Normative Influence

Normative Influence Definition

Normative influence refers to the fact that people sometimes change their behavior, thoughts, or values to be liked and accepted by others. This results in conformity, in the form of individuals altering their utterances or demeanor to be more like what they perceive to be the norm. At the individual level, pivotal factors leading to normative influence are the desire to form a good impression and the fear of embarrassment. Normative influence is strongest when someone cares about the group exerting the influence and when behavior is performed in front of members of that group. It is one of social psychology’s paradigmatic phenomena because it epitomizes the impact of the social world on an individual’s thoughts and actions.

Normative InfluenceNormative influence has a somewhat negative image in Western industrialized cultures that value independent selves and individualistic values, and where being influenceable is seen as a character flaw. In reality, normative influence regulates people’s daily lives much more than they like to recognize. Most people don’t pay close attention to the dictum of fashion magazines, yet very few would go out dressed in ways that others might deem inappropriate. Furthermore, social psychological research has shown the surprising power and scope of normative influence: For example, it can lead to conformity to complete strangers, it can cause people to ignore evidence of their senses, it can effect widespread body image issues and eating disorders because of unrealistic ideals of beauty, and it can have disastrous consequences in cases of bystander effect and groupthink.

Normative Versus Informational Influence

Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard first provided the useful distinction between normative and informational influence: Whereas normative influence results from wanting to fit in regardless of accuracy, informational influence results from believing that the group may know better. If a person enters a room and everyone else is whispering, he or she might start whispering too. If the person does it because he or she assumes others have a good reason that the person doesn’t know about (e.g., a baby is sleeping or the roof could collapse at any minute), the person is yielding to informational influence; if the person does it because he or she is afraid of the sideway glances and frowns that the person might get for being loud, then the person is succumbing to normative influence. As this example illustrates, the two forms of influence are often intertwined, but this distinction is useful in analyzing instances of conformity, including some classics in the field. Muzafer Sheriffs studies of conformity with the autokinetic effect, for example, are typically interpreted as showing primarily informational influence: Faced with the ambiguous stimulus of an apparently moving dot of light in a dark room, participants converged to a common understanding of their reality when estimating the light’s movement. In contrast, Solomon Asch’s line-naming paradigm is often seen as demonstrating normative influence: In deciding which stimulus line matched the length of a template, conforming participants chose to suppress the answer they knew to be true to go along with the clearly wrong response endorsed by the majority of their peers. Informational influence is fueled by wanting to know what’s right, whereas normative influence is motivated by wanting to get along.

Norms That Influence

The social norms at work in normative influence can be thought as the set of acceptable behaviors, values, and beliefs governing a particular group or situation.

They include prescriptions (how one should act) as well as proscriptions (what one shouldn’t do). Some are culture-wide (e.g., one wears black at a funeral in the United States), whereas some are more situation-bound (e.g., if everyone else is standing up at a gathering, one might feel uncomfortable sitting down). Some norms are explicit (e.g., announcements about turning off one’s cell phone in a movie theater), but some are more implicit and need to be figured out. Humans show remarkable skill at this, enabling them to get along in groups. One way that people discover implicit norms is through behavioral uniformity: If everyone is wearing a suit on a person’s first day of work, the person realizes he or she should probably wear one too. Another is by seeing deviants being punished: After hearing several students making fun of a classmate for wearing a tie at a lecture, a professor might realize that the allegedly permissive campus actually has strong implicit norms dictating that one shouldn’t dress formally for class. Norms can even be inferred when no one else is around by observing traces of other people’s behavior in one’s environment: In a littered street, people are more likely to litter than in a perfectly clean one. This last example has sometimes been used as an argument for zero-tolerance approaches to policing, under the assumption that evidence of petty vandalism in a neighborhood communicates a norm of lawlessness that leads to greater crimes.

One interesting feature of normative influence is that people conform to norms as people perceive them, not necessarily as they really are. Because discerning implicit norms is an imperfect inference process, it can lead to misperceptions. And indeed social psychology has documented such breakdowns, leading to conformity to an illusory norm. One such case is pluralistic ignorance, whereby a majority is ignorant of the true attitudes of the rest of the majority. On some college campuses, for example, most incoming students may misperceive that binge drinking is widely accepted, even though most students may in reality have private misgivings about it. Because of this misperception, normative influence leads students to keep their discomfort to themselves, and to boast instead about their drinking exploits. This leads others to believe in turn that drinking is widely accepted, a vicious cycle that ensures that the illusory norm is maintained. This example also illustrates the dynamic nature of normative influence more generally, in that each individual choosing to follow the norm publicly reinforces its grip on other individuals, and this snowballing can be reciprocal.

Deviants and Normative Influence

The weight of normative influence is felt most strongly by individuals who deviate from the group. Stanley Schachter’s pioneering research suggested that groups react to deviants by monitoring them, trying to bring them into the fold, and if that doesn’t work, rejecting them. Only people who have paid their dues by conforming to the group in the past, thus amassing what has been called idiosyncrasy credit, can express dissenting views with relative impunity. Especially in times of urgency or stress, when a consensus needs to be reached and a decision needs to be made, strong pressures to conform can lead groups to ignore doubts and suppress dissent, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Deviants can disrupt normative influence and instead propagate their own views when they present those consistently and uncompromisingly, a phenomenon called minority influence. They can also loosen the grip of normative influence on others merely by the fact that they exist, regardless of their own message: Studies show that people are less likely to conform when someone else disagrees with the majority, even if their own position differs from the deviant’s.

How Deep Is Normative Influence?

How real are the changes brought about by normative influence? Some researchers have argued that whereas normative influence merely leads to compliance, a superficial and temporary behavior change with no accompanying change in values or beliefs, informational influence (as well as minority influence) is more likely to lead to conversion, a deeper reorganization of one’s perceptions and attitudes, with longer-lasting consequences. This is suggested because normative influence seems to be strongest when the behavior is performed publicly in front of members of the group exercising the influence, and by the observation that individuals often revert to their initial attitude or belief once they are out of the normative influence situation. This intuition is captured by the use of private voting booths in democratic elections, recognizing that one’s true attitude can be adulterated when expressed in the presence of others, but also assuming that it can be rekindled in isolation. By contrast, informational and minority influence has been found to lead to changes even in private responding, and to changes that can still be observed long after the individual left the influence setting.


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