Source strength and compliance

Recently, I came across an interesting piece of research that links Social impact Theory (A level Edexcel) and Compliance Techniques (old IB spec) so this should be of interest to many of you. Social impact theory explains many phenomena including compliance which differs slightly from obedience in that the person making the request (the source) is not necessarily above the target in any form of social hierarchy, e.g. compliance can happen between peers.

Kipling and Karen Williams (1989) conducted research on compliance which has relevance to obedience.  They believe that increased source strength matters more in some situations than others. In Milgram’s study people arguably found it hard to back out once they had started administering shocks. Each shock was just 15V more than the last making it hard to justify why you would not give a shock of 225 V if you have just given one of 210V for example. This is known as the foot-in-the-door technique where people are more likely to comply with a large request (to give a shock of 450V) if it is preceded by a series of smaller requests. In this situation pressure to continue comes from within; the teacher has defined him or herself as the type of person who obeys in this situation and thus the strength of the source should not matter as they are complying to remain consistent in their thoughts and behaviour, rather than due to external pressure.

The door-in-the face technique works in reverse. A small request is more likely to be carried out if it is preceded by a large request which the target refused. If both requests come from the same person, the target feels obliged to comply as the source appears to have made a concession for them and so the ‘norm of reciprocity’ suggests that the target really ought to comply. In this situation, Williams and Williams suggest that source strength will affect the percentage of people complying with the large request as the perceived degree of obligation will be related to the strength of the source.

They found that varying source strength did increase the success of the door-in-the-face technique but not the foot-in-the-door technique and this research is helpful in understanding reasons why source strength matters in some situations but not others.

Challenge: How  do you think personality and/or cultural differences might affect this type of research?


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