Social influence has a number of meanings in psychology, it is generally used to summarise the field of social psychology. Studying “how thoughts, feelings and behaviour of individuals are influenced by actual, imagined or implied presence of others” (Allport, 1968). Our social life is characterised by social influences; influences we are aware of and some we are not. As individuals we occasionally give way to social influence to fit in and at times we do it because we are not sure of the right way to feel or act and so use others as a resource of information. Our social life is also characterised by social norms, which are usually accepted ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that are shared among others in a social group. When a social group has well recognised norms, pressures arise for individuals to maintain such norm (to conform). This essay will explore a variety of examples of social influences (majority and minority effects and obedience) and explanations of why people yield to such influence.
An individual is said to conform if they choose a course of action that is preferred or considered socially acceptable by the majority. Because the individual is influenced by how the majority thinks or behaves is referred to as majority influence. The fact that an individual conforms along with the majority in public, does not necessarily mean they have changed their private outlook or beliefs. Therefore, most majority influence is characterised by public compliance rather than private acceptance. Asch (1956) conducted a well recognised experiment on majority influence. The aim of the study was to find out how individuals would behave when given an unambiguous task (asking participants which of the three lines of different lengths were the same length as the standard line). All but one of the participants were confederates, who were instructed to give the same incorrect answer. Asch found, 36.8% of the responses were incorrect, indicating participants conformed to the incorrect response given by the confederates. 25% of the participants never gave a wrong answer; therefore 75% conformed at least once. The study shows a strong tendency to conform to group pressures in a situation where the answer is clear. Asch later interviewed some of his participants and found that they gave one of the three reasons why they conformed. Distortion of perception (they really thought their wrong answers were right), distortion of judgement (felt some doubt with their judgement and therefore conformed) and distortion of action (they did not want to be ridiculed). This study itself does suggest individuals are sometimes aware of social influences but yield to such influences for different reasons. Asking people to judge the length of lines is a rather irrelevant task to real life; the findings only tell us about conformity in special circumstances. For example, Williams and Sogon (1984) tested people who belonged to the same sports club and found that conformity may be even higher with the people you know.
Asch was not the first psychologist to investigate majority influence. Jenness, 1932 (cited in Cardwell & Flanagan, 2004) asked students to guess the number of beans in a jar. After being given the opportunity to discuss their estimates, they were asked to give their individual estimates again. Jenness found that individuals estimates tended to converge to a group norm. It seems, reasonable to suggest that in an ambiguous situation, people look to others to get some ideas about a sensible answer. Similar study by Sherif, 1935 (cited in Cardwell & Flanagan, 2004) found answers to an ambiguous stimulus become quite similar after discussions demonstrating a tendency to establish and conform to group norms. People conform for various reasons, ranging from complete acceptance of the majority viewpoint (informational influence), to simply going along with the crowd (normative influence). Normative influence is the result of wanting to be liked and informational influence is the result of wanting to be right (Morton and Harold, 1955). Factors that affect majority influence include size of the majority: Asch (1956) found that the size of the opposing majority did affect conformity and, cultural factors: compared to individualist cultures, conformity appears to be higher in societies where group harmony is a priority (Smith and Bond, 1993).
Minority influence is an alternative form of social influence where people reject the established norm of the majority of group members and move to the position of the minority. Minorities generally have less power or status and may even be dismissed as troublemakers, but this raises the question, how do they have any influence over the majority? Moscovici, 1976 (cited in Cardwell & Flanagan, 2004) claims the answer lies in their behavioural style. Moscovici, Lage and Naffrenchoux (1969) aimed to investigate the process of innovation. They found that the participants agreed with the minority on 8.42% of the trials (saying the blue slides were green). Notably, 32% gave the same answer as the minority at least once. The findings demonstrate that minorities can influence majority opinion. Group identification and social cryptoamnesia are the key explanations why people yield to minority influence. Maass, Clark and Haberknorn (1982) arranged for a group of heterosexual participants to hear arguments about gay rights. If the minority group was gay, it had less influence on the participants than if it was straight, seemingly because the participants were able to identify with the straight minority and this led to greater influence.
Social cryptoamnesia refers to major attitude changes which only take place when the zeitgeist changes. By the time change occurs people have forgotten the original source of opinion change, but innovation is due to minority influence. (Perez, Papastamou and Mugny, 1995). Within a social group, after some members have started to agree with the minority, the minority turns into a majority. Van Avermaet (1996) referred to this as the ‘snowball effect’.
So far, the essay has looked at types of indirect social influence where people can choose whether or not they will yield to the perceived pressure of the majority or minority, suggesting we are completely aware of such social influences on our behaviour. Obedience to authority (a direct form of social influence) refers to an alternative type of social influence whereby someone acts in response to a direct order from a figure with perceived authority. Milgram (1963) set to investigate whether ordinary people will obey a legitimate authority figure, even when required to injure another person (electric shocks). The findings of the study suggest that ordinary people are surprisingly obedient to authority when asked to behave in an inhumane manner. Gradual commitment, agentic shift and the role of buffers are explanations to why people obey (in terms of Milgram’s study). As participants have already given lower-level shocks, it becomes harder to resist the experimenters requirement to increase the shocks. Having committed themselves to a particular course of action (giving shocks), it becomes difficult for participants to change their mind.
Essential to Milgram’s explanation of obedience is what he termed the agentic state, by which he meant, the condition the person is in, when he sees himself as an agent to carrying out another person’s wishes. Milgram, 1974 (cited in Card, 2005) argued that people move between an agentic state and an autonomous state (state a person is when they see them self acting on their own. Entering an authority system, Milgram claimed the individual no longer views themselves as acting out of his own purpose but sees themselves as agents for another.
In Milgram’s classic study into obedience, the teacher and learner were in different rooms, with the teacher protected (buffered) from seeing his victim. When the learner was in the same room, this buffering effect was reduced. The role of buffers/buffering effect is similarly used to explain the apparent willingness to dispatch weapons of mass destruction (Solomon, Mikulincer, and Hobfoll, 1986). Milgram’s research has been quite controversial; however, it can be argued that the great value of this research, in helping us understand obedience to authority, justifies the deception and the distress caused to the “teachers.”
Society itself can influence the behaviour of people in many ways. It can pass laws through governmental establishments, develop a strong desire for ethics and morals, hold its professionals to strong ethical codes of conduct, educate and inform through school systems and the media. But the primary reason why a society can control the behaviour of most people is our innate psychological need for intuitive growth and maturity. There seems to be a natural preference within the human psyche to behave in a moral or ethical manner. (Schueler, 1997). To conclude, there is evidence to suggest people are in fact aware of social influences whether it is majority and minority effects or obedience to authority; people yield to such influences for a variety of reasons: normative and informational influence, group identification, social cryptoamnesia, gradual commitment, agentic shift and the role of buffers; nevertheless, social psychologists continue to argue that people are often unaware of the influences on their behaviour, thoughts and emotions. (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977)