Social Influence Theory: Definition and 10 Examples

social influence theory definition and examples, explained below

Social influence theory studies how individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by others.

The theory aims to explain how people influence one another. Various contributors to the theory have devised key components of the theory in order to demonstrate social factors that can influence our beliefs and behaviors. Key contributors include Kelman (1958) and Deutsch and Gerard (1955).

Social Influence Theory Definition and Overview

Social influence theory can be defined as a theory which explores and explains how people are influenced by their social networks.

A simple definition from the scholarly literature is provided below:

“[Social influence theory attempts] to explain how individuals’ emotions, opinions, or behaviors are influenced by others” (Trenz et al., 2018, p. 11).

I will briefly present the ideas of Kelman (1950) and Deutsch and Gerard (1955) to provide an overview of the theory, before exploring each concept in more depth.

1. Kelman’s Components of Social Influence

According to this theory, there are three main components of social influence (Kelman ,1974):

  • Compliance (subjective norm): This occurs when someone is influenced by the group norm with the desire to gain favor or be liked.
  • Identification (social identity): This occurs when someone is influenced by the group norm with the desire to fit in and be part of an in-group with which you identify.
  • Internalization (group norm): This occurs when someone is influenced by the belief that the collective wisdom of the group helps guide the way to knowledge, truth, or wisdom.

2. Deursch and Gerard (1955)’s Types of Social Influence

While the theory is primarily attributed to Kelman (1958), his contemporaries Deutsch and Gerard (1955) also contributed significantly to the concept of social influence in psychology by explain two underlying causes of social influence: normative and informational influence.

  • Normative social influence: This occurs when someone is influenced by their peers out of the desire to be recognized by others as part of an in-group. People will be influenced by the desire to behave and be seen as behaving as part of a group to which they belong or aspire to belong.
  • Informational social influence: This occurs when someone is influenced by their peers out of the desire to be right, or make the right decisions. When people are uncertain about a topic, they often look to the group consensus as a reference point for roughly determining what the correct answer is .

Combining The Key Concepts

Kelman’s (1958) and Deutsch and Gerard’s (1955) ideas map onto one another in the following way:

Kelman – Social Influence ProcessesDeutsch and Gerard – Social Influence CausesDescription
Compliance (wanting to be liked)Normative (Desire for recognition from others)Normative-compliant social influence refers to being influenced by others out of the desire to fit into an in-group in order to be liked by others. 
Identification (wanting to fit in)Normative (Desire for recognition from others)Normative-identification social influence refers to being influenced by others out of the desire to fit into an in-group with which you identify.
Internalization (wanting to be correct)Informational (Desire to be correct)Informational-internalization social influence refers to being influenced by others out of a desire to be correct, or not wrong.
Table adapted from Trenz et al., (2018)

Kelman’s Social Influence Processes Explained

The theory of social influence is composed of three main components: conformity, compliance, and obedience.

1. Compliance

Compliance refers to instances where a person is influenced out of a desire to be liked by their social groups.

As stated by Hwang (2016, p. 467):

“Compliance occurs when an individual accepts influence because he or she hopes to achieve a positive reaction from another person or group with a normative commitment.”

This means individuals modify their behavior not because they necessarily agree with the influence, but because they want to gain favor or avoid negative consequences.

Zhou (2011) adds that compliance tends to ccur when they hear “…the opinions of other people who are important to him/her.”

For example, an employee might adhere to a company’s dress code, not because they agree with it, but because they want to maintain a positive relationship with their colleagues and superiors. Their compliance ensures a favorable impression and reduces the risk of potential conflict or reprimand.

2. Identification

According to Kelman, identification occurs when a person is influenced into taking on behaviors and attitudes out of a desire to fit into an in-group.

Hwang (2016) explains that people “adopt behaviors to realize a satisfying and self-defining relationship with another person or group.”

In identification, individuals align their behavior with a group or person they admire or want to be associated with.

This is less about gaining explicit approval (as in compliance), but more about cultivating a sense of belonging or identity. As Zhou (2011) explains:

“…identification reflects individual identification with a community, such as senses of belongingness and attachment.”

An example could be a young basketball player mimicking the playing style or even the mannerisms of their favorite professional athlete. The player identifies with the professional, seeking to embody aspects of their style and persona to express their admiration and connection.

3. Internalization

Internalization occurs when an individual integrates the beliefs, values, or behaviors of a group because they believe the group to have collective wisdom.

Zhou (2011) describes this by saying:

“Internalization reflects that an individual accepts the influence due to the congruence of his/her values with those of group members.”

In internalization, the individual genuinely believes that the adopted behavior or opinion is correct. As noted by Trenz et al. (2018),

“Internalization-based social influence processes refer to the individuals’ need to be right. To fulfill this need, individuals tend to accept information from others to facilitate problem-solving.”

An example of internalization could be a person who grows up in a family that prioritizes environmental conservation. Over time, this person internalizes these values, choosing to live sustainably not to fit in or gain approval, but because they genuinely believe it’s the right thing to do based on their internalization of the values of people they trust and respect.

Deutsch and Gerard’s Social Influence Causes Explained

1. Normative Social Influence

Normative social influence occurs when people conform as a part of desire to be seen as part of an in-group.

This desire to fit into a group can lead individuals to change their behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs to match the social norms of the group (Collado, Staats & Sancho, 2019). This may even when these norms contradict their personal views or moral judgments (see also: deindividuation). The fear of social rejection or being viewed as different often drives normative social influence.

2. Informational Social Influence

Informational social influence occurs when individuals align their attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to match those of a reference group or community that they perceive to have collective wisdom worth conforming to.

This type of social influence is grounded in the notion that, when an individual is uncertain about how to behave or think, they will look to the people around them to see what they think. This helps them get an anchoring point around what is the general or collective wisdom, which can be relied upon to try to more closely approximate the correct answer.

This type of social influence stretches back farther than Deutsch and Gerard’s (1955) work to Sherif’s autokinetic effect, explained below.

Sherif’s Autokinetic Effect Case Study

In 1936, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted experiments using the autokinetic effect – a phenomenon where a stationary light in darkness appears to move – to study social norms. Sherif asked participants individual to estimate how far the light moved. Individual estimates varied. But when Sherif got the group together, individuals tended to adjust their initial guesses to more closely approximate the group average, creating a group norm. This indicated that the participants used group knowledge – i.e. informational influence – to guide their own thoughts (Platow et al., 2017).

Social Influence Theory Examples

Social influence theory plays out in many ways across various aspects of our lives. Here are twelver examples, categorized based upon the theory’s typologies explored above:

  • Workplace Dress Code (Normative-compliance): An employee dresses formally in an office where everyone does so, not because they prefer formal attire, but because they want to create a positive impression and gain favor with colleagues and superiors.
  • Recycling at a Friend’s House (Normative-compliance): Even if someone does not usually recycle at home, they may do so at a friend’s house to gain approval and avoid potential criticism.
  • Dietary Choices (Normative-compliance): A person might opt for a vegetarian meal when dining with vegetarian friends to avoid any negative reactions, even though they aren’t vegetarian themselves.
  • Silence in a Library (Normative-compliance): Even though someone may want to talk or make noise, they remain silent in a library to comply with the quietness norm and to avoid disapproval from others.
  • Fan Groups (Normative-identification): A sports enthusiast might adopt the rituals and customs of other fans of their favorite sports team in order to feel a stronger sense of belonging to that community.
  • Adopting Local Accent (Normative-identification): Someone moving to a new region may start using local dialect or accent to better fit in with the local community.
  • Workplace Behavior (Normative-identification): An employee may adopt the work ethic, communication style, or mannerisms prevalent in their workplace to fit in and be a part of the organizational culture.
  • Style Choices (Normative-identification): A teenager might adopt the clothing style or music taste of their peer group to identify with and fit into that group.
  • Volunteering (Informational-internalization): A person may start volunteering at a local shelter after being part of a community that values giving back to society, and they come to believe in this value themselves.
  • Healthy Living (Informational-internalization): After being a part of a health-conscious group, an individual may start valuing the benefits of regular exercise and a balanced diet and incorporate them into their lifestyle.
  • Sustainability Practices (Informational-internalization): Someone might start composting or minimizing plastic use after joining an environmental club and learning about the benefits, truly internalizing the values of sustainable living.
  • Learning a New Language (Informational-internalization): Upon moving to a new country, someone might genuinely value the importance of understanding and respecting the local culture and language and decide to learn the language to truly integrate into society.

These examples illustrate the pervasiveness of social influence in shaping our behaviors, decisions, and interactions.

Critiques and Limitations of Social Influence Theory

While social influence theory provides valuable insights into human behavior, it is not without its critiques and limitations.

1. Ethnocentrism

A common critique of social influence theory lies in its ethnocentrism. Many of the foundational studies in social influence theory were conducted in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Therefore, the theory may not account for cultural differences in social influence processes. Some cultures may emphasize conformity and obedience more than others, which influences the degree to which these aspects of social influence are manifested (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010).

2. The Role of Individual Differences

Another critique is that social influence theory tends to downplay the role of individual differences. Not all individuals respond to social influence in the same way. Personal traits such as self-esteem, assertiveness, and the need for social approval can impact the extent to which an individual is susceptible to social influence (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2014).

3. Overemphasis on Change

Social influence theory also tends to overemphasize change, often overlooking instances where individuals resist social influence and maintain their original beliefs and behaviors. This resistance to change is an important area of social behavior that the theory does not fully address.

These critiques and limitations underscore the importance of continually refining and expanding social influence theory to better capture the complexities of human social behavior.

Other Social Influence Concepts in Psychology

A number of theorists have been instrumental in shaping our understanding of social influence from other social psychology perspectives. Among the most influential are Leon Festinger, Solomon Asch, and Stanley Milgram.

1. Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger’s concept of social comparison adds context to our understandings of how social influence occurs.

According to Festinger, individuals have an intrinsic drive to assess their opinions and abilities accurately. When objective means are not available, people compare themselves to others to gain this understanding of their position in a social hierarchy (Festinger, 1954).

This drive for self-evaluation leads individuals to compare themselves to those around them, and this comparison influences their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Festinger’s social comparison theory fundamentally changed our understanding of social influence. It showed that individuals are not passive recipients of influence but actively seek out information from their social environment to make sense of their own experiences.

2. Solomon Asch

Asch is known for his groundbreaking studies on conformity through what’s now known as the Asch Conformity Experiment.

His seminal experiment involved a simple perceptual task where participants were asked to match the length of a line with three others presented.

When faced with a unanimous but incorrect group opinion, many participants conformed to the group’s view, even when it contradicted their own accurate perception (Asch, 1956).

This research demonstrated the powerful effect of group pressure on individual judgment and behavior.

3. Stanley Milgram

Milgram’s research on obedience to authority is perhaps among the most famous and controversial in psychology.

The Milgram experiment measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to administer electric shocks to strangers (Milgram, 1963).

The research participants were asked to play the role of a “teacher” who was supposed to administer an electric shock to a “learner” every time the learner made a mistake in a memory test.

During the study, the “learner” began to protest and show signs of distress while the authority figure (the experimenter) encouraged the participants to continue with the shocks. Most participants continued to obey the experimenter and administer the shocks, demonstrating obedience.


As we look towards the future, emerging areas of research such as online social influence, the impact of social media, and the influence of artificial intelligence present new frontiers for the exploration of social influence theory. Additionally, societal changes, like an increased emphasis on individualism or the role of virtual communities, may prompt new shifts in the understanding and application of social influence theory.

So, the study of social influence remains a dynamic and evolving field. By recognizing and understanding the power of social influence, we can become more conscious of the forces that shape our behavior and can better navigate our social world.


Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70.

Blass, T. (2017). Understanding behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, situations, and their interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 398-413.

Chou, C. H., Wang, Y. S., & Tang, T. I. (2015). Exploring the determinants of knowledge adoption in virtual communities: A social influence perspective. International Journal of Information Management35(3), 364-376.

Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2014). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

Hwang, Y. (2016). Understanding social influence theory and personal goals in e-learning. Information Development32(3), 466-477.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378.

Nail, P. R., MacDonald, G., & Levy, D. A. (2019). Proposal of a four-dimensional model of social response. Psychological Bulletin, 115(3), 457-476.Platow, J. M. J., Hunter, A., Alexander, H. S., & Reicher, S. D. (2017). Reflections on Muzafer Sherif’s legacy in social identity and self-categorization theories. In Norms, groups, conflict, and social change (pp. 275-306). Routledge.

Trenz, M., Huntgeburth, J., and Veit, D. (2018). Uncertainty in Cloud Service Relationships: Uncovering the Differential Effect of Three Social Influence Processes on Potential and Current Users, Information & Management (55:8), pp. 971–983. doi:

Zhou, T. (2022). Examining online health community users’ sharing behaviour: A social influence perspective. Information Development38(4), 599-608.

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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]

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