In this essay, the definition of social influence will be looked at along with the forms of such influence (incidental and deliberate). Focus will be placed on why people conform (e.g. Deutsch and Gerard, 1955).
Everyday examples of deliberate social influence will be presented in the form of compliance techniques namely the door in the face (e.g. Cialdini et al 1975), foot-in-the-door (e.g. Dickerson et al 1992), and low-balling (Cialdini, 1974).
Then, the various social influences dictated by particular group dynamics will be discussed.
These types of group dynamics can be divided into scenarios where individual psychology is influenced by the group (e.g. majority influences) and scenarios where groups are influenced by individual psychology (e.g. minority influences.)
In the latter case, we can further categorise the influences into group identification (either by cooperation or competition, Tajfel, 1970, or even prejudice, Macrae, 1994)) and majority influence such as conformity (e.g. Sherif, 1936; Asch, 1951) and obedience.
What is social influence?
Social influence pertains to the change of beliefs, attitudes, and values of a person being influenced. This influence is either deliberate (i.e. explicit feedback regarding how to behave) or incidental (i.e. implicit).
The latter type of influence can occur as a function of social norms. Social norms provide insight into why we conform, for example.
These norms inform others of the shared expectations of what a particular group believes desirable behavior is and it is these norms.
Social norms – two types of influence relating to norms
According to Deutsch and Gerard (1955), there are two types of influence relating to the social norms. These norms either serve an informational or normative purpose.
Informational influence is to reduce uncertainty, which leads us to accept information from others as evidence of reality (e.g. Sherif, 1936). Human beings have a desire for a definite answer, which is opposed to ambiguity and confusion.
They strive for cognitive closure (Kruglanski and Webster, 1996) which is characterized by urgency (e.g. attaining cognitive closure as quickly as possible) and permanency (this closure is maintained long-term).
Normative influence reflects the inherent need for social approval. Conformity occurs in order to build strong social relationships with group members.
Transmission of norms
Sherif (1936) conducted an experiment using the autokinetic effect to investigate the effect of conformity to a perceived group norm.
The autokinetic effect is an optical illusion where a fixed pinpoint of light in a completely dark room appears to move due to the eye movements of participants.
In this experiment, participants watched the light alone and estimated verbally how much this light appeared to move. After a number of trials, the participants had developed their own frame of reference with which they adhere to in their estimations.
Later, the experiment continued in groups of 3-4 where participants took turns in estimating how much the point of light moved. They used each other’s frame of reference, with all estimates being roughly the same.
A group norm had formed to which participants had conformed to once it was established.
Interestingly, when the participants were asked to repeat the task alone it was found that social influence of conformity still compelled the participants to based their estimations of the previously established group norm.
Hence, Sherif’s experiment shows how conformity can occur as a function of informational influence (Deutsch and Gerard, 1955) whereby people use the information of others as evidence of reality.
This is done in order to reduce uncertainty as we as humans strive for cognitive closure (Kruglanski and Webster, 1996).
This is due to uncertainty causing discomfort and confusion and humans will strive to reduce this uncertainty by achieving cognitive closure urgently (i.e. as quickly as possible) and permanently (i.e. for extended periods of time).
Conformity as majority influence on a minority in an ambiguous situation
What is the other reason that people conform?
Deutsch and Gerard (1955) suggest that normative influence (i.e. inherent need for social approval) is another reason. This influence compels us to conform due to an inherent need for social approval and group affiliation.
Conformity occurs as a function of building strong social relationships.
Asch (1951) conducted an experiment where majority influence was a factor in inducing normative influence in the form of conformity among individual participants.
In this experiment, 8 participants were gathered to enter a room, of which 7 were confederates. All participants were presented with two white cards.
On one there were three lines differing in length (a, b, and, c) and on the other there was one line which had to be compared with the lines on the card.
Out of 18 trials in the experiment, the confederates were asked to unanimously make a decision in 12 trials.
Over the critical trials, it was found that 75% of individuals agreed at least once and 32% conformed half of the times. This experiment showed the effect of majority influence over a minority.
group affiliation and cooperation
However, studies have found that social influence occurs due to mere group affiliation and cooperation.
Tajfel (1970) conducted an experiment in which a group of boys that had previously known each other took part in a series of tasks.
The experiment required them to come into the lab and take part on an experiment on visual perception. One of the tasks required them to estimate how many dots there were on a computer screen.
Then, the participants were divided into groups depending on the performance in the visual task. They were segregated into two groups: under- and over-estimators.
Later, the boys assigned real money rewards to the participants with only knowing their group allocation (there was no real name, just a code).
Even though the group allocation was entirely arbitrary, the boys showed inter-group discrimination and in-group favouritism in their rewards.
That is, they gave less and gave more to out-group and in-group participants, respectively.
Majority influence: prejudice
The aforementioned experiment by Tajfel (1970) touches upon an important issue in everyday life and a majority social influence that occupies a curious position in the literature on social influence, namely prejudice.
Prejudice has been exhibited towards the outgroup in Tajfel’s study.
Macrae (1994) conducted a study on prejudice towards out-group as social influence.
In this experiment, participants were presented with an essay task to write about skinheads (this term was chosen for its political incorrectness).
Group 1 was asked to suppress their prejudices whereas group 2 was given no such instructions.
It was found that group 1 expressed fewer prejudicial views in their essays than group 2.
This showed that there was an obedience effect that had caused their suppression.
Interestingly, when the participants were asked to repeat the essay (without instruction), group 1 had experienced a rebound effect and had become significantly more prejudiced.
This study showed that it can be difficult to suppress a prejudicial idea and the attempt may lead to more prejudice.
Stay tuned for part 2 of 2…
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