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Social Influence in Psychology: Theories, Definition & Examples

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Robert Turner

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.

We also recommend watching Catharsis and Aggression in Social Psychology: Definition & Examples and Social Exchange Theory in Relationships: Definition, Examples & Predictions

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.

Robert B. Cialdini
Robert B. Caldini

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

Reciprocity

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.

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