The Influence of Sympathy on Conformity
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
Home |
The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
GERHART, A. D. (2002). The Influence of Sympathy on Conformity. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 5. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved May 26, 2017 .

The Influence of Sympathy on Conformity
ARON D. GERHART
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)
ABSTRACT
The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of sympathy on conformity. It is surprising that there exists no direct research on this relationship, but there are studies where this relationship is implicative and applicable. It was predicted that increased conformity towards an individual would be due to elevated levels of sympathy felt for that individual, a directional relationship. Forty-one students at a Missouri college participated and were randomly assigned two either a sympathy or non-sympathy condition. The amount of conformity was measured between the two groups with an opinion questionnaire. A significant result was found for participants in the sympathy group to be more likely to conform to the individual; no gender differences were discovered. These significant data support the hypothesis and current literature. The instructions used to manipulate sympathy were not too extreme, supporting the notion that these results can be generalized to other settings. Perhaps, gender differences would have been discovered had the male participants not been so outnumbered by females. Future research could focus on this limitation, and age differences of sympathy on conformity also could be examined. A three-way interaction of sympathy, gender, and age could exist.

INTRODUCTION
There are many well-known studies in social psychology that demonstrate various influences on conformity. Conformity is defined as a change in behavior, belief, or opinion so that the change is more congruent, or agreeable, with an influential individual or group. Among these influences are group pressure, guilt, and authority (Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969). Research has also indicated that these influences hold much more power on conformity than originally preconceived. They can potentially become very powerful tools for subtle, human manipulation when used correctly. Due to this, it is very surprising that no direct research on the influence of sympathy on conformity exists. Sympathy is defined feelings of sorrow or concern for another person (not to be confused with empathy). Although no solid, empirical evidence for the influence of sympathy on conformity exists, it is often used effectively. Many strategies for donation collection aim at getting other people to conform to the belief that money is needed, and sympathy is typically used as a marketing tool. People in everyday situations also, either intentionally or unintentionally, elicit sympathy in others so that they may conform to their beliefs or comply with their requests. For example, Perina (2002) found that college students admit that 70 percent of their excuses for missed assignments are lies. A vast majority of these lies concern health problems and deceased relatives, which is likely to elicit sympathy in the professor. Another example of the influence of sympathy on conformity is the Christian religion. The Bible states that God gave His only Son, Jesus, so that no one else would have to suffer. People could sympathize with this, which would influence their conformity to the religion. Yet even with these powerful implications, no direct research can be found on this probable relationship. There does exist, however, some research where sympathy is applicable. Many psychologists and philosophers have suggested that sympathy mediates altruistic behavior (Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987; Wispe, 1991). Altruism is defined as intentional, voluntary behavior the benefits another and is not performed with the expectation of receiving external rewards or avoiding external punishment. Given this definition, conformity could be labeled as a subcategory of altruism. In many cases, people intentionally conform to the beliefs of others with no intent other than to please, or benefit, them. More recently, Eisenberg, Zhou, and Koller (2001) reported findings of sympathy predicting prosocial behavior. The only difference between altruism and prosocial behavior, by definition, is that prosocial behavior lacks a specified motive (Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987). Again, conformity can be identified as a subcategory of prosocial behavior, which is closely related to altruism. Other research can be interpreted as sympathy being a confounding variable, influencing conformity.Studies of guilt on conformity (Freedman, Wallington, & Bless, 1967) suggest that when participants experience guilt, they are much more likely to comply. Guilt is defined as feelings of responsibility for offensive actions. In their research, participants were induced to perform a negative behavior (e.g., knocking over a thousand ordered note cards) at the expense of the perceived researcher, subsequently producing guilt. It could be argued, however, that the negative behaviors alone are likely to elicit sympathy, which in turn, could influence conformity to requests. Basically, the experimenter’s exposure to negative behaviors, regardless of the person responsible, could elicit sympathy and influence the participant’s conformity. This could have been controlled for had there been a group where confederates, followed by measurement of participant conformity, performed the negative behaviors. Therefore, sympathy is potentially applicable to this research. The purpose of this study is to examine the direct influence of sympathy on conformity. It is predicted that sympathy will promote the onset of conformity with the assumption that participants will only conform to the sympathized person. It is also predicted that women will display higher conformity, because they are more likely to be influenced by sympathy (Bond & Smith, 1996; Ickes, 1997). It is hypothesized that people experiencing sympathy for an individual are more likely to conform to that individual’s opinions than people of the general population.


METHOD

PARTICIPANTS
Forty-one students enrolled in two intermediate psychology classes at a Missouri state college participated in this study. The two classes were randomly assigned to either the experimental or control group (i.e., a between-subjects design). The volunteers received extra-credit points for participating in the experiment, and they were all treated in accordance with the “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.”

MATERIALS
Two scales were used in the study. A sympathy scale (see Appendix A) was administered following the sympathy instructions in the pilot study. A political opinion scale was administered to the experimental and control groups. The scale was initially designed to indicate the political party that best represents that person’s beliefs. The opinion scale distributed was a photocopy of an already completed scale (see Appendix B). The answers selected in the scale were chosen at random using The Random Number Generator, manufactured by Segobit Software

PROCEDURE
Operationally defined, the dependent variable, conformity, is the participant’s number of congruent political opinions with the researcher, or the number of agreements that the participant’s share with the researcher. A high number of agreements would be indicative of conformity. However, due to the non-significant results obtained with the original operational definition of conformity, the definition has been changed to the number of disagreements that participants displayed on the pre-completed, political opinion questionnaire. A disagreement in this situation is when, for example, an item on the questionnaire is marked with an agreement and the participant indicates a disagreement (Any items marked “undecided” were omitted.). With this definition of conformity, a low number of disagreements would be indicative of conformity. After affirmation of the construct validity of the dependent variable, or sympathy, in the pilot study, the experimental work commenced. The two intermediate psychology classes were randomly assigned to either the experimental or control group. The two groups were tested one day apart. The experimental group received the sympathy instructions. The sympathy instructions consisted of the researcher arriving late for the experiment on crutches. The professor who had been waiting on the absent researcher acknowledged the late arrival with a few cynical remarks. The researcher proceeded to explain the reason for the late arrival to the participants and professor, which was due to an annual doctor’s appointment that had lasted longer that preconceived. The researcher then elaborated on the doctor’s appointment, pointing out that there have been problems in the past with a weak femur bone and acknowledging that the problems continue to persist. Wanting to move on with the study, the researcher explained that the purpose of the research is to examine the various political opinions of college students. The questionnaires were removed from a folder, and it was discovered that the researcher “accidentally” made photocopies of a questionnaire that he had completed. It was explained that it was an accident, but due to his tardiness and lack of time, the participants must commence in taking the answered questionnaires. It was also explained that there is no correct or incorrect answer; those answers were the researcher’s personal beliefs.In the control group, sympathy instructions will be omitted, which includes the presence of crutches and the doctor’s appointment story. All other factors, however, will remain constant, which includes any background information given in the experimental condition. This means that the researcher will be late, and completed questionnaires will be distributed. The same responses will be selected on the completed questionnaire for the control condition.


RESULTS
An independent-samples t test comparing the mean scores of the experimental and control groups found a significant difference between the means of the two groups (t(39) = -.880, p < .05). The mean of the experimental group was significantly lower (m = 3.46, sd = 1.98) than the mean of the control group (m = 4.13, sd = 2.89). However, no significant difference was found (t(39) = 1.10, p > .05) when comparing the means of the males (m = 4.33, sd = 1.92) and females (m = 3.44, sd = 2.48).


DISCUSSION
Participants in the sympathy condition did demonstrate a significantly lower number of disagreements, confirming the hypothesis that sympathy does produce higher levels of conformity. The significant data are congruent with Festinger’s (1954) cognitive dissonance theory. This theory states that when people experience inconsistencies between “cognitions,” dissonance is produced. Festinger defines cognitions as bits of information about oneself and one’s world. Dissonance is a mentally uncomfortable state, which one is motivated to reduce. In order to alleviate this dissonance, one must change one of these inconsistencies (i.e., either behavior or belief). In relating this theory to sympathy and conformity, suppose that one feels sympathy for another person and disagrees with a particular opinion of this individual (i.e., he/she behaves in a non-conforming manner). Furthermore, according to this person’s belief system, nonconforming to another is inconsistent with actions of a sympathy response, which aims to make another feel better. This promotes the onset of cognitive dissonance, thus this individual is thus motivated to reduce the tension. This is accomplished by the individual either changing his/her belief (i.e., feeling sorry for another individual) or behavior (i.e., disagreeing with that individual, or nonconformity). If the person chooses to change his/her conformity, then sympathy has influenced that person’s conformity.More consistencies are found when comparing the results to the “lost-letter” study. Carins and Bochner (1974) placed stamped and addressed letters in public settings. The manipulation in this experiment consisted of varying the addresses on the envelopes. In the five experimental conditions, the letters were addressed to groups concerned with the welfare of handicapped children, whereas the envelope in the control group was addressed to a children`s aid group. The response rate in four of the five experimental conditions was greater than in the control condition. These results provide evidence for the predictive validity of the technique, which was purpose of the study. At the same time, however, it also supports evidence for the influence of sympathy on conformity. It can be inferred that participants in the experimental conditions felt sympathy for the handicapped children, thus conforming to the belief that the letter was of importance and should be mailed. The non-significant data that compare the means of conformity between males and females are not congruent with research suggesting that females will be more likely to be influenced by sympathy on conformity. According to research (Bond & Smith, 1996; Ickes, 1997), females would rate higher in conformity than males in the both groups. Even if it were not due to the influence of sympathy, other research has indicated that women are more likely to conform than men (Eisenberg & Strayer, 1987; Peuckert, 1975). This could be due to research limitations.One limitation of this study was that there were fewer males than females. More male participants could have lowered the non-conformity mean, subsequently, producing significant results. Another limitation was the sympathy instructions. Even though the instructions produced a sympathy response in the pilot work, stronger instructions (e.g., producing sympathy by describing deceased or terminally ill relatives) could be more influential on conformity. The instructions used, however, were strong enough to find an effect of sympathy on conformity, indicating result generality. The fact that this was a field experiment and participants were randomly assigned strengthens the generality of these results. Future research could be aimed at the limitations in this study. This would mean obtaining more male participants and perhaps using stronger sympathy instructions. Future research could also examine the effect of age on conformity. It is expected that conformity will be lower on those participants who are older in age. Feshbach (1978) and Walker (1996) have found that younger people generally tend to rate higher on conformity tasks than younger people. Perhaps, there exists an interaction between sympathy, gender, and age on conformity.


REFERENCES
Bond, R. & Smith, P. B. (1996) . Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch’s line-judgment task. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 111-137.Burleson, B. R. (1983) . Social cognition, empathic motivation, and adults’ comforting strategies. Human Communication Research, 10, 295-304.Cairns, L. G. & Bochner, S. (1974) . Measuring sympathy towards handicapped children with the lost-letter technique. Australian Journal of Psychology, 26(2), 89-91.Eisenberg, N. & Strayer, J. (1987) . Empathy and its development. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Eisenberg, N., Zhou, Q., & Koller, S. (2001) . Brazilian adolescent’s prosocial moral judgment and behavior: Relations to sympathy, perspective taking, gender-role orientation, and demographic characteristics. Child development, 72, 518-535.Feshback, N. D. (1978) . Studies of empathic behavior in children. Progress in Experimental Personality Research, 8, 1-47.Festinger, L. (1954) . A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Freedman, J. L., Wallington, S. A., & Bless, E. (1967) . Compliance without pressure: The effect of guilt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7, 117-124.Ickes, W. (1997) . Empathic accuracy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.Kiesler, C. A. & Kiesler, S. B. (1969) . Conformity. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.Perina, K. (2002) . How do students cope with procrastination? They lie. Psychology Today, 35(6), 18-19.Peuckert, R. (1975) . Sex-specific differences in conformity behavior. Zeitschrift fuer Sozialpsychologie, 6, 112-121.Political opinion questionnaire. (n.d.) . Retrieved October 23, 2002, from http://arkpolitics.bscn.com/uc/pquest.htmWalker, M. B. (1996) . Conformity in the Asch task a function of age. Journal of Social Psychology, 136, 367-373.Wispe, L. (1991) . The psychology of sympathy: Perspectives in social psychology. New York, NY: Plenum Press.


APPENDIX A

Rating Scale of Sympathy

Circle the appropriate response for each item.

Sympathy is defined as feelings of sorrow or concern for another person.

Given the definition of sympathy, rate the level of sympathy that you experienced for the person giving the instructions.

     1	    2	    3	    4	    5	    6	    7

unsympathetic very sympathetic

Age:_________ Gender: _________

Note. The scale was only used in the pilot study.


APPENDIX B
Political Opinion Questionnaire

Read each statement.  Decide the extent to which you agree with it.  Circle the appropriate response for each item.
1. A solution to the growing crime problem is stiff mandatory sentences for those who use firearms in a crime. 

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

2. The earnings limitation for social security should be eliminated.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

3. Diseases like A.I.D.S. should be controlled by free distribution of needles and condoms.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

4. There should not be criminal penalties for the use of recreational drugs.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

5. Federal Judges who order tax increases should be impeached.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

6. The number of terms an elected official can serve should be limited.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

7. A.I.D.S. should be treated like any other communicable or sexually transmitted disease.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

8. Job opportunities should depend on a person`s qualifications and not their race.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

9. Homophobia should be eliminated and all Americans should be taught to accept life style diversity.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

10. Wealth should be redistributed by the government to equalize income.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

11. Government-provided health care is a constitutional right of all Americans.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

12. The U.S. must guard against global warming by banning Freon.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

13. The government officials who manage the National Endowment for the Arts should have the freedom to spend tax money onwhatever they consider to be artistic expression, free of moralistic, or religious censorship.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

14. Public funds should be used to pay for abortions.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

15. The unborn child has a fundamental right to life.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

16. More decisions should be made at the local level and fewer at the national level.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

17. Economic prosperity comes from individual enterprise, not government programs.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

18. The word "family" should be redefined to include same-sex marriages.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

19. The best way to maintain world peace is through the maintenance of a strong U.S. military.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

20. The death penalty should be used.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

21. Welfare is the enemy of opportunity and stable family life.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

22. The Federal deficit should be reduced by cuts in government spending.

AGREE UNDECIDED DISAGREE

24. Age:_________

25. Gender: _________

Note. Answers were actually circled in pencil and then photocopied. They are underlined for web-posting purposes.
From "Political Opinion Questionnaire." Retrieved October 23, 2002, from http://arkpolitics.bscn.com/uc/pquest.htm.

Submitted 11/19/2002 1:43:46 PM
Last Edited 8/26/2003 12:03:53 AM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

Rated by 0 users. Users who logon can rate manuscripts and write reviews.

© 2017 National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse. All rights reserved. The National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse is not responsible for the content posted on this site. If you discover material that violates copyright law, please notify the administrator. This site receives money through the Google AdSense program when users are directed to useful commercial sites. We do not encourage or condone clicking on the displayed ads unless you have a legitimate interest in the advertisement.