The first study I want to review was done by Dan, Page, Bonnie and Kelsey. This team of students was inspired to investigate how conformity and authority affect attitudes regarding torture.
The team's research question was simple: What if college students were told that most of the faculty at the University endorsed the use of torture? Would this put pressure on the students to fall in line with the majority opinion of these authority figures? Also, given the When God Sanctions Killing research, what if the faculty endorsing torture were the Bible faculty? Would the opinions of the Bible faculty, people who should know a bit about God's will and Christian ethics, intensify a conformity or authority effect?
The students were inspired by two famous studies in the area of conformity and obedience to authority. Regarding conformity, the students talked a great deal about the the famous Solomon Asch studies concerning group conformity conducted in 1953. That research is replicated in this YouTube clip:
Concerning obedience to authority the students were inspired by Stanley Milgram and his obedience experiments. Milgram's paper, "Behavioral study of obedience," is probably the most significant and controversial paper ever published in psychology. The question of the study was simply this: How many normal people would administer painful and potentially dangerous electric shocks over the protest of a victim simply because an authority figure asked them to? The result was shocking: 65%. You can watch a modern-day replication of the Milgram study here on YouTube.
Inspired by these studies my students devised a simple manipulation to see if conformity and authority effects might influence how college students at a Christian university endorsed the use of torture. The team asked fellow college students to respond to the same question used by the Pew Research Center (i.e., Can torture often, sometimes, rarely or never be justified?). Prior to asking that question the team added an introductory statement to explain the nature of the survey and why we were interested in student responses on this issue. The template for the introduction was this:
Recent polling done by the Office of Research at ACU found that ___ of ACU Faculty supported the use of torture against suspected terrorists. In light of these results, the ACU Psychology Department is following up with a survey to gather more information about student opinions regarding the use of torture.The blank was filled in with one of two numbers, 20% or 80%. The research question was, would the students informed that 80% of the faculty endorsed torture also be more likely to endorse torture, conforming to the majority opinion of the authority figures? By contrast, would those reading that only 20% endorsed torture move in the opposite direction, following the majority of the faculty in the rejection of torture?
A final manipulation involved inserting the word "Bible" between "ACU" and "Faculty." That is, some participants read "80% of the ACU Faculty" and others read "80% of the ACU Bible Faculty." The goal here was to determine if an explicit religious endorsement of torture would have a more potent conformity and authority effect. (Note to my faculty friends. Participants were debriefed at the completion of the study.)
The overall results were what you might expect. Torture endorsement was highest among college students who read that 80% of their faculty endorsed the use of torture. That is, student opinion tended to conform to the opinions of the authority figures. Further, this conformity intensified when the students were told that torture was endorsed by the Bible faculty. This is the effect we expected given the research regarding God sanctioning killing. Violence is more likely to be approved of when it is given religious warrant and justification.