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Theory of Social Influence: its psychological contributions

Theory of Social Influence: its psychological contributions

December 4, 2020

Human beings live in society. This implies that we are in constant contact with other people who have their own thoughts, behaviors, intentions, attitudes, motivations and beliefs. These elements are transmitted through different communication processes, causing, according to the theory of social influence, different changes in behavior and even perception of others.

Within the theory of social influence, which explores the reason for these changes, can be found a large number of theories proposed by various authors in order to explain different processes of influence. Throughout this article we will see some of the most relevant contributions in this regard.

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Theory of social influence: fundamental definition

The theory of social influence is based on changes in behavior or thought that occur in a subject due to a series of mental processes derived from communication with other beings or media.

This influence can be directed to an end or simply due to peer pressure , deriving from what the subject himself considers to be asked for or from what is directly communicated to him. In addition, we must bear in mind that regardless of the result, every process of influence is bidirectional. That is, one person can change the way another act, but the second change or not also cause an influence on the first. The same applies at the group level and even at the society level.

Some factors that affect the level of influence are group cohesion, which can generate pressure for compliance, the type of social norms, the size of the groups or the positions and roles of the various elements that will influence each other, the expectations about one's own and others' behavior or the value given to one's own opinion and that of others.

Types of influence

The influence exerted on a person by another or a group can be mainly from two types, informative and normative .

Influence of information

This type of influence occurs whenever the change in the judgments, thoughts or behaviors of the affected individual is due to the confidence and the conviction that the position of others is more correct than initially held. A conversion process occurs in it , having an internalized or private compliance with what was stated by the others.

Normative influence

This second type of influence occurs in cases in which the individual has not been really convinced and continues to think that his position, action or opinion is better than that from outside, but due to other circumstances such as the desire for acceptance or the role exercised within a group the individual ends up yielding and acting against their own beliefs . It can be said that the subject submits to the will of the or of the others, maintaining a conformity with it only publicly.

Phenomena of social influence

There are several phenomena and processes in which the theory of social influence can fix its attention due to the role that the relationship between different people can modify the characteristics and actions of one of them.

Such changes in behavior may appear due to persuasion, conformity or obedience, the change being different depending on whether only a specific behavior is modified or also the beliefs and attitudes that lie behind it.

Compliance with the majority

We can call conformity to the change in thoughts, judgments, beliefs or actions that a person would normally do or would have due to the exposure of an alien point of view that ends up being assumed by him. In general conformity is a relationship of influence between the subject and the majority , varying the own behavior due to what the collective proposes believing that the group is going to have more reason than the individual. Conformity is usually taken with respect to group decisions or shared attitudes, although it does not have to be due to an attempt to actively influence the behavior of the subject

This part of the theory of social influence would be explored by numerous authors such as Ash or Sheriff , showing through well-known experiments that the judgment of individuals could vary depending on what the majority thought.

This conformity will depend to a large extent on self-confidence and self-competence, the degree of confidence in the capacity of others and the level of autonomy and independence shown by the individual in question.

  • Related article: "Conformism: why do we submit to peer pressure?"


Another form of influence observed by the theory of social influence is persuasion.If, in the case of compliance, reference is usually made to a process of influence coming from a group that does not have to be directed at something in particular, in the case of persuasion, a relationship is established between two or more individuals with the objective that one or several of them change their opinion Regarding a specific issue or are driven to perform or not perform any behavior. It is an active process in which the issuer or issuers intend this change.

The obedience

Another form of social influence observed by the theory of social influence is obedience to authority. Explored among other authors by Milgram, obedience is understood as following the instructions of an individual who is considered above or has power or higher social status , regardless of one's attitude, judgment or belief.

Through this aspect, an attempt has been made to explain why some people perform certain actions that would generally be considered negative by the subjects themselves, such as some occurred during armed conflicts. The control to which the subject is subjected , the identity and degree of expertise or authority associated with the person who directs the behavior and internal factors such as the personality of the individual and its reactance are aspects that greatly influence the performance of each.

  • Related article: "The Milgram experiment: the danger of obedience to authority"

Group decision making

Another aspect of great importance studied by the theory of social influence is making decisions related to a group . The roles of each of the members of the group, the existing power relations between them and the success that this has had in resolving previously problems or situations will determine to a great extent the influence between the individual and the rest of the group. Several studies have shown that, in general, the decisions made by the group are usually more extreme than those that a subject would take alone.

Part of this is due to the influence exerted by coincident points of view, as well as the desire to continue belonging to the group (which may cause us not to be out of tune) or the group's valuation as a collective that has allowed or will allow success. As well There may be the illusion on the part of the group that everyone thinks the same and that his perspective is the only correct one, which can lead to the persecution of dissidence (as in the process called group thinking).

The fact of belonging to a group also means that the responsibility for the final result is shared among the whole group, so that positions that an individual by himself could not dare to take can be put into practice.

The influence on attitude change

In the theory of social influence our attitude towards something, understood as the predisposition to act or think in a certain way before a specific situation or stimulus, is one of the main factors to be altered in the process of varying the behavior of an individual. Exposure to points of view different from ours can vary our perception about something, as well as our attitude about said something.

According to the theory of reasoned action , our final behavior is usually preceded by our intention to act, which has as its main influence the attitude of the individual regarding the conduct to be carried out, the control that is created to have regarding the possibility of issuing the behavior or managing it and the assessment of what the environment will consider desirable or not and if such consideration is relevant to us.

The attitude itself regarding the subject in question comes from previous experience and self-perception and assessment of this , which is largely influenced by the opinion of the environment. They are also socially influenced what we believe is considered socially acceptable influences behavior. In this way, the processes of social influence are highly relevant and, although not totally determining, they shape in some way the performance of individuals.

The role that the theory of social influence gives to the processes of influence in the change of attitude is mainly mediated by a large number of variables. One of the main ones is the fact that what is proposed to us go for or against our attitude , being able to provoke in the second of the cases a great dissonance that we would try to reduce by frivolizing the behavior in question or by varying our beliefs. Other factors such as who tries to influence us, how we perceive him, and the persuasive capacity he enjoys will also vary in degree to which we are influenced.

When few influence many: the influence of the minority

When there are processes of influence between groups and individuals, we usually think about how the collective influences the subject or how the large group can cause changes in the small subgroups. However, the theory of social influence also takes into account that many times a single person can change the perspective of a group or that minorities can change the opinion of society in general.

Examples of this have been the struggle for women's rights , those of people of different ethnic minorities or those of the LGBT collective, all of them examples of movements initially censored and criticized that over time have achieved a change in the mentality of the general society.

For this change to occur, the minority or person must have a consistent position over time and clearly and firmly state the change, information, attitude or behavior that is intended to be transmitted. It is also required that in addition to consistent the defended position is flexible and understandable , the image that the minority position causes to the majority is also important. This influence will be accentuated if people initially belonging to the majority position approach and change their perspective in favor of the minority, causing a snowball effect that will incite others to follow their example.

Bibliographic references

  • Cialdini, R. (1983, 1984). Influence. The Psychology of Persuasion. Revised Edition. HarperCollins.
  • Morales, J.F. and Huici, C. (2000). Social psychology. Ed. McGraw-Hill. Madrid.
  • Rivas, M. & L√≥pez, M. (2012). Social psychology and organizations. CEDE Manual of Preparation PIR, 11. CEDE. Madrid.

Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38 (December 2020).

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