Part 1

Social Groups and Group Conformity

On September 17th, 2004, Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr. (“Gordie”) was found dead at the Chi Psi Fraternity house at the University of Colorado at Boulder. On the evening of September 16th, Gordie and twenty-six other pledges dressed in coats and ties for “bid night” were taken blindfolded to the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest where they were “encouraged” to drink four “handles” (1.75 liter bottles) of whiskey and six (1.5 liter) bottles of wine around a bonfire in 30 minutes. They were told, “no one is leaving here until these are gone.” When the group returned to the Fraternity house, Gordie was visibly intoxicated and did not drink anymore. He was placed on a couch to “sleep it off” at approximately 11pm. Racial slurs and other demeaning sayings were written on his body in another fraternity ritual. Gordie was left to “sleep it off” for 10 hours before he was found dead the next morning, face down on the floor. No one had called for help.


We may allow ourselves to do in groups
what we would not do alone.

If someone asked you to hurt someone, would you do it? What if they asked you to place yourself in a dangerous situation? Let’s say they told you that you had to drink a dangerously large quantity of alcohol in order to receive entry into their group? The tragic death of the young college freshman mentioned above illustrates the power of social groups in our lives.

social group is a collection of individuals who interact with one another and have feelings of unity or belonging. Most of us believe we would never hurt someone or ourselves regardless of the circumstances. However, most research on group behavior indicates that a large percentage of us actually do conform under pressure from the group. This is mostly likely due to the fact that we are social creatures who seek approval from our fellows. Another reason why we are more likely to conform in a group is because we feel less responsible for our behavior. When we interact in groups, we tend to feel less like an individual and more like a member of a group. Sociologists point out that when interacting in groups, a condition known as risky shift can occur. This refers to a condition where individuals in groups make decisions that tend to be more risky than they would if they were taking action on their own.

There are two different types of groups: primary and secondary. Primary groups are smaller in number, have longer lasting relationships, and are more intimate in nature. Secondary groups are less intimate, usually do not last as long, are larger in number, and are more formal. People in secondary groups are usually brought together with a specific goal in mind. The family is the most basic primary group we belong to. We may also have close friends or belong to a support group that we feel close intimate ties with.

Sometimes secondary groups can take on the characteristics of a primary group when something tragic or difficult occurs. Neighbors, for instance may become closer to one another a when a crime wave takes place or a natural disaster causes significant damage to homes. Sororities and fraternities more closely resemble primary groups. They have strong emotional ties and members usually refer to one another as “brothers” or “sisters.” While fraternities and sororities have made valuable contributions to community and campus life, they can also provide an atmosphere where individuals conform under pressure in order to fit in. Initiation rituals can be particularly dangerous and, as in the case above, can prove to be deadly.

Almost like sisters, for real.

One important aspect of group behavior is leadership andauthority. All groups usually have some sort of leadership hierarchy. Stanley Milgram was interested in the relationship between authority and obedience. During the 1970s, Milgram did a series of experiments to find out how willing a person would be to hurt someone if they were being instructed to do so by a legitimate authority figure. As a social psychologist, Milgram was interested in the power of social structure in our lives. If we are placed in social positions or statuses and are given roles to perform, will we conform to those expectations? What if it means that we must put someone in danger or possibly cause them pain?

Milgram’s Experiment. Milgram’s famous experiment. Milgram conducted a controlled experiment where he placed two actors in the roles of student and experimenter. The subject would enter the laboratory setting and assume that both he and the “student” were subjects in the experiment. Once it was determined that the subject was the “teacher,” they were told that they were conducting an experiment on learning and punishment. The teacher would have to call out a pair of words and each time the student got the answer wrong, they would have to administer a shock. The student would be in another room supposedly attached to a voltage machine; and each time the shocks were administered, the teacher could hear the student crying in pain. Milgram wanted to see how many of his subjects would be willing to administer shock past 300 volts or, according to the voltage meter, past the point of extreme danger.

Although the student was not actually getting shocked, the teachers thought they were. Initially, the teacher would want to stop the experiment the moment they heard the person in the room shouting from the pain of the shocks. At this point, however, the experimenter (legitimate authority figure) would step up and tell the teacher that the experiment must continue. No matter how much the teacher protested, the experimenter insisted that the experiment must continue. In some cases, the teacher would laugh uncomfortably as they heard the screams coming from the other room.

The results from Milgram’s first round of experiments showed that 65% of his subjects went all the way to 450 volts. In other words, over half were willing to harm someone to the point of danger as long as a legitimate authority figure was urging them to do so. Later, Milgram moved the experiment outside of the college community to a more rural setting where the university was not as much of an influence. At these experiments, he found that 32% of his subjects would go all the way to 450 volts. Each time the experiment was repeated, the results were nearly the same. At least one-third of all subjects were willing to harm someone to the point of extreme danger as long as the authority figure was present.

Although the subjects were told at the end of the experiment that the student was an actor and was not harmed during the course of the experiment, this type of research is still considered unethical today. No person should ever be made to feel that they are harming someone. But the question at the beginning of the unit still remains.Would you be willing to harm someone if you were placed in the same position? According to the results of Milgram’s experiment, at least one-third of us probably would.