Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1999

Norms in Action:  Vikings' Version of "Simon Says"

Analysis by
Jerry Greene, Ed Gries,
Amanda Grantz, & Jessica Shuleva



Note -- The cartoon previously shown here has been removed at the insistence of Mr. Larson's representatives, who appearently didn't see the value in offering it as an illustration of psychological concepts as analyzed below.    The cartoon showed a group of Vikings about to attack a castle.  The leader yelled for the attack to begin, but the soldiers refused to follow.  When the leader demanded an explanation, the soldiers replied that he had not prefaced the command with the required "Simon Says," showing that obedience to an authority occurs in a social context and can be mitigated by certain legitimacy markers. 

Farside, by Gary Larson

    Would you be willing to follow orders from an arbitrary authority figure? What if you were the only person in your group who failed to abide by established norms? These issues and accompanying social psychological principles are addressed in this Far Side cartoon. Set in the context of the simple childhood game Simon Says, the powers of obedience to authority, group norms, conformity, aggression, and related concepts are illustrated in the actions of these Vikings.

    To help stimulate class members' thoughts concerning this cartoon (which they had not been exposed to prior to our presentation), we began our presentation by asking students to participate in a game of Simon Says. We were originally concerned that the students' level of sophistication would affect their willingness to participate in the game as well as providing the possibility that all students would execute the game flawlessly. However, to our benefit there was no hesitation or objection, and several students were "called out" soon after the game began. This allowed for an appropriate segue into our analysis of the cartoon.

    One of the first principles recognized by the class was that of obedience to authority. It is apparent to the viewer which of the Vikings is the authority figure. The lead Viking is out in front of the group of Vikings, he is the one shouting the order to attack, and his extended, upheld arm gives direction to the castle door (the "target"). Therefore, he is the Viking who everyone else must obey. We know from Milgram's classic obedience studies that the proximity of the authority figure is positively correlated with obedience on behalf of the participating members. If the lead Viking had not been physically present when giving the orders, the incidence of obedience would have likely declined. Similarly, in our class game of Simon Says, "Simon's" proximity to the class members was conducive to their compliance to his authority. It was interesting to see how easy it was to make the class do strange things throughout the course of the game. Our motives were never questioned and justification was not required by the class (although it was provided afterward).

    Ivan's eagerness prompted him to advance toward the castle, failing to wait for the group's established attack code based on the rules of Simon Says, thus violating the norms created by his group. This led to his social rejection, which is evident in the cartoon by Ivan's downward gaze and slouching shoulders. "Social rejection is painful - when we deviate from group norms, we often pay an emotional price" (Myers, 1996). An interesting tactic was used by a student who was called out to lesson the "pain." This student justified her actions by reinterpreting what had taken place. She thought to herself that she was "just barely disobedient" because she had not completed the incorrectly ordered gesture. This is reminiscent of the self-serving bias, which is the idea that people try to explain outcomes in ways that sustain a positive image of themselves. Our self-concepts contain both personal identity (personal attributes and attitudes) and social identity (a "we-feeling" that comes from group membership) (Hogg & Abrams, 1988). Having a sense of "we-ness" strengthens our self-concepts and makes us feel good (Perdue, Dovidio, Gurtman, & Tyler, 1990). We feel strongly attached to the group we belong to and conform to its norms. Ivan has lost part of his self-concept after being rejected from his group for violating its norms.

    Aside from Ivan, all of the other Vikings conformed to the group norms. The conformity displayed in the cartoon represents "normative" conformity, described by the desire to conform in order to achieve acceptance and liking among a group. An interesting connection is made between this cartoon and a set of studies performed by Asch (1951). He wished to examine the concept of majority unanimity, referring to the degree of consensus among members regarding the issue at hand. The presence of a "social supporter" was found to reduce conformity dramatically. Had Ivan been accompanied by a second member who violated the group norms, this would have likely led to others joining in or at least to reducing Ivan's feelings of isolation. In relation to our class game of Simon Says, a student who was the first to be called out gave testament to the benefits of having a social supporter. Having felt uncomfortable while being the only one seated, when a second class member was called out the first student felt more at ease.

    Another principle discussed was group homogeneity. It is known that groups are homogeneous with respect to age, sex, beliefs, opinions, and personalities. The Vikings' homogeneity is suggested by their uniform dress, build, and weaponry. This is related to the concept of deindividuation, which is a loss of self-awareness that occurs in group situations that foster anonymity and draw attention away from the individual (Myers). Physical anonymity lessens inhibitions, allowing members to be more responsive to cues in the environment. Ivan felt deindividuated and was therefore more responsive to the cue to attack. He was "caught in the moment" as one class member described it. This led to a brief discussion of present-day military procedures. Training is designed to deindividuate (see *725-*730) people so that they will be more able to perform their duties. The Vikings' forthcoming attack illustrates the concept of aggression. There are two types of aggression: affective and instrumental. Affective aggression is based on the presence of anger or some other negative emotion, whereas instrumental aggression is based not in feelings, but in achieving some end goal. However, instrumental aggression is not completely separable from affect. For example, during times of war, it is common for governments to encourage their soldiers to view the enemy as inferior and themselves as superior. While the cartoon makes the presence of instrumental aggression obvious (conquering the castle), it is not certain whether the Vikings actually harbor strong negative feelings against their enemies within the castle. The presence of numerous social psychological principles in this cartoon illustrates their pervasiveness in everyday life. In fact, the seemingly complex issues of obedience to authority, group norms, conformity, and aggression are easily identifiable in a simple childhood game. It is ironic how simple pleasures can illustrate such complex ideas.


    Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership, and men (pp.177-190). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

    Hogg, M. A., & Abrams, D. (1988). Social identifications: A social psychology of intergroup relations and group processes. London: Routledge. (p.407)

    Myers, D. G. (1996). Social Psychology. (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Perdue, C. W., Dovidio, J. F., Gurtman, M. B., & Tyler, R. B. (1990). Us and them: Social categorization and the process of intergroup bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 475-486. (p.407)

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Wednesday, June 21, 2006 at 04:12:30 . This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 Jan 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman