Social influence is the process of changing a person’s behavior, opinions, or feelings due to what others do, think, or feel. These changes don’t have to be intentional and people influenced by them don’t have to be aware of the process. Influencing people, groups, and social organizations is the essence of social life.
With mutual influence, people can induce others to the desired behavior, agree on essential issues, and establish common goals and objectives that people could never achieve alone.
Examples of social influence
The most common types of social influence are imitation, conformity, and obedience. Here are examples of how they work:
When one person yawns, they are usually not the only ones yawning in the room. When a mother feeds her baby with a spoon, not only the baby’s mouth opens but also the mother’s. These are examples of imitation, which has both good and bad sides.
For example, watching people who behave aggressively increases the observer’s aggression and watching films with aggressive content. On the other hand, preschoolers suffering from shyness are more likely to interact and play with their peers if they watched a movie showing the behavior and commenting on it of another preschooler who has managed to overcome social anxiety.
It’s connected to social learning theory. Social learning is a theoretical framework for studying how people learn and interact. According to this concept, we can acquire new behaviors by watching and imitating others. Learning is a cognitive process that happens in the social context. It may be obtained simply through observation or direct instruction.
Conformity is a principle of social influence involving a change in behavior, belief, or thinking to align with those of others or with group norms. Conformity can be distinguished between two varieties: informational conformity (also called social proof) and normative conformity.
The normative influence is the submission of a person to what they consider to be the social norm, especially the norm professed by a social group, the one they care about and identify with. The informational influence comes from the belief that the group is better informed.
We can observe a decrease in group pressure due to anonymity when the influencing group does not know what response the individual is making and the low attractiveness of the group to the individual under pressure. The breakdown of group unanimity is also a factor that weakens conformity.
The appearance of an ally weakens conformity even when the individual is completely incompetent (e.g., he wears such thick glasses that he can hardly see the objects about which he is supposed to make judgments), as well as when his judgments are even more erroneous than those of the other group members.
There is also the case of peer conformity, when a person is persuaded to do something they may not want to do (such as illegal drug use) but which they believe is “required” to maintain a good relationship with other people. Peer pressure typically occurs as a result of identification with the group or compliance by some individuals to soothe others.
Obedience is an example of social influence that comes from an authority figure. The Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and the Hofling hospital study are three particularly well-known experiments on obedience, all of which conclude that people are surprisingly obedient in the presence of perceived legitimate authorities.
We covered famous experiments in social psychology in a separate article.
Stanley Milgram’s experiment sought to discover how the Nazis could get ordinary people to participate in the Holocaust. Instead, the study revealed that people obey authority as a norm, not an exception.
Milgram agreed that obedience is as essential to social existence as one can find. All communal living necessitates some form of authority, and it is only the lone dweller who is not compelled to comply with the demands of others through defiance or submission.
Titles and uniforms are the most common symbols of authority we succumb to in everyday life. In one study, a male stranger introduced himself to the nurse on duty as Dr. Smith and instructed him to administer 20 mg of astrogen to a named patient.
Even though the allowable daily dose of the drug (written on the label) was 10 mg, no one in the hospital knew this doctor, and hospital regulations required nurses to follow only personally given orders, as many as 21 of the 22 nurses surveyed obediently took the drug and marched it to the patient (Hofling et al., 1966).
Commands from a superior or an authority figure thus act as automatic triggers for obedience. Because we usually obey them, we do so even when they are unreasonable, erroneous, or even dangerous. We often do this completely without thinking, which is why we underestimate the frequency with which we do it.
When Bickman asked his students to rate how often people give in to unusual requests, they quite accurately rated the percentage of people, for example, giving a coin to a stranger on the recommendation of a “civilian” (average rating was 50%, actual submission was 42%). Still, they vastly underestimated uniformed submission (63% vs. the actual 92%).
Yielding to authority brings benefits and dangers – the latter, especially since the mere appearance of authority, is often enough, which is often exploited by scammers and swindlers of various sorts.
Mechanisms of social influence
The aforementioned displays of social influence such as imitation, conformism, and obedience to authority can raise the question of why we succumb. There are many mechanisms of social influence, but Robert Cialdini (2009) points out a few basic ones.
Commitment is a powerful tool in influencing others. When you commit to a task, you don’t want to appear inconsistent and back out. There are three reasons why the commitment principle works. First, is increased psychological availability, which means being mentally “ready” for a challenge by envisioning it.
The second is the self-justification of effort. If we put a lot of effort into getting some result, we value it more than what comes without effort. And the third that is directly related to the second, sunk cost fallacy – the more you invest, the more you want to stick to your decision (even when it’s wrong).
Consensus is what Cialdini called social proof. As we mentioned, it comes from informational influence. It’s based on the belief that it’s probably the right thing to do if people are doing it.
We have a dedicated article on social proof in marketing if you want to know more.
Affection is one of the most powerful and primal influence mechanisms. We like people similar to us, and we are more likely to agree with them and believe them. However, similarity only works when people are convinced that similarity involves rare traits (82% gave in to the request) but not common (55% gave in). This indicates that similarity enhances liking and submissiveness when it is a factor that leads to the development of a special relationship linking us to the person.
Reciprocity is the feeling of obligation to give back the kind gesture. When someone gives us something for free, for example, a company, we are more likely to give a positive review in return.
We covered the topic of reciprocity in a dedicated article about marketing psychology.
We all want something we can’t have – this is the scarcity rule. If something is a rare, unique product or limited edition, we are more drawn to it. It’s a very powerful tool used in marketing.
Make sure to check out our article about scarcity in marketing.
Many mechanisms of social influence involve trying to persuade others for your point of view. When we feel that we can relate to something, we’re much more likely to agree with it and become consumed by the idea very quickly. So it’s important not to be taken in by persuasive techniques and keep an open mind when considering different points of view.
We encourage you to look at how you can use those principles in marketing and online communication. In addition, our other articles have more information about certain principles, so make sure to check them out.