AS Social Influence: Conformity, Asch’s Study And Riots

Firstly, remind yourself of the key features of Asch’s study. You can watch a reconstruction of the original 1951 study here.  You can also listen to Peter Smith talking about his work with Rod Bond on conformity across cultures here. If you want to hear more about the ethics of Asch’s study, you can listen to one of Asch’s research assistants, Henry Gleitman, talking about how he sees the ethics of Asch’s procedures. Click on this link. These audio clips all come from a BBC Radio 4 programme about Asch which you can listen to here.

The London riots took place in August 2011. They started in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police and quickly escalated. This is how Al-Jazeera TV and the Daily Telegraph reported the events which led up to the riots. Two social psychologists, Clifford Stott and Stephen Reicher, have made a study of these riots. You can listen to Stephen Reicher discuss the riots on BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind by clicking here. If you prefer, you can follow the link to the programme website. An article by Reicher and Stott appears here. You can use a search engine to find out more about their research.

The main issue is how informational influence and normative social influence as explanations of conformity can be applied to understanding behaviour in crowds. Informational social influence is based on the idea that people change their behaviours or beliefs in response to group pressure because of wanting to be right. In many social situations, people may be unsure of how to behave or unclear as to what they think or feel about an issue. In this case, they may conform with others and copy their actions because they are unsure of what to do or say. What is the evidence that people took part in the riots because of being unsure of how to behave or unclear as to what they thought or felt about an issue?

Normative social influence is based on the need to be accepted by and belong to a group. This may be because belonging to the group is rewarding and the group has the power to punish or even exclude those who do not fit in. What is the evidence that people took part in the riot because of the need to be accepted by and belong to a group? What is the evidence that they feared being excluded from that group?

There are two further questions. In our lesson, we have looked at the question of how easily normative social influence and informational influence can be separated. Are they really one big process or two separate processes? More generally, we might ask about the role of social psychology in offering explanations of the behaviour of crowds in riots. Does providing an explanation offer an excuse for criminal behaviour?

Please post a comment and explain your point of view.


  1. Imposing a possible, psychological explanation can help to lead to further insight on the reasons why the people of the London riots would do that and how it spiralled into a riot; however this doesn’t give them an excuse or a way out of what they have caused. I personally think that it just helps to think a little deeper into the reasons and try to prevent this type of thing in future – it can also further psychological research for this topic.

  2. I think that the riots show normative social influence as well as informational social influence. Riots give people a sense of shared outrage and shared belief and so it brings people together. A popular reason as to why people take part in riots is because of mob mentality- in the heat of the moment, people lose their own identity and act irrationally. This shows normative social influence because people want to join in with the group and fit in and to be accepted so they think that by joining in, they will avoid disapproval. However, I also think that it shows informational social influence because people may be unsure whether to join in or not so they copy everyone else to do the “right” thing.
    I think that normative social influence and informational social infuene are very closely connected and are difficult to categorise in real life situations. For example, in the riots, people probably took part because they were unsure what to do so they took part because everyone else did and they could be accepted by them.
    I disagree with the idea that providing an explanation offers them an excuse. I think that we need to try to understand why they acted like they did but also know that they had no right to do what they did.

  3. What is the evidence that people took part in the riot because of the need to be accepted by and belong to a group? What is the evidence that they feared being excluded from that group?

    I could argue that every person involved in the London riots were all united by their perception of low status, leading to their aminosity. However, I feel the “mobs” were participating with different motives. The three main motives were political, to loot and to be able to engage themselves in crazy and wild behaviour. With these three motives it’s hard to see how the population could have avoided any involvement, good or bad.
    Stott’s elaborated social identity model shows that while individuals will still think for themselves in a crowd, they also develop a makeshift social identity. I believe the makeshift identity of the need to loot and to engage in irrational behaviour sourced itself from the political motives of honest people.

    If they had not been involved they were more likely to become the foe rather than the friend in the situation and become directly affected by their lack of support for the community.

  4. Thanks for these comments. I’ve got three ideas in my head arising from what people said in the lessons today and from what’s here.

    Firstly, I’m secure in the idea that it is not possible to separate normative social influence and informational social influence when we start thinking about conformity in the real world. People change behaviour and belief as a result of group pressure both because of the need to be right and the need to be accepted. I agree with the way Rachel explains that in her comment. For me, this is about the difference between an artificial study in a laboratory and a real life situation: the latter is much more complex.

    Secondly, I’ve got a sense of Asch’s theory being of its time. Asch was an important pioneer in Psychology and we have to respect his originality. I got a strong sense today though that I was trying to apply an old theory to a modern problem. One of the things about being a Psychology teacher is that you have to know a little about a lot. I know about informational social influence and normative social influence because they are on the specification but I know less about the social identity theories to which Beth refers. I suspect that they have a much more comprehensive way of describing what happens when pressure to conform takes hold of people in a crowd.

    Thirdly, I’m much more confident than I was about the distinction between explaining and excusing. I deliberately show students the video of Wood Green High Street and tell the story about where my wallet comes from because I want to show that explaining and excusing are two different things. I think Ricki clarifies that well above, as did the people who spoke about this in the lesson.

    So thank you to everyone who has contributed today. You’ve helped to create some really strong learning.

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