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Do you succumb to pressure or are you able to resist it? Some reflections on social influence

Although we like to think of ourselves as independent individuals acting on our own decisions, our perception of the world and our actions may be the result of social influence.

What we know about social influence is based on the findings of numerous experiments in social psychology (e.g. Cialdini et al. 2020). As we are in networks of relationships with others, our feelings, beliefs and behaviour may change under the influence of other people’s emotional states, views and actions. Such a change, occurring in a conscious or unconscious manner, is a common phenomenon and manifests itself in:

  1. imitation, i.e. copying the behaviour of others;
  2. conformism, i.e. yielding to the pressure of the majority; and
  3. obedience to authority, i.e. following the recommendations of people who are or are perceived as the source of authority.

The effectiveness of social influence is connected with the ‘activation’ by a person/people influencing others of one of the following psychological mechanisms: commitment, validity, liking, reciprocity or unavailability (Wojciszke 2020).

The first of the above mentioned mechanisms of social influence - the principle of commitment - explains why we find it more difficult to give up activities we have already thought about or started, even in an insignificant way, than those in which we have not yet invested our time in any way. Sustaining an activity in which we have invested some resources seems worth continuing and motivates us to recover the resources invested, even if the cost of maintaining the activity exceeds the initial contribution. The willingness to continue the activity already started can be related to a desire to present oneself as a consistent and internally coherent person.  Researchers in this field see this principle as the most effective mechanism for influencing behaviour.  

Another mechanism makes it possible to explain a whole range of seemingly completely different ways of behaviour, such as choosing products recommended by people similar to us or laughing when others react enthusiastically to the jokes of actors in sitcoms (even the audience invisible to us). The principle of social proof describes an individual’s behaviour occurring under the influence of people with whom he or she strongly identifies. We give in to others either in an effort to be liked or accepted or out of a belief that others are right (Wojciszke 2020, p. 277).

Another mechanism that sometimes influences our decisions is the principle of liking. The presence of a person whom we perceive in a positive way and think of as likeable or similar to us may effectively persuade us to make consumption choices suggested by them or to vote for a better-looking politician.

It is not just promises and recommendations that can encourage us to make certain choices. Being presented with a gift by someone else obliges us to reciprocate in the future. The principle of reciprocity, allows us to understand some of our activities that we undertake due to the sense of obligation to those who are generous towards us. Receiving a sample or extra information from a salesperson can put pressure on us to make a purchase or incur another obligation.

Finally, perhaps the most commonly used trick in the world of goods and services is the principle of scarcity. A product/service with limited availability seems more valuable to us. The desire to restore the freedom of choice restricted by a limit (‘last chance’, ‘limited number of places’, etc.) and the willingness to compete for a rationed good/service, increase the desire to gain access to them.

Social influence exerted on us by other people or external circumstances may, but does not always have to, involve negative consequences for us. The knowledge of the processes that influence our feelings, beliefs or behaviour according to the cues observed in the environment and the ability to identify the context of our actions are ways to protect ourselves from succumbing to unwanted social influence. For example, we should be able to identify the situations in which we would be willing to continue to act only because of the resources already invested or we would want to spend more money just because a salesperson seems nice to us or offers us product samples. An additional tool that can help us to avoid situations in which the influence of others can alter our emotions or behaviour is assertiveness, which is the ability to express oneself fully when dealing with another person or group of people. Assertiveness is a resource that enables us, also in the situation of feeling a group pressure or in contact with an authority, to express our opinions or desires directly, openly and firmly, respecting the positions and rights of others.

Reference literature:

Bogdan Wojciszke (2020). Psychologia społeczna. Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar.

Robert Cialdini, Steve J Martin, Noah Goldstein  (2014) The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence

About the author

Anna Prokop-Dorner - sociologist and psychologist, assistant professor at the Department of Medical Sociology of the Jagiellonian University Medical College. Her research interests involve the social context of mental health, the strategies of coping with the stigma of a mental illness, the cultural background of health beliefs and behaviours and the application of qualitative methodology in health studies.