It is a fundamental concept in social psychology and political science, but it is also studied extensively in the psychology of marketing to explore how brands and advertisements affect people’s behaviors.
There are multiple theories of social influence, which I will explore after providing the following examples of how people are socially influenced.
Types of Social Influence
- Conformity: Conformity occurs when we change our behaviors or beliefs to align with the norms or standards of our in-group. According to Kelman’s social influence theory (1958), conformity is driven by a desire for other people to like and accept us.
- Compliance: Compliance refers to a change in behavior that is prompted by a direct request from another person or group. It is not as extreme as obedience (noted below) because we aren’t compelled to obey, but rather requested to comply. People comply for various reasons, such as wanting to avoid conflict, maintaining relationships, or gaining approval.
- Obedience: Obedience occurs when an individual is influenced into ‘toeing the line’ in response to a direct command from an authority figure such as a police officer, parent, or teacher. This differs from compliance as it often involves a power differential that means we must obey or risk direct punishment, such as a fine or detention at school.
- Peer Pressure: Peer pressure occurs when people are influenced by those around them who share similar characteristics, such as age group or background. It is most commonly associated with adolescents, although it can affect us at all ages.
- Persuasion: Persuasion is the act of intentionally influencing someone’s beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors through the art of rhetoric (common strategies being: logos, pathos, and ethos). We most commonly witness this in advertising and political speeches, but it may also occur during interpersonal conversation.
Social Influence Examples
- Dressing formally for an interview (Conformity): You adapt your clothing choices to suit professional norms and expectations.
- Laughing because everyone else is laughing (Conformity): Even if you don’t understand the joke, you laugh along to feel part of the group.
- Buying a popular brand of sneakers (Conformity): You choose the brand because it is widely accepted and popular among your peers.
- Switching to a reusable water bottle after seeing friends do the same (Conformity): You change your behavior to match the environmentally friendly actions of your peers.
- Taking part in a viral social media challenge (Conformity): You join in because everyone else is doing it.
- Agreeing to donate a small amount to charity at a supermarket checkout (Compliance): You comply with a direct request, even if it wasn’t your initial intention.
- Signing a petition because a friend asked you to (Compliance): You might not be fully invested in the cause, but you comply to maintain the relationship.
- Attending a meeting because your boss asked you to (Compliance): Your participation is a response to a direct request.
- Accepting a store credit card due to a salesperson’s persuasion (Compliance): You are influenced by the salesperson’s request and the perceived benefits.
- Paying taxes (Obedience): You obey laws and regulations set by the government.
- Following traffic signals (Obedience): You obey the traffic rules to ensure safety and orderliness on the roads.
- Standing for the national anthem at a sports event (Obedience): You follow an established societal rule or norm.
- Adhering to school rules (Obedience): As a student, you follow the rules set by the school administration.
- Joining a military draft because of a governmental decree (Obedience): You are obeying a direct command from an authority.
- Engaging in risky behavior, like extreme sports, due to group encouragement (Peer Pressure): You take part in activities you wouldn’t usually do because of influence from peers.
- Changing your music preferences to align with your friends’ tastes (Peer Pressure): Your music choices are influenced by the preferences of your peer group.
- Choosing a college major based on what your friends are studying (Peer Pressure): You make academic choices based on your peers’ decisions.
- Buying a product after watching a convincing TV commercial (Persuasion): The advertisement successfully convinces you of the product’s worth.
- Changing your opinion about a political issue after hearing a persuasive speech (Persuasion): The speaker’s arguments influence your attitude and beliefs.
- Starting to exercise regularly after reading compelling health articles (Persuasion): The articles present persuasive arguments that influence your behavior.
- Subscribing to a service due to a persuasive sales call (Persuasion): The salesperson’s convincing pitch influences your decision.
- Voting for a candidate because of their convincing campaign promises (Persuasion): The candidate’s promises and rhetoric persuade you to support them.
- Switching to a plant-based diet after watching a compelling documentary (Persuasion): The documentary’s persuasive arguments and evidence influence your dietary choices.
- Deciding not to buy a product because of a negative review (Persuasion): The negative review persuades you to reconsider your purchase.
- Participating in a protest because your friends are doing it (Peer Pressure): You join in because you’re influenced by your peers, even if you might not feel strongly about the cause.
- Changing your stance on a social issue after discussing it with your family (Informational Social Influence): Your family provides new information that persuades you to alter your perspective.
Theories and Models of Social Influence
1. Social Comparison Theory
Social comparison theory, proposed by Leon Festinger in 1954, suggests that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others.
People tend to compare themselves to others for self-evaluation and self-enhancement, to improve their own self-concept.
This theory often breaks social comparison down into two components – upward and downward social comparison:
- Upward social comparison: This occurs when we compare ourselves to people who are doing better than us in the social hierarchy. Generally, we are influenced by these role models because we admire them or want to emulate them, which will influence our behaviors and actions.
- Downward social comparison: This tends to occur when we say “at least I am not as bad as that person!” This can help us to feel better about ourselves, but also might influence us not to behave in certain ways in order to avoid the bad fate of those less fortunate than us.
2. Social Impact Theory
Developed by Bibb Latané in 1981, social impact theory explores how influential groups are, depending on a range of variables.
According to this theory, the amount of influence a person experiences in group settings depends on three variables: the strength (status or power) of the group, the immediacy (physical or psychological closeness) of the group, and the number of people in the group.
- Group Strength: Strength refers to the importance of the group in the eyes of the individual. It can be derived from various factors such as status, authority, or personal relevance to the individual. A group that is seen as highly significant or powerful will have a stronger social impact. For example, consider the influence exerted by a panel of experts in a field versus Bob from facebook. The expert panel, due to its high status and perceived expertise, will likely have a greater impact on an individual’s attitudes or behaviors than Bob from facebook.
- Group Immediacy: Immediacy pertains to the physical or psychological closeness of the group to the individual. This can refer to actual physical proximity or emotional closeness. A group that is physically nearby or emotionally close to an individual will tend to have a larger social influence. For example, the influence of a close-knit family or group of friends with whom an individual spends a lot of time will likely be greater than that of distant relatives or casual acquaintances.
- Group Size: The first few members of a group (who you are most proximate to you) are most influential. As a group grows, the group influence may expand overall, but with diminishing returns per added person. For example, if an individual is faced with a differing opinion from a group of two or three people, they may be likely to reconsider their stance. However, if the group size is increased to twenty, the added influence of the additional members is less impactful than the impact of the first few people alone.
3. Elaboration Likelihood Model
The elaboration likelihood model, proposed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, is a theory about the ways in which persuasion works.
This model suggests two routes to persuasion: the central route and the peripheral route. The central route appeals to logic, while the periperhal route appeals to emotion.
- The central route to persuasion: This route aims to influence people by presenting them with the merits of an argument. This route is most influential on people who are highly involved in the issue and willing to expend significant cognitive load on considering their options.
- The peripheral route to persuasion: This route aims to influence people by presenting them with superficial cues like a charming spokesperson, emotional appeals, and brand name appeals. It persuades people based on ‘feel’ rather than ‘fact’, as seen in many television advertisements.
4. Normative vs Informational Social Influence
The contrast between normative and informational social influence was presented by Deutsch and Gerard (1955).
- Normative social influence: This is social influence that occurs when people are influenced to change their behaviors, thoughts, and actions in order to fit in and be liked by the group. The person doesn’t need to genuinely believe in the subjective norms of the group, but rather, chooses to comply in order to achieve acceptance.
- Informational social influence: This happens when people face ambiguity and uncertainty, so they defer to the group norm as a way to seek group wisdom and consensus. Here, people conform because they believe the group collectively is better informed than them, so they defer critical thinking to the group. For example, if you’re not sure who to vote for in an election, you ask your friends to give you advice, because you trust and respect your friends’ opinions, not simply because you want to fit in with your friend group per se.
5. Kelman’s Social Influence Theory
Herbert Kelman, the father of social influence theory, identified three broad varieties of social influence: compliance, identification, and internalization.
Kelman’s ideas overlap with those of Deutsch and Gerard (1955), where compliance and identification fit into normative influence, and internalization fits into informational influence.
- Compliance: Here, an individual is influenced by the group because they want recognition, reward, and acknowledgment from the group.
- Identification: In this process, we are influenced because we want to develop a sense of belonging to a group. By conforming with the group, we achieve in-group status, which makes us satisfied and feel included.
- Internalization: We are influenced into accepting and adhering to group norms because we are socialized into genuinely believing that the group has collective wisdom. Group norms are internalized and genuinely believed to be true following sustained exposure to the group. This occurs, for example, when we feel like the cultural norms of our society are the ideal.
Factors that Impact Social Influence
- Group Size: The size of a group can significantly impact social influence. Research in social psychology suggests that as group size increases, conformity tends to increase as well. However, this is up to a certain point; once a group reaches a certain size, additional members have less of an impact on increasing conformity.
- Group Cohesion: Cohesion refers to the degree to which members of a group want to stay in that group and feel committed to it. Groups that are more cohesive tend to have greater social influence over their members. When individuals feel a strong connection to a group, they are more likely to align their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with the group’s norms.
- Culture: Cultural background can have a profound effect on how social influence operates. In individualistic cultures (like the U.S. or Western Europe), people are more likely to resist conformity and value independence. In contrast, in collectivist cultures (like many Asian cultures), conformity and group harmony may be more highly valued.
- Status and Authority: People in positions of status and authority typically wield more social influence. This can be seen in many contexts, such as workplaces, where managers and supervisors can significantly influence the behavior of their employees. Likewise, celebrities, due to their high status, often have the power to influence public opinion.
- Individual Differences: Individual personality traits can impact how susceptible a person is to social influence. For instance, people with high self-esteem or a strong sense of identity may be less likely to conform than those with lower self-esteem. Similarly, individuals with a higher need for social approval may be more susceptible to peer pressure. Cognitive factors, such as a person’s level of intelligence or their tendency towards critical thinking, may also affect their susceptibility to persuasion.
We all are influenced by our social groups to a greater or lesser extent. By studying theories of how influence occurs, we can learn when we are being influenced and how to best influence others. This can, on a personal level, help us to resist influence (if that’s what we want), and on a social level, learn how to best influence others (which is especially useful when we’re working in sales and marketing).
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]