As social beings, with each one of us connected to a whole network of other humans and their associated beliefs, opinions and traits practically every conscious second of the day, it is inevitable that we will be subject to external influences. These influences come in all shapes and forms from a whole multitude of sources, occurring both consciously and unconsciously, instantaneously or over a prolonged period of time, with the potential effect of these influences ranging from the immaterial to the life-changing.
While our susceptibility to influence from the connected world around us can be hard to measure given our constant exposure to several different influences, social psychologists have been able to study the world of influence within a group context with some success, led by the likes of Asch and Moscovici. The principal questions which have provided direction to these studies include why people conform in groups and whether some people more likely to conform than others.
One will address these two questions in the text below, while also looking to explain what “minority influence” is, and how it differs to what is considered majority influence. To commence, one will look at the question of why people conform in groups. There appear to be two fundamental influences; informational influence, which involves people’s desire to be right (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004) and normative influence, which revolves around people’s desire to be liked, or at least not to appear foolish (B. Hodges & Geyer, 2006).
Researchers demonstrated informational Influence by tweaking Asch’s famous experiment and making the three lines of different length a lot more similar to one another, making the correct identification of the matching line more difficult. With a more confusing situation, one would expect a participant to seek additional information about the lines, with increased social conformity the end result (Crutchfield, 1955). Testing the converse also provides supporting evidence for the hypothesis that by giving the participant less reason to listen to others (i. e. ndicating that they are more competent or knowledgeable than the others) there is less conformity (Campbell, Tesser, & Fairy, 1986). This helps explain why in the real world, people typically seek the opinion of others when they encounter a situation they don’t understand as they need more information. To help demonstrate normative Influence and the desire not to look foolish, one needs only look at the original Asch studies when the unanimous majority was making an incorrect judgement as to which of a choice of three lines of different length matched a test line.
Even though the participant saw things differently to everybody else, the fear of looking foolish led him to conform to what the others saw. Having noted the above, it is worth directing attention to Morris and Miller 1975, who identified that the presence of just one single ally is all people need to stick to their guns. In fact, Asch also identified a similar conclusion by altering his own experiment and making one of the seven confederates say the right answer. When this occurred, only 5% of the participants agreed with the group consensus.
This would appear to tie-in nicely with the theory of normative influence as people are less likely to feel foolish if it appears someone else may share the same opinion. Having reviewed why people conform, one will now explore whether some people are more likely to conform than others. It would appear that there are some factors which make the occurrence of influence more likely. The most easily distinguishable factor which can have an effect is the culture from which the group is from. According to Gleitman et al, in collectivist cultures, there is a stronger likelihood for people to conform within a group setting.
Studies have shown average conformity rates in collectivist cultures of between 25% and 58% whereas average conformity in individualist cultures is between 14% and 39% (Smith & Bond, 1993). However, even within specific cultural contexts there are circumstances which would see group influence more likely to occur, for example in collectivist cultures, when the members of the group are familiar, there is a greater likelihood for influence to occur, meanwhile in unfamiliar group settings the reverse is true.
One may find this interesting as it demonstrates the unconscious influence we are all subject to throughout life by the other members of our cultural group. Another factor that would make people more susceptible to group influence is the size of the group. While one may naturally think this seems obvious, with the more members in a group the more likely one is to be influenced, investigations have identified that a group of 3-5 is the ideal number for influence to occur.
A group size of less than 3 people sees conformity significantly reduced (Bond, 2005), while there appears to be little difference in the effect of the size of the group once the group has reached a size of 5. One may challenge this, as it would seem to contradict slightly the phenomenon of de-individualisation which can see individuals doing things they would never dream of doing if acting independently, though as a result of the big group setting in which the individual finds themself, they lose their sense of individual identity and act in line with the crowd.
One would expect this to occur much more readily when in a crowd of 20,000, as opposed to a group of 5. Above and beyond one’s cultural tendencies and the size of the group, there are other factors which may make some people more likely to conform than others including an individual’s need for structure as those with more of a need for structure are consequently more likely to conform (Jugert et al, 2009). Similarly those with a greater need to be liked by others are more likely to conform, thus those with high levels of self-confidence could naturally expect to be more immune to group influence.
One factor which has attracted interest in understanding the likelihood of group influence to lead to conformity is that of gender. Some research has gone into investigating whether there is a gender difference in tendency and willingness to conform and early studies certainly indicated that this was the case, with women having appeared much more willing to conform than men. Later research drew this finding into question, despite its initial widespread acceptance. It appears that many of the early studies (all conducted by men) inadvertently created testing conditions more familiar & comfortable to men.
Therefore the initial finding could have simply been a systematic error. Research under better-controlled conditions has shown no such inequality between genders. Having looked at why conformity occurs, and furthermore on what makes conformity more likely to occur, one will now look to understand the difference between minority and majority influence. The term ‘minority influence’ refers to a form of social influence that is attributed to exposure to a consistent minority position in a group (Mcleod, 2007).
Moscovici 1976 believed Asch had put too much emphasis on the influence the majority had on the minority and not vice versa. Moscovici made a clear difference between compliance and conversion. He argued that majority influence tended to be based on public compliance, likely to be a case of normative influence. In this respect, numbers would seem to be naturally important. On the flip side, minority influence typically involves informative influence, providing the majority with new ideas and information which would prompt individuals within the group to hange its views. It is generally felt after a stretched period of time, and tends to produce a private, internalised, acceptance. Given that minority influence requires a more fundamental change in peoples internalised opinions & thoughts, such as was inspired by the suffragette movement for example, one will look to identify four key factors that are important for a minority to have an influence over a majority. Firstly, the behaviour of the minority needs to be confident, consistent, unbiased and resistant to abuse in order to be at its most influential.
Within this, one could explore further details, for example with consistency, this can be diachronic which would indicate a consistency displayed over a period of time, or synchronic which would indicate several individuals sharing a consistent perspective. Secondly, research has shown that if a minority can get the majority to think about an issue and consider arguments both for and against, then the minority stands a good chance of influencing the majority (Smith et al, 1996).
Thirdly, if flexibility and compromise are shown, the minority are likely to be seen as less extreme, more moderate, cooperative and reasonable. As a result, they would appear to have a better chance of changing majority views (Mugny & Papastamou, 1980). Finally, there is evidence to support the notion that if the majority can identify with the minority, then they are more likely to take the views of the minority seriously and change their own views in line with those of the minority.
One can see how the topic of social influence has garnered much attention and interest over the last century with much attention focusing on the question of why conformity occurs. While experiments such as those of Asch and Moscovici have provided many teachings on the subject, one must consider a couple of hesitations. Firstly, their experiments were done in laboratory settings however the idea of natural group and social setting being easy to create in a laboratory is arguable. Secondly, one must question how representative the experiments that have provided most of our teachings on the topic actually are.
For example, most of the participants in Asch’s study were male students which is not representative of the entire population, however furthermore, and arguably more significant, one could debate how fully the issue of group influence was investigated at all as all of the groups were newly formed and thus not representative of the groups, and associated group dynamics, one would typically expect to find in society.
That said, experimental findings have provided an insight into the complex world of influence, and identified the difference between majority influence, which would typically see compliance occur for normative social reasons (i. . to avoid looking foolish) and minority influence would seem to require a more fundamental change, seeing conversion, an internalised change of opinion/viewpoint, typically secured via informational influence. One is also able to identify some important factors which make influence more likely to occur, regardless of whether we are looking at majority or minority influence, such as consistency & social reference group, while as is so often the case, there are cultural, situational and personal considerations also.
Together, the above provides a useful insight into the world of social influence, insight we can take into the wider world, for example using the understanding of what makes minority influence more likely to occur into sales meetings where an individual needs to convert the minds of others in order to secure a sale… a skill which in some industries can lead to million dollar transactions and subsequent bonus payments at an individual level.
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