Social Influence

Every social animal and eusocial insect species requires a mechanism for exerting social influence. This mechanism allows one or more individuals within the species to guide, synchronize, and impact the behavior of other members. These tactics of social influence play a pivotal role in determining how resources are distributed within the species’ community, and they confer evolutionary advantages to social species in their pursuit of essential resources for survival.

Take, for instance, Pogonomyrmex barbatus, commonly known as red harvester ants. These ants effectively manage the allocation of tasks within their colonies, such as foraging, patrolling, and tending to the nest, by adhering to a social consensus rule: “the more interaction I have with another ant succeeding at a specific task, the more likely I should switch to that task.”

Similarly, Pan troglodytes, or chimpanzees, employ a repertoire of social influence strategies to establish social bonds and distribute resources. These tactics include forming alliances (coalition formation), engaging in reciprocal exchanges, using submissive gestures to establish dependency relationships, displaying empathy, and establishing societal norms.

In the case of humans, Homo sapiens, our species employs a diverse array of social influence techniques, which are remarkably adaptable to various social and environmental contexts.

Social Influence Definition

Social Influence

Social influence encompasses all non-coercive methods, mechanisms, procedures, or maneuvers that leverage the inherent social and psychological tendencies of individuals to shape or modify the beliefs or actions of a target. This influence can occur through the actions of an influence agent or as a result of the self-organizing dynamics of social systems. It stands in contrast to two other modes of influence: (1) power, involving the control of essential resources, including its most extreme manifestation, warfare; and (2) outright deception, which leads an individual to believe they are engaging in one action (X) when, in reality, they are performing something different.

In essence, social influence relies on strategies that tap into an organism’s social inclinations. Among humans, these inclinations include a natural propensity to fear, experience cognitive dissonance, reciprocate favors, place value on scarcity, empathize with others, render judgments contingent on context, pursue elusive objectives, and readily adopt the social roles defined by their social group, among other characteristics. Social influence tactics leverage these inherent traits of human nature to trigger processes such as conformity (altering or adopting behavior or beliefs to align with others), persuasion or attitude adjustment (changing in response to messages, discourse, or communication), compliance (changing in response to explicit requests), yielding to social pressures (changing in response to the social context’s structure), or providing assistance (changing in response to someone’s needs).

History of Social Influence Research

Throughout the course of human history, individuals have continually sought to unravel the mysteries of what drives and persuades them. Some of these endeavors were rooted in superstition and pseudoscience, ultimately leading them astray. For instance, various periods in history witnessed beliefs in the influence of celestial bodies like stars and planets (astrology), the bumps on one’s head (phrenology), the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), magnetic forces (Mesmerism), as well as supernatural entities such as witches, demons, and angels as enigmatic controllers of human behavior.

Nonetheless, certain individuals embarked on empirical explorations to fathom the intricacies of persuasion and influence. The earliest recorded endeavor to classify tactics of social influence can be traced back to the Sophists of 5th century B.C.E. Greece, a group of wandering educators in the art of persuasion, including notable figures like Protagoras, Isocrates, and Gorgias. (In China, during the 3rd century B.C.E., Han Fei Tzu similarly developed a handbook with comparable objectives.) The Sophists compiled manuals of “commonplaces,” which consisted of general arguments and techniques adaptable for various persuasive purposes. Sometime around 333 B.C.E., Aristotle commenced cataloging these influence techniques, predominantly drawing from the work of the Sophists, in his seminal work “Rhetoric,” which stands as the earliest surviving book on the subject of influence. Subsequently, Rome witnessed significant efforts to codify the methods of influence through the work of the lawyer Cicero and the rhetoric instructor Quintilian.

However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the scientific method began to delve into the intricacies of social influence. In 1898, Norman Triplett conducted the inaugural social influence experiment, in which he had individuals operate fishing cranks either in isolation or alongside others. This study unveiled evidence of social facilitation, demonstrating that individuals cranked faster when in the presence of others. Concurrently, during the late 19th century, Gustave Le Bon introduced a theory of crowd behavior likened to hypnosis, proposing that crowds possessed the ability to command an individual’s will, much like a hypnotist directs the unconscious of the hypnotized. Although popular in its time, Le Bon’s theory has since lost credibility, but it served as a catalyst for subsequent research.

The trajectory of social influence research underwent a significant shift during World War I. In the United States and Britain, the war era was marked by patriotic fervor; however, after the war, many citizens grew disillusioned with the outcomes and felt manipulated by wartime propaganda. The prevailing sentiment of the era embraced the idea that social influence and mass propaganda wielded immense power, either rooted in suggestion theories from psychoanalysis or behaviorism’s belief in the malleability of human behavior. Researchers and scholars documented this perception while simultaneously seeking ways to immunize citizens against propaganda. During the interwar period, social influence research involved the experimental method to establish that “persuasion occurs,” the examination of propaganda through case studies, and the development of survey methodologies. In the 1930s, a group of scholars established the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, aimed at educating Americans about countering propaganda.

World War II similarly reshaped the course of social influence research. Many scholars became deeply involved in social influence research as part of the war effort, focusing on campaigns to bolster public and troop morale and combat Nazi propaganda. Post-war, these researchers returned to their academic institutions and, along with their students, delved into the study of social influence phenomena that played pivotal roles in the war effort. This included areas like conformity, mass communication, prejudice, power dynamics, and obedience to authority. Consequently, this era witnessed a thriving scientific exploration of social influence, leading to the accumulation of a substantial body of knowledge regarding the mechanisms and motivations underlying influence. To provide a glimpse into social influence research during the 1950s and 1960s, three key research streams are briefly outlined in the following section.

At Yale University, Carl Hovland undertook an extensive program of experimental research, delving into the effects of various factors, including source credibility, individual differences, and message organization, on persuasion. Contrary to assumptions made in the interwar period, the results of Hovland’s research indicated relatively weak impacts of these factors on social influence. This trend was mirrored in survey research, which revealed, for instance, that mass media content had limited influence on voters’ voting preferences. This led to the formulation of the “minimum effects” model of influence, which proposed that persuasion resulted from a sequence of steps—attention to the message, comprehension, message learning, yielding, and behavior—each with a diminishing likelihood of occurrence.

In 1968, Anthony Greenwald introduced a revised model to address empirical inconsistencies in the Hovland model. This revision replaced the intermediary steps with a central process known as cognitive response. According to the Ohio State School perspective, influence stems from the thoughts that traverse a person’s mind while processing a persuasive message. In this context, the power of mass media hinges on its ability to alter cognitive responses, which can fluctuate due to various factors. Subsequent research has probed the question of what determines an individual’s cognitive response to a message, with one of the comprehensive answers emerging in the form of Richard Petty and John Cacioppo’s elaboration likelihood model.

Another branch of research traces its origins to Leon Festinger’s 1957 work titled “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.” Festinger’s deceptively simple thesis posited that when a person confronts conflicting thoughts, it generates a state of tension or cognitive dissonance, motivating the individual to reduce this dissonance. This fundamental theory catalyzed a wealth of research inquiries and experiments exploring the dynamics of social influence. The study of dissonance has proven instrumental in identifying and understanding various social influence tactics, including effort justification, insufficient justification, commitment, and guilt, offering researchers insights into seemingly counterintuitive instances of influence.

The last branch of social influence research has yielded what may arguably be the most pivotal discovery not only in social influence but also in the field of psychology itself: the profound impact of situations on human behavior, an effect often underestimated by most individuals. This line of inquiry originated from a critical examination of research findings presented in Muzafer Sherif’s 1935 dissertation. In his study, groups of individuals assessed the perceived movement of the autokinetic effect, an optical illusion wherein a light appears to move when placed against a dark background. Sherif’s results illustrated that these groups quickly developed norms for making these judgments, which subsequently guided their subsequent evaluations. In the late 1940s, Solomon Asch scrutinized Sherif’s conformity results and hypothesized that the findings were contingent on the ambiguous nature of the autokinetic stimuli used in the research. Asch further reasoned that conformity would not occur if a group of people made obviously incorrect judgments about an unambiguous stimulus. Driven by scientific curiosity, Asch promptly designed a series of experiments to challenge his own hypothesis. In these experiments, Asch had a group of confederates deliberately provide incorrect answers regarding the length of lines, and surprisingly, he discovered that a majority of subjects succumbed to the group’s influence.

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram embarked on a mission to elucidate obedience to authority by examining it through the lenses of personality and culturally-rooted character traits. He also contended that Asch’s line judgment task lacked personal consequences for the subjects and therefore did not represent a complete test of conformity. Milgram developed his renowned “obedience to authority” experiments to address these hypotheses. The results of these experiments revealed that a majority of individuals were willing to administer painful shocks to others when ordered to do so by an authority figure, and that character and personality traits did not account for these results. Instead, Milgram’s research underscored the formidable influence of social situations on behavior—an observation that has been consistently reaffirmed in studies like Bibb Latane and John Darley’s bystander apathy research and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment.

The contemporary era of social influence research took root with the publication of Robert Cialdini’s influential book “Influence” in 1984 (last revised in 2001). This seminal work synthesized previous research on social influence and categorized it into six fundamental principles: reciprocity, scarcity, consistency, authority, liking, and social proof. Moreover, it served as an inspiration for a new generation of social influence researchers. Cialdini unequivocally demonstrated that complex processes of influence can be comprehended through fundamental principles, and that these principles wield significant power in understanding and reshaping the social landscape. Through his empirical work, Cialdini demonstrated that seemingly complex social influence dynamics can be unraveled and comprehended through meticulous application of the experimental method, thereby inspiring the next generation of researchers to do the same.

Social Influence Analysis

To gain insight into the dynamics of a eusocial or social species and to anticipate the actions of its members, it is imperative to conduct a comprehensive analysis of social influence within that species. Such an examination of social influence encompasses several key components:

  1. Description of Social Influence Tactics: It involves outlining the various methods employed by members of the species to exert influence on one another. This includes strategies, behaviors, and communication techniques used for guiding or persuading others.
  2. Underlying Psychological Processes: To understand why these tactics are effective, it’s crucial to delve into the principles or psychological processes that form the basis of these influence tactics. This might encompass concepts like cognitive dissonance or fundamental principles of social cognition.
  3. Exchange of Influence within a Community: Analyzing how influence is transmitted and shared within the species’ community is essential. This involves identifying the likely tactics employed by individuals and profiling those who act as influence agents within the community.
  4. Patterns of Influence: Examining how influence is distributed and manifested within the species and its various communities. This includes studying communication networks, the channels through which influence flows, and the role of social institutions in shaping influence patterns.
  5. Theories and Models of Influence: Developing or applying theories and models that help elucidate the mechanisms and functioning of influence within the species. These theories can provide a framework for understanding the intricacies of social influence.

By conducting a thorough analysis encompassing these dimensions, researchers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of how social influence operates within a given species. This knowledge can be instrumental in predicting and explaining the behaviors and interactions of individuals within that society.


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