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 by different communicative processes, causing different changes in behavior and even the perception of others according to the theory of social influence . In this article we will elaborate the Social influence theory.
Within social influence theory, which explores the reason for such changes, a large number of theories proposed by various authors can be found to explain different influence processes. Throughout this article, we will see some of the most relevant contributions in this regard.
Social influence theory: fundamental definition
The theory of social influence is based on changes in behavior or thinking 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 towards the end or simply due to group pressure , arising from what the subject himself considers requested or what is directly communicated to him. Furthermore, it should be taken into account that, regardless of the outcome, any influencing process is bidirectional. That is, a person can change the way another person acts, but the second person changes or does not influence the first person either. 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 to conform, the type of social norms, the size of groups or the positions and roles of the various elements that will be influenced, expectations about one’s own behavior and that of others or the value given to one’s own opinion and that of others.
Types of influence
The influence exerted on one person by another or by a collective can be mainly of two types, informational and normative .
This type of influence occurs whenever the change in the influenced individual’s judgments, thoughts or behavior is due to confidence and conviction that the foreign position is more correct than initially held. There is a conversion process in it , having an internalized or private conformity to what is declared by others.
This second type of influence occurs in cases where the individual is not really convinced and continues to think that his position, action or opinion is better than what comes from outside, but due to other circumstances, such as the desire for acceptance or role played within. of a group, the individual ends up giving in and acting against his own beliefs . It can be said that the subject submits to the will of the other(s), maintaining a conformity with him/her only publicly.
Phenomena of social influence
There are several phenomena and processes on which the theory of social influence can focus 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, compliance or obedience, the change produced being different depending on whether only a specific behavior is modified or also the beliefs and attitudes behind it.
compliance with the majority
We can call conformity the change in thoughts, judgments, beliefs or actions that a person would normally do or have due to the exposure of an alien point of view that ends up being assumed by him. In general, compliance is a relationship of influence between the subject and the majority , varying their own behavior due to what the group proposes by believing that the group will be more right than the individual. Conformity is usually adopted in relation to group decisions or in relation to shared attitudes, although it should not be due to an attempt to actively influence the subject’s behavior.
This part of the theory of social influence would be explored by numerous authors such as Ash or Sheriff , showing by well-known experiments that the judgment of individuals could vary depending on what the majority thought.
Such compliance will largely depend on self-confidence and competence, the degree of confidence in the abilities of others, and the level of autonomy and independence demonstrated by the individual in question.
Another form of influence observed by social influence theory is persuasion. If, in the case of conformity, reference is generally made to a process of influencing a group that does not need to be directed towards anything in particular, in the case of persuasion, a relationship is established between two or more individuals with the aim that one or more more of them change their minds about a particular problem or are encouraged to perform or not perform any behavior. It is an active process in which the issuer or issuers intend this change.
Another form of social influence observed by social influence theory 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 who has power or greater social status , regardless of his attitude, judgment or belief.
In this regard, attempts have been made to explain why some people perform certain actions that would generally be considered negative by the subjects themselves, such as some that occurred during military conflicts. The control to which the subject is subject , the identity and degree of knowledge or authority associated with the person who directs the behavior and internal factors, such as the individual’s personality and reactance, are aspects that greatly influence the performance of each one.
Group decision making
Another aspect of great importance studied by the theory of social influence is decision-making linked to a group . The roles of each of the group’s components, the existing power relations between them and the success they had in solving problems or previous situations will largely determine the influence between the individual and the rest of the group. Several studies have shown that, in general, decisions made by the group are often more extreme than those an individual would make on their own.
Part of this is due to the influence exerted by coinciding points of view, as well as the desire to continue belonging to the group (which can lead us to not wanting to let go) or the appreciation of the group as a collective that has allowed or will allow success. There may also be an illusion on the part of the group that everyone thinks the same and that their perspective is the only correct one, which can lead to the pursuit of disagreements (as in the process called groupthink).
Belonging to a group also means that the responsibility for the final result is distributed across the whole group, so that positions that an individual does not dare to take can be put into practice.
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 in the face of a specific situation or stimulus, is one of the main factors to be changed in the process of changing an individual’s behavior. Exposure to points of view different from our own can change our perception of something, as well as our attitude towards something.
According to the theory of reasoned action , our final behavior is generally preceded by our intention to act, which has as its main influence the individual’s attitude towards the behavior to be performed, the control that one believes to have in relation to the possibility of issuing conduct or manage it and assess what the environment will consider desirable or not and whether such consideration is relevant to us.
The attitude towards the subject in question comes from previous experience and from self-perception and evaluation of the same , which is largely influenced by the opinion of the environment. They are also socially influenced, what we believe to be socially acceptable influences behavior. In this way, the processes of social influence are of great relevance and, although they are not totally decisive, they shape the actions of individuals in some way.
The role that social influence theory assigns to influencing processes in attitude change is mainly mediated by a large number of variables. One of the main ones is the fact that what we propose is for or against our attitude and, in the second case, it can cause a great deal of dissonance that we would try to reduce by frivolous behavior in question or varying our beliefs. Other factors such as who tries to influence us, how we perceive him and the persuasiveness he enjoys also vary in the degree to which we are influenced.
When the Few Influence the Many: The Influence of the Minority
When there are influence processes between groups and individuals, one usually thinks about how the group influences the subject or how the large group can cause changes in small subgroups. However, social influence theory also takes into account that, on many occasions, a single person can change the perspective of a group or that minorities can change the opinion of society at large.
Examples of this were the struggle for women’s rights , people from different ethnic minorities or the LGTB collective, all examples of movements initially censored and criticized that, over time, managed to change the mindset of society in general.
For this change to occur, the minority or person must have a consistent stance that continues over time and clearly and firmly exposes the change, information, attitude or behavior that is intended to be conveyed. It is also necessary that, in addition to being consistent, the defended position is flexible and understandable , the image that the minority position provokes for the majority is also important. This influence will be accentuated if people initially belonging to the majority position reach out and change their perspective in favor of the minority, causing a snowball effect that will encourage others to follow suit.