Informational social influence refers to the process by which individuals align their attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to align them with those of a reference group or community who they perceive to be knowledgeable or having collective wisdom.
It is based on the concept that people are often unsure of how to act or think in certain situations and, therefore, look to others whose views they trust.
A simple example of informational social influence is voting for a political party that your friends do because you’re not entirely sure what to believe, but you trust your friends’ moral judgments. It tends to occur in this sort of situation, where you’re not sure what to think, so your opinion shifts toward the norm of the people you trust.
Informational Social Influence Definition
The term “informational social influence” was first introduced by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif in his 1936 autokinetic effect experiments.
Sherif found that when placed in an ambiguous situation, individuals tended to look to others for guidance on how to act.
Since then, this concept has been the subject of extensive research, contributing significantly to our understanding of human behavior and decision-making in social contexts.
The concept was further popularized by Deutsch and Gerard (1955) who explain two ways in which people conform to social groups:
- Informational influence: Being influenced by groups who are perceived to have the best information on a topic because you desire to be correct.
- Normative influence: Being influenced by groups who are perceived to be the most socially influential because you desire to fit in.
Informational social influence is seen as having the advantage of convincing people through direct logic (logos) and encouraging independent thinking. Nevertheless, marketing experts have found that normative influence, where people are often compelled by emotion and desire (pathos) is still highly effective in convincing people to purchase products (Hu, Chen & Davison, 2019).
Case Study: Sherif’s 1935 Experiment
In 1935, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted a series of experiments using the autokinetic effect, a phenomenon in which a stationary small point of light in a dark room appears to move, to study the emergence of social norms and influence. In his experiments, Sherif placed individuals in a dark room and asked them to estimate the distance the light moved. Initially, their estimates varied greatly, but when placed in a group setting to make the estimates collectively, their estimates began to converge towards a common group norm. This convergence was observed even though there was no actual movement of the light, indicating the participants were uncertain and used each other’s estimates as a reference point to reduce their uncertainty. Sherif’s findings provided early evidence for informational social influence, illustrating how individuals conform to group norms when faced with ambiguous situations, using others as a source of information to guide their own beliefs and behaviors (Platow, 2017).
Informational Social Influence Examples
Understanding the real-world applications of informational social influence can provide a deeper understanding of its power and implications. Here are ten examples of how informational social influence affects our daily life:
- Health Practices: People frequently follow health practices recommended by experts or those followed by the majority, such as wearing masks during a pandemic, or following a popular diet, because they are uncertain and so they look to experts for social cues.
- Investment Decisions: During times of uncertainty, many investors follow market trends or take advice from market experts. This is another instance of informational social influence, where decisions are influenced by the perceived knowledge of others.
- News and Social Media: People often form opinions about current events or trending topics based on what they read or hear from others on social media or news outlets.
- Product Reviews: People often rely on product reviews before making a purchase. This is a prime example of informational social influence, where the opinions of others are used to make an informed decision.
- Restaurant Ratings: Choosing a restaurant based on online ratings or recommendations is another instance of informational social influence. We assume others know more about the quality of the restaurant, and hence, rely on their feedback.
- Fashion Trends: Fashion trends are another common area where informational social influence is apparent. People often adopt fashion trends because they see others adopting them and assume that it is the correct or popular way to dress.
- Environmental Behavior: People often adopt environmentally friendly behaviors, like recycling, because they see others doing it and presume it to be the correct action.
- Workplace Norms: New employees often observe and mimic the behaviors and work habits of experienced employees to understand the accepted norms and practices within the organization.
- Academic Conformity: Students might choose a popular major or courses based on what their peers are choosing, assuming that they know the best options.
- Voting Behavior: People often get influenced by public opinion or media coverage when deciding which candidate to vote for in an election.
Pros and Cons of Informational Social Influence
Like any psychological phenomenon, informational social influence comes with its own set of advantages and potential drawbacks.
Recognizing both sides can help us navigate social situations more effectively.
Informational social influence can be a valuable tool for making decisions during times of uncertainty (Houck, King & Taylor, 2021).
It enables a person to take stock of prevailing understandings so they can get a better understanding of a normal, rational, or mainstream response to a certain situation of phenomenon.
This can help you to navigate complex social environments, make more informed decisions, and adapt your behavior during uncertain times (Soper, 2020).
Informational social influence can lead to undesirable outcomes, especially during times of groupthink.
Primarily, it can perpetuate misinformation if the group’s beliefs or behaviors are based on incorrect data or assumptions (Houck, King & Taylor, 2021; Rader, Larrick & Soll, 2017).
For example, during times of moral panic when media whips up a frenzy about an issue, we may be compelled to use group wisdom to also engage in the group hysteria (later, we’ll realize the group wasn’t so wise, after all!).
It can also encourage conformity at the expense of individual creativity and diversity of thought (Soper, 2020). This can potentially harm social progress as innovation ends up being avoided in order to conform to normative ways of thinking.
Table Summary: Informational Influence Strengths and Weaknesses
|Learning and Adaptation||Facilitates learning from others and adapting to new or uncertain situations||Can perpetuate misinformation if the group’s beliefs or behaviors are incorrect|
|Social Harmony and Cohesion||Fosters a sense of belonging and cohesion within a group||Can suppress individual creativity and diversity of thought|
|Decision-Making||Can aid in decision-making by providing a reference point based on others’ choices||May encourage reliance on others’ decisions and discourage independent thinking|
|Effect on Cultural Norms||Helps maintain cultural norms and societal rules||Can lead to the perpetuation of harmful cultural or societal norms|
Key Concepts in Informational Social Influence
1. Social Proof
Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior in a given situation (Salmon, 2015).
It stems from the belief that if many people are doing something, it must be the right or best thing to do.
Social proof can have a powerful impact on individual behavior, from choosing which movie to watch to deciding where to eat dinner.
2. Uncertainty Reduction
When we’re unsure about something, we often look to others for clues on how to act.
This is uncertainty reduction.
In the context of informational social influence, it means that we’re influenced by the information and behavior of others when we’re uncertain about the correct course of action or the correct interpretation of a situation (Aspers, 2018).
For more on this concept, visit our article on uncertainty reduction theory.
3. Behavioral Mimicry
Behavioral mimicry refers to the unconscious or automatic imitation of gestures, behaviors, facial expressions, speech, and movements of others (Seibt et al., 2015).
It’s a subtle form of informational social influence, reflecting our innate social nature and the desire to fit in with a group.
This phenomenon, also known as social mimicry or the chameleon effect, can be seen in various social scenarios, such as adapting one’s manner of speech, modulation of voice, and body language to conform with those of others, imitating gestures and expressions, or modifying behavior to align with prevailing social norms (Seibt et al., 2015).
4. Group Dynamics
Group dynamics involves the ways in which individuals in a group interact with one another (Gencer, 2019).
It plays a pivotal role in informational social influence, as group norms, cohesion, conformity, and groupthink can heavily impact an individual’s attitudes and behaviors.
For example, a work team that has a culture of high expectations may influence group members into performing at a higher level and acting more professionally, while a lax team may have a negative social influence, leading to inefficiency and procrastination.
Normative vs Informational Social Influence
Normative social influence is another form of social influence where people conform in order to be liked and accepted by the group rather than out of desire to be correct.
This desire to fit into a group can lead individuals to change their behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs to match the group norms, even when these norms contradict their personal views or moral judgments (Collado, Staats & Sancho, 2019). The fear of social rejection or being viewed as different often drives normative social influence.
While both normative and informational social influence involve changes in an individual’s behavior due to social factors, they differ in their driving motivations and outcomes (Hu, Chen & Davison, 2019).
Informational social influence is primarily driven by the desire to be correct and to understand the right way to act in a given situation, especially in ambiguous scenarios.
On the other hand, normative social influence is motivated by the desire to be socially accepted and to avoid conflict or social ostracism.
Normative Social Influence Examples
- Wearing Formal Attire to a Wedding: Guests wear formal attire to weddings because it’s the expected dress code, and they want to show respect for the occasion and the couple getting married.
- Laughing at a Joke: People might laugh at a joke they don’t find funny because everyone else is laughing, and they want to fit in with the group and not be seen as unamused or disconnected.
Table: Normative vs Informational Social Influence
|Normative Social Influence||Informational Social Influence|
|Underling Motivation||Desire to fit in and be socially accepted (Hu, Chen & Davison, 2019).||Desire to be correct and make a reasonable decision (Houck, King & Taylor, 2021).|
|Triggering Conditions||Often seen in situations where fitting into the group matters, such as in social and professional circles (Collado, Staats & Sancho, 2019).||Often seen in ambiguous situations where the correct response is unclear so you verge toward collective wisdom (Rader, Larrick & Soll, 2017).|
|Examples||Dressing according to office attire, laughing at a joke that you didn’t find funny to fit in, or conforming to the fashion of the day.||Following evacuation instructions in an emergency because others are doing so.|
Informational social influence is a powerful social psychological phenomenon that shapes our behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. While it can be a valuable tool for learning and adapting to new situations, it also has potential downsides, such as perpetuating misinformation or suppressing individuality. By developing critical thinking skills and fostering individuality, individuals can make the most of informational social influence while also maintaining their autonomy.
As our world continues to evolve, the nature of informational social influence also changes. Future research directions may include exploring the role of informational social influence in digital spaces, such as social media, online communities, and digital marketing. Understanding the implications of informational social influence in these contexts can offer valuable insights into human behavior in our increasingly interconnected world.
Aspers, P. (2018). Forms of uncertainty reduction: decision, valuation, and contest. Theory and society, 47(2), 133-149.
Collado, S., Staats, H., & Sancho, P. (2019). Normative influences on adolescents’ self-reported pro-environmental behaviors: The role of parents and friends. Environment and Behavior, 51(3), 288-314. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916517744591
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Hu, X., Chen, X., & Davison, R. M. (2019). Social support, source credibility, social influence, and impulsive purchase behavior in social commerce. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 23(3), 297-327.
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Rader, C. A., Larrick, R. P., & Soll, J. B. (2017). Advice as a form of social influence: Informational motives and the consequences for accuracy. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(8), e12329.
Salmon, S. J., De Vet, E., Adriaanse, M. A., Fennis, B. M., Veltkamp, M., & De Ridder, D. T. (2015). Social proof in the supermarket: Promoting healthy choices under low self-control conditions. Food Quality and Preference, 45, 113-120.
Seibt, B., Mühlberger, A., Likowski, K., & Weyers, P. (2015). Facial mimicry in its social setting. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1122.
Sharps, M., & Robinson, E. (2017). Perceived eating norms and children’s eating behaviour: An informational social influence account. Appetite, 113, 41-50.
Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. London: Harper.Soper, D. S. (2020). Informational social influence, belief perseverance, and conservatism bias in web interface design evaluations. IEEE Access, 8, 218765-218776.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]