Bennington College Study Definition
The Bennington College study was conducted by sociologist Theodore Newcomb from 1935 until 1939. The study examined the attitudes of students attending the then all-female Bennington College early in the college’s history; indeed, the study began during the first year that the college had a senior class. The study is notable not only for the findings it yielded in relation to group influence on individual attitudes, but also because of its methodological significance in being the first major study to interview the same group of individuals about their attitudes on multiple occasions across time.
Bennington College Study Background and History
The social climate at the time that the study was conducted was one of change and controversy. Many of the students came from affluent families with very conservative political attitudes. The faculty at Bennington College, however, were predominantly male, social activists in their 30s with liberal social, political, and economic attitudes.
Beginning in 1935 with the incoming freshman class, Newcomb measured the Bennington College women’s attitudes toward nine social and economic issues. He then reassessed the women’s attitudes each year until 1939. Most of the women’s attitudes changed from conservative to liberal. Newcomb concluded that the college’s social climate was liberal enough that students perceived liberal, as opposed to conservative, attitudes as the social norm, a norm that then became their reference group.
A few individuals, however, did not change their attitudes in the liberal direction. Two things seemed to predict who would and would not change their attitudes. The first was the degree of involvement of the student in the college community. Students who desired more independence from their families and who wanted to take a more active role in college activities changed their attitudes more than those students who desired to maintain close familial ties. The second, but related, factor was the personality of the individuals who did not change their attitudes. These individuals tended to have lower self-esteem, be more socially insecure, and be more socially isolated.
Importantly, the attitude change observed among the majority of the Bennington College students was quite stable. In 1960-1961, Newcomb conducted a follow-up study with the women who participated in the initial study. The correlation between the women’s attitudes at the time of graduation and their attitudes in the early 1960s was .47, suggesting remarkable consistency in the attitudes over the 20+ year span of time. Additional follow-up studies up to 50 years later showed similar patterns of stability in attitudes over time.
Bennington College Study Importance and Consequences
The fact that the majority of the women’s attitudes changed from conservative to liberal over the course of their 4 years in college, remained remarkably consistent from that point on suggests that late adolescence is a key time for change and influence in people’s social and political attitudes. More importantly, however, the Bennington College study highlights the influence of a group on individual attitudes and preferences. The salience of the liberal group norm at the college, in combination with students’ willingness to break with existing beliefs and a desire to assume leadership positions within the group, facilitated the ease with which the majority of women changed their attitudes from conservative to liberal.
- Newcomb, T. (1943). Personality and social change: Attitude formation in a student community. New York: Dryden.
- Newcomb, T., Koenig, K. E., Flacks, R., & Warwick, D. P. (1967). Persistence and change: Bennington College and its students after 25 years. New York: Wiley.