Conformity and the Nazi Army

Several researchers agree that the actions of the Nazi army were not solely the responsibility of one individual or leader, such as Adolf Hitler, but perhaps the attitudes and influences of the entire army itself. Cialdini, Kenrick, and Neuberg (2002) defines conformity as an aspect that involves changing one’s behavior to match the responses or actions of others. One conforms because it eliminates the uncomfortable feeling that emerges from an uncomfortable action or situation. But what if one person did not conform to fit the expectations of others? Would this action not persuade others to follow their own beliefs also? Conformity has been analyzed and observed in many different situations: the conformity amongst adolescents, conformity in group situations, and even the conformity in armies. These questions can further be analyzed by studying the dictatorship and conformity in the Nazi army. The power of conformity that was present in the Nazi army culture was at least partly responsible for the damage and massacre inflicted upon the victims of the Third Reich.

Hitler convinced the German public to side with his argument of a conspiracy against all Jews by the “suggestion of replacing defeat by victory, economic weakness by military strength, inferiority by superiority, and of venting their aggressions on the scapegoats of their misery” (Gilbert, 1950, p. 40). With all of the German society exposed to such strong arguments, it is nearly impossible for one person to voice their own. Rosenbaum (1977) explains that one reason the German society may have participated in such strong endeavors, was the fact that so many people changed their beliefs towards the hatred of one race. Therefore, the country’s society experienced a shift due to the opinions and beliefs of others.

Several studies have explored reasons for why such a large amount of people may follow a single leader, even if the actions ordered are of harm to others. These studies have examined the role of a leader in several situations and attempted to uncover the phenomenon of authoritarianism. In one study, (Feldman, 2003) the concept of perceived threat was argued to be one of the key components in negative leadership. It was observed that those who value social conformity, because they are concerned with controlling nonconformity, will always be somewhat more likely to support government action. Rokeach (1961) reasons on the topic of conformity and authority:

The person cannot distinguish, assess, or act on information except in a way desired by the source. It is a state of mind wherein the person is necessarily psychologically unaware that he cannot distinguish, assess, and act independently on information received from an authority. When inn such a state of mind, the person will therefore rationalize his beliefs and action in a way such that he will not expose, to himself or others, his dependency on authority, in order to maintain the illusion that he is an independent, reasonable, and thinking person (p. 247).

Firestone, Levy, Weisenberg, and Zimbardo (1965) found that army groups conform their attitudes depending on the surrounding members of their groups. In this study, soldiers were presented the task of eating a grasshopper by a negative communicator and then a positive communicator with a different group of soldiers. In both instances, the soldiers reacted in the opposite of the attitude presented by the communicator (whether he thought grasshoppers were pleasant to the taste or not). In the final situation, the soldiers were seated as a group and were presented with the same conditions. Their reactions, however, tended to be based on what most members of the group thought. Justification in terms of group pressure may have minimized the need to change one’s attitude.

Asch (1961) provides insightful information on the effects of social influences and conformity. His studies reveal that one can manipulate judgment and beliefs to believe the way others do for simply no other reason than that they believe. This is to say that one can be persuaded to conform to the opinion of another just because the other person believes in that opinion. People want to be right. Putting this into context, one could assume that part of the German public was persuaded to conform to Hitler’s views simply because such a vast majority of the public did.

All together, these studies suggest groups can be influenced by both the leader and members of the group. These studies have also defined that the attitudes and actions of members are affected by conformity. Although many studies have examined these influences of conformity, few have examined the situational extent to which members of a group will conform. What extent will one go to remain socially accepted and to feel purpose? What losses of individualism will one surrender? White (1961) says, “The individual they (the intellectuals) believe, has become alienated, or cut off, from those relationships and experiences that once gave his life meaning and direction” (White, 1961, p. 3).

The purpose of this study is to examine the effects of conformity on a group, in which the action or attitude that they are conforming to may potentially cause emotional or physical harm to the recipient of the action inflicted. In light of present ethics and beliefs, a study must be formed that acknowledges the influence of both without inflicting physical or emotional harm to the participants. For this reason, I have chosen college hazing as the scenario in which to demonstrate acts of conformity in a group situation in which the group would perform an action or attitude that may hypothetically cause emotional or physical harm to the recipient.

There are several other studies that examine college hazing and the attitudes that studies have towards the act. In the Campo, Poulos, and Sipple study (2005), students completed surveys regarding initiation behaviors. Thirty-six percent of the respondents participated in hazing, but many did not know that their actions were considered as hazing. In the study, there were several discussions on preventing hazing and addressing students that participate.

All the participants for the present study either participate in hazing situations or have participated in hazing situations. These participants were previously selected from another study in which individuals answered a survey determining whether or not they had participated or participate in hazing scenarios. The participants are all college students (19-22-year-olds). Consistent with the findings of (Campo, Poulos, & Sipple, 2005) and the studies reviewed, it is expected that out of the 48 participants, most will take part in a hazing scenario, one that is harmful to the recipient either physically or emotionally , when other individuals are present. The second hypothesis is that male participants will be more likely to contribute in the scenario than females.

This study can be considered a 2 (gender of the participant) X 2 (presence of other individuals during hazing) two way ANOVA, because there are two independent variables. The gender of the participants has two levels, male or female, and the hazing scenario represents two situations: other individuals are present during scenario, other individuals are not present during scenario. The dependent variables are the participants’ answers of each situation.

This research study was part of a broader participatory action research project involving staff, professors, and student groups at a private, southeastern university. The survey was developed in order to determine students’ thoughts and beliefs concerning college hazing, as defined in the campus catalog, “including, but not limited to, whipping, paddling, forcing conduct or any behavior which is detrimental to the physical, mental, or spiritual welfare, or which invades the personal rights and dignity of another” (University of the Cumberlands, 2005).

Fourty-eight participants (24 males and 24 females) for this study were selected based on their responses of questions in the previous study concerning hazing and thoughts of hazing actions. The participants selected were all students of the university, ranging from an age group of 19-22 year olds and that had reported in being involved in hazing groups or being in favor of the initiation process displayed by student groups.

The questionnaire comprised two parts: the Schwartz Value Survey (Schwartz, 1994), with a brief demographic questionnaire attached.

Schwartz Value survey. The value survey was developed to rate specific values of an individual. The current version of the survey consists of 57 values organized into 10 basic value types: power, achievement, self-direction, stimulation, hedonism, universalism, benevolence, conformity, tradition, and security. Individuals rate the extent to which each of the values is an important guiding principle in their lives, usually with a 9-point Likert-type scale that ranges from -1 (opposed to participant’s values) to 7 (of most importance).

Questions asking for demographic information were attached to the end of the value survey. These included questions about personal information such as marital status, gender, ethniticity, occupation, religious affiliation, and household income.
Scenario. Two brief scenarios were constructed to make students think about why they would, or would not, participate in a hazing situation. Both scenarios emphasized that the hazing would not be pleasant for those receiving the initiation, and might even have lasting emotional effects on the individuals. In the first scenario, the presence of other people also participating were included to increase self-awareness, and emphasize socially constructed meaning of hazing. However, the second scenario was presented in such a way that other individuals would not be present during the hazing, only the initiator of the hazing. The first scenario reads:

You are out one night with a group of your friends, male and female. The leader of your group decides that tonight would be a good night to initiate someone into the group. The initiation involves having the individual to confiscate a flag with the school’s emblem on it. The flag is positioned on a rooftop approximately 60ft. from the ground. In order for the individual to obtain the flag, they will have to crawl along an edge on the side of the building. Do you think you would participate in a hazing such as this? Describe all the things you think would affect your decision.

The second scenario reads:
You belong to a group and one night when you are out alone, you decide that it would be a good night to initiate someone even though your group is not present.. The initiation involves having the individual to confiscate a flag with the school’s emblem on it. The flag is positioned on a rooftop approximately 60ft. from the ground. In order for the individual to obtain the flag, they will have to crawl along an edge on the side of the building. Do you think you would participate in a hazing such as this, if you are the only person present? Describe all the things you think would affect your decision.

Each paragraph appeared at the top of separate pages and were followed by 10 blank lines on which participants could write their thoughts and feelings. At the bottom of each page, participants were asked to indicate whether or not they would participate in the hazing scenario by checking either “Yes, I would participate in the scenario” or “No, I would not participate in the hazing scenario.”

The participants were asked to meet a male researcher at the campus classroom in order to receive the surveys. Surveys were distributed in plain white envelopes that included an instruction sheet, one of the two questionnaires, and values survey. Twelve female participants and twelve male participants were given a questionnaire concerning a hazing in which others were present. Twelve female participants and twelve male participants were given a questionnaire concerning a hazing in which others were not present.

Participants completed and submitted the consent form before beginning the questionnaire. Participants completed the questionnaire at their own pace, and then handed in the sealed and completed questionnaire in the envelope to the male researcher. Once all of the participants in the class had completed and submitted the surveys, they received a verbal and a written debriefing from the researcher.


Asch, S. E. (1956). Issues in the study of social influences on judgement. New York: Oxford
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Campo, S., Poulos, G., & Sipple, J. W. (2005) Prevalence and profiling: Hazing among college
students and points of intervention. American Journal of Health Behavior. 29(2):
Cialdini, R. B. Kenrick, D. T., & Neuberg, S.L., (2002). Social psychology: unraveling the mystery. Boston: Pearson Education.
Feldman, S. (2003) Enforcing social conformity: a theory of authoritarianism. Political
Psychology. 24(1): 41-74
Firestone, I., Levy, B., Weisenberg, M., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1965) Communicator effectiveness
in producing public conformity and private attitude change. Journal of Personality. 33(2): 233-255
Gilbert, G. M. (1950). The psychology of dictatorship. New York: Ronald Press.
Rokeach, M. (1961). Authority, authoritarianism, and conformity. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Rosenbaum, R. (1977). Explaining Hitler. New York: Random House.
Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances
and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 25,
University of the Cumberlands. (2005). University of the Cumberlands Undergraduate Catalog 2005-2007. Williamsburg, Kentucky: University of the Cumberlands Press.
White, W. (1961). Beyond conformity. New York: The Free Press

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