Social Influence in Psychology: Theories, Definition & Examples
This lesson offers you an overview of the various ways our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are influenced by other people. These other people may include family members, salesmen, advertisers, public relations experts, or even media celebrities like Big Bird.
Sources of Social Influence
Taking a broad perspective, we can think of social influences at the three levels of analysis recognized by sociologists. In a nutshell, people are influenced in many different ways by:
- Social Institutions: Organized religions, political parties, and labor unions are social institutions that influence our attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior.
- Interactions with Other People: The people we interact with, at home, at work, or at play are sources of social influence.
- Individual Socialization: Individuals are as unique as fingerprints. Nevertheless, the degree to which people will be open to social influence depends on how they are socialized. Socialization begins in infancy. It is the process by which we are inducted into a culture or a society. The language we speak, the ideas we hold to be true, and all the ways we are likely to behave are products of socialization.
Types of Social Influence
From the perspective of social psychology, the work of Robert B. Cialdini stands out. Professor Cialdini is an emeritus professor at the University of Arizona and a past president of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. His engaging, often amusing approach to social influence has captured the imaginations of countless undergraduate college students. What follows is a sampling of his key insights.
We can begin with the understanding that, to an amazing extent, our behavior, ideas, and beliefs are automated. Put another way, an awful lot of what we do, what we say, and what we believe is a product of habit. We internalize all kinds of habitual, virtually automatic, behavior that's similar to a reflex response to a physical stimulus. For example, if the doctor taps near your knee cap with a little rubber hammer you'll exhibit a knee-jerk reaction. In a similar way, humans will react automatically, and often unconsciously, to social stimuli.
If you are a classical behavioral psychologist you'll view automated reflexive behaviors as responses to conditioned stimuli. Recall Pavlov's experiments. By associating the ringing of a bell with servings of meat powder, he could condition the dog to salivate simply by ringing the bell. For his part, Cialdini uses the metaphor of internal 'tapes.' Once a stimulus-response pattern is 'stored' in the mind, it will be activated by an appropriate trigger. We'll explore several of these 'tapes,' and their triggers in this lesson.
To set the stage for his insights into social influence, Cialdini borrows a comment from Walter Lippmann, one of the founders of modern public relations:
Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.
Principles of Influence
You scratch my back and I'll scratch your back. That aphorism helps us think about the reciprocity principle. It's a principle found in every culture. In fact, Cialdini tells us, Richard Leakey, a much respected paleoanthropologist, maintains that the reciprocity principle is an essential human trait that helps us sustain ideals of sharing and cooperation within social groups.
On the dark side, the rule of reciprocity can be used to manipulate behavior. For example, companies provide free samples to potential buyers. Often enough, that may encourage a person to buy Product X - under the social rule of reciprocity. Further, to the extent that reciprocity rules in market economics, people may be encouraged to assume more debt that they can manage. In social situations, you may feel you should invite Jake to your brother's birthday party, even though you really don't like him, simply because he invited you to his mom's retirement party.
Commitment and Consistency
Cialdini refers to the commitment and consistency principles as 'hobgoblins of the mind.' Here are examples of both of these principles that illustrate his point.
Commitment: If Lowell can get you take a stand on something like, say, supporting charter schools, you will have made a commitment. That may be the case even though you actually agreed to be a proponent of charter schools because you want Lowell to like you. Nevertheless, when you attend a debate on the charter school issue, you'll feel compelled to voice your approval of charter schools over public schools - even if Lowell isn't present at the debate.
Consistency: Think again about the example we just cited. In ordinary, day-to-day life, we are generally rewarded for being consistent. For example, if you generally argue in favor of lower taxes, you'll feel uncomfortable arguing for higher taxes, even if you sense at some level that some common need, such as improved roads, might justify higher taxes. To appear consistent to your peers and family, you'll argue for your low-tax position come hell or high water.
So, you can see, commitment and consistency are often strongly related. Both are hobgoblins of the mind because they motivate foolish consistency on the one hand and foolish commitment on the other hand.
If you're inclined to smoke cigarettes, you'll feel encouraged to smoke if you admire advertisements featuring the Marlboro Man. If you would like to get your ears pierced, you may feel justified in your choice because popular girls at your high school have pierced ears. In both cases we see behavioral choices justified on the basis of social proof.
The dark side of social proof is made evident in studies of suicide. In particular, statistical research has demonstrated that after a suicide, such as a celebrity suicide, is reported in the media, the rates of both suicides and accidents increase alarmingly. Why the frequency of both suicides and accidents should both increase has invited speculation, but no firm explanation for these phenomena has, as yet, been identified.
Basically, people like to be liked. At the same time, we are likely to be persuaded to comply with a request if we like the person making the request. In marketing psychology, Tupperware parties are successful if the attendees like the Tupperware lady. Interestingly, however, both the reciprocity and the commitment principles will override liking.
People are strongly inclined to obey authority figures. The influence of authority was demonstrated in a classic study conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University. Ordinary men from different backgrounds were invited to participate in a 'learning experiment.' The experiment required the subject to punish the 'learner' (actually a confederate and consummate actor) with 'electric shocks' (also fake) following each incorrect response to a question. In the end, 26 out of the 40 subjects administered 'lethal 450 volt' shocks to the learner, even after he was slumped in his chair and apparently unconscious. Of the remaining subjects, none stopped administering shocks before reaching the '300 volt' level.
Where some desired product is perceived as scarce, demand for that product will increase, all things being equal. Advertisers frequently manipulate consumer behavior with sell messages such as 'for a limited time only,' or 'while supplies last.' As sales figures demonstrate, these kinds of ploys actually work.
If there is a moral to this lesson, it might be this: learn to recognize the power of social influence while you master the art of thinking for yourself.
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