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01.07 Social Groups

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  1. Overview
    1. Groups
      1. We will discuss why groups are so important to study. We will discuss 3 different types of groups; primary, secondary, and reference
    2. Social influence & conformity
      1. We will discuss social influence and conformity. There are 2 types of social influence: informational and normative.
    3. Conclusions
  2. Groups
    1. Small groups are the most powerful social structure when it comes to influencing human behavior. There are 3 types of groups:
      1. Primary group: small, intimate, and cohesive
        1. Examples: your closest friends, immediate family, a small study group
      2. Secondary group: a bit larger and less intimate than primary groups
        1. Example: a classroom
      3. Reference group: groups that you do not belong to yet still serve as a reference for your behavior
  3. Social Influence and Conformity
    1. Social influence is an interaction process in which one person’s behavior causes another person to change an opinion or perform an action they would otherwise not perform. There are 2 types of social influence: informational & normative.
      1. Informational: when a person actually comes to believe what others are claiming
      2. Normative: when a person only pretends to believe what others are claiming in order to gain some reward or avoid some punishment
    2. Musafer Sherif (1935) demonstrated informational influence under uncertainty. Using what is called the “autokinetic effect”, Sherif found that subjects would shift their opinions to match that of others when they were uncertain over the correct answer.
    3. Soloman Asch (1950’s) demonstrated normative influence when subjects were certain they had the right answer. Asch found that around 1/3 of the time subjects would ignore the evidence of their eyes and conform with a group, even when the group was obviously wrong.
    4. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment is perhaps the most infamous study in all of social science. Zimbardo demonstrated the power of social influences in exceptionally important situations. Stanford undergraduates were randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners in a mock prison set up. Although planned to run for 2 weeks, the study had to be halted after only 6 days as the guards turned malicious and sadistic.
  4. Conclusions
    1. Groups are the most powerful social structure in which we are embedded
    2. There are 2 types of social influence: informational and normative
    3. These social influences pressures are felt anywhere and everywhere we go

Reference Links

Video Transcript

Today we’re going to be talking about the study of groups in society.


In today’s lecture we are going to talk about one of the smallest yet most important social structures; groups. We will identify different types of groups and discuss why the study of groups is so important. Next, we will discuss the various ways that the groups we belong to impact our behavior, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. We will conclude the lesson with some main points and important takeaways.


So, why study groups? We operate in the context of multiple social structures, ranging from small, 1-to-1 encounters to the huge inter-societal structures that connect entire societies. What is it that makes groups worth our time to understand? The reason that we study small groups is frankly that these are the social structures that exert the most influence over our behavior. While other social structures and the culture components of these structures all impact our behavior, it is the local group, the local setting that is most important. Before talking about just how groups impact our behavior, let’s define and distinguish between 3 types of small groups. First, primary groups are small, intimate, and cohesive face-to-face groups. Your immediate family, your closest friends, or a dedicated small study group would be considered primary groups. Secondary groups are larger groups in which face-to-face interaction between all groups members is unlikely or even impossible, and there is a decrease in intimacy. A typical classroom setting would be considered a secondary group. Each of let’s say 30 students will share that space and spend time together multiple times a week. Yet everyone in that class is unlikely to really know everyone else in the class, let alone interact with each and every classmate. Lastly, reference groups are groups that we don’t actually belong to but are used as a frame of reference for our behavior. These are groups that usually we would like to belong to in the future. As an example, when I was a graduate student, I would often look to my professors as a reference for how I should behave. I didn’t yet belong to that group but I wanted to in the future and thus the norms of my professors shaped my behavior as a graduate student. We belong to each of these 3 types of groups and each type impacts our behavior. Yet, primary groups are clearly more important and for that reason sociologists who study groups tend to focus mainly on primary groups. Primary groups will be our focus for the remainder of this lesson.


Groups and primary groups in particular are powerful social structures because of the social influence and conformity pressures we feel in such groups. Social influence is an interaction process in which one person’s behavior causes another person to change an opinion or perform an action they would not otherwise perform. There are 2 types of social influence; information & normative. Informational influence occurs when a person actually comes to believe what others are claiming. Hopefully, you experience plenty of informational influence in school as you learn new ideas and facts that shape your beliefs and behavior. Normative influence on the other hand is when a person only pretends to believe what others are claiming in order to gain some reward or avoid some punishment. The high school kid who is peer pressured into skipping class may do so not because he/she actually wants to skip class but because their might be a social reward for skipping, and/or a social punishment for not skipping. Normative influence has impacted and will continue to impact all of us. It is most strongly felt in the context of primary groups.


To further illustrate these 2 types of social influence we are going to quickly go over 2 landmark studies in the world of social science. The first, from Muzafer Sherif examines informational influence under conditions of uncertainty. Sherif brought subjects into a dark room with a single point of light and asked them to determine visually how much the light moved. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the light never actually moved but because there was no other source of light it visually appeared like the light was moving. If you are interested in how this actually worked, look up the autokinetic effect. What we care about is that subjects first made these judgements by themselves and then with others. When alone, subjects perceptions varied significantly yet when put together, Sherif found that gradually over time, the judgements for all 3 group members would converge until they all shared the same answer. This demonstrated informational influence, as when the subjects were uncertain they would look to others for their answer and shift their own answer accordingly.


Following Sherif, Asch’s work in the 50’s was concerned with whether or not influence happens when subjects are certain of an answer. What Asch did was remarkable. In groups of 5, subjects would visually look a series of lines and judge how long they were. They had to identify when of 3 lines was equal in length to a 4th line. Unknown to the subjects, Asch had instructed others in the group to purposefully give wrong answers. Asch was interested to see if people would ignore the evidence of their eyes, and conform to group pressures. Asch found that on about ⅓ of the trials, subjects would knowingly go with the wrong answer in order to give the same answer as everyone else. Think about the power of this finding. If people are willing to go along with the group on something as easy to judge as the length of lines, we should only expect normative influence pressures to be even more powerful in situations that really matter. Both Sherif’s and Asch’s works are foundational in our understanding of social influence and group conformity.


One of the most infamous experiments in the history of social science is Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment at Stanford University in the 70’s. Sherif and Asch had demonstrated informational and normative social influence in simple, unimportant contexts. Zimbardo took this to the next step and investigated whether or not these pressures exist in extremely important contexts. Zimbardo randomly assigned subjects to be either prison guards or prisoners in a mock prison setting in the basement of the psychology building. And then Zimbardo essentially took a back seat and let the situation play out endogenously. What happened has now been the subject of numerous books, films, and articles. While initially it started out awkward, gradually the guards behavior began to get more aggressive, more degrading, and more humiliating. The guards transformed from normal, upstanding college students at Stanford University to mean, bullying, and shameful prison guards.  The study was planned to run for 2 weeks,but had to be stopped after 6 days due to the extreme behaviors enacted by the guards. The study is a lesson in what contexts such as prisons can do to otherwise good people. It is important for us to recognize that both informational and normative influence are pressures that we feel in virtually all situations, even ones (and perhaps especially ones) that are really important. If the situation is bad enough (such as a prison), social influence can make us all do things that none of us would have predicted beforehand.


Alright, let’s wrap things up. Groups, and especially primary groups are the most powerful social structures in which we are embedded. Remember, primary groups are small and intimate; secondary groups a bit larger and less intimate; and references groups shape our behavior even though we don’t belong to them. Within these groups we experience 2 types of social influence; informational and normative. Informational influence is when our opinions and beliefs actually change; normative influence is when when our opinions and beliefs stay the same, yet our behavior changes due to perceived social consequences. And lastly, as illustrated in the stanford prison experiment, social influence pressures exist everywhere and impact us even when exceptionally important decisions need to be made.


Let me leave you with a quote from Philip Zimbardo.


We love you guys! Go out and be your best self today! And as always, Happy Nursing!