they are therefore held responsible, other factors like the nature of the soil at that part of the ocean and its ability to hold itself together should also be considered. In conclusion all these theories imply that people should not blindly follow propaganda but instead firstly weigh the situation then take action, as the Bystander effect implies.

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