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Social influence - why do we succumb to it so easily?

Social influence is an extremely effective tool for changing behaviour or attitudes, or even human values. It is a natural mechanism which makes it possible to shape the behaviour compliant with the norms enforced in a given social group.

What is particularly interesting, the group does not need to be large at all, however, for this influence to be effective, it must be important for the individual for various reasons. Over the course of our lives we become part of many different communities, large and small. It may be school and our peers, work and the professional environment, our family, friends, a circle of people with similar interests, supporters of a particular political party or organisation, etc.. There are many communities and environments and each of them is governed by certain rules. In order to become their full-fledged member, we may decide, against our own convictions, to change our views, values, attitudes and behaviour, either ostensibly or permanently. Afraid of exclusion and rejection, we want at all costs to avoid strange glances, half-smiles and communicative gestures between other people, which proves that we are not accepted. No one wants to feel strange and alone - even if someone is an introvert and prefers small groups, the sense of belonging to a group provides them with a sense of security and comfort. Even in the pandemic when contacts were remote, the need to be accepted and be part of certain communities has proven to be no less important - it has simply taken a slightly different form.

What is social influence and manipulation?

Social influence may be defined as 'a change in behaviour caused by real or imagined pressure from other people1'. So what is the difference between social influence and manipulation? Manipulation is a very specific type of social influence. Ryszard Nawrat writes that social manipulation is a planned and deliberate action, during which the manipulator, using his or her knowledge of the mechanisms of social behaviour of people, exerts the desired influence in such a way that they do not realise that they are subject to any influence, or that they are not aware of its power or consequences.

Closely related to the concept of social influence, manipulation in modern psychology is seen as its particular form. If such influence is a continuum extending from its simplest manifestations to more complex forms, then at one end there is ‘minimal social influence’, i.e. the consequences of the mere presence of other people, while at the other end there is deliberate manipulation of others. However, attitudes do not need to change in order to be able to speak of social influence. 

Categories of social influence

Here are three main categories of social influence:

Conformism (imitation) - means ‘changing your behaviour so that it conforms to the relationships with or actions of others. It aims to conform to the environment2’ . Group pressure may result in supporting a claim that is contradicted by obvious evidence.

Submissiveness - means ‘making a change in behaviour in response to a direct request3

Obedience - is a special type of submission and means ‘changing behaviour in response to a command from a person in authority4’.

Why are people obedient?

According to the literature on the subject, people succumb to social influence in order to achieve one of the three basic goals of social influence.

One of them is to make the right choice, which is related to the so-called competence motive described by Robert W. White (1959). According to him, all people share the competence motive, i.e. the desire to control the environment so as to

obtain the desired rewards and resources. He believed that to achieve success, chance was not enough. In order to do so, human beings must make the right choice, i.e. from the vast number of available options choose the one that is most likely to enable them to gain the resources and achieve the goals they seek. In making this choice, they can apply two psychological rules:

- the rule of authority

- the rule of social validation

Because listening to the advice of an expert is usually justified and people with authority are usually experts, we often use authority as a decision-making heuristic (a mental ‘shortcut’)5. We assume that the authority figure knows best, which helps us to make a decision without analysing the situation in detail. While we obviously cannot be experts in every field, thoughtless reliance on authority can be very dangerous. However, it can be just as damaging to question authority without adequate competence - so the golden rule is to apply critical thinking skills and carry out a thorough analysis and reliable selection of sources.

The second rule helping people to make the right choice is social validation - an interpersonal way of identifying and confirming the right choice, based on the analysis and observation of other people’s behaviour (Festinger, 1954) . This is the so-called ‘follow the crowd and do what others do’ principle. This principle of behaviour is associated with a particular type of social disorder, i.e. mass hysteria. People tend to behave like most people. In the case of mass delusion, social validation contributes to actions that are completely irrational and can lead us astray.

Social influence in itself is not a bad thing, but just like everything it carries certain risks. Our ability to think in a logical and assertive way determines who we will become when we succumb to it and what role we will play in a given environment.


1 Douglas T. Kenrick. Steven L. Neuberg, Robert B. Caldini, Social Psychology. Goals in Interaction, Pearson 2019

2 Douglas T. Kenrick. Steven L. Neuberg, Robert B. Caldini, Social Psychology. Goals in Interaction, Pearson 2019

3 Douglas T. Kenrick. Steven L. Neuberg, Robert B. Caldini, Social Psychology. Goals in Interaction, Pearson 2019

4 Douglas T. Kenrick. Steven L. Neuberg, Robert B. Caldini, Social Psychology. Goals in Interaction, Pearson 2019

5 Douglas T. Kenrick. Steven L. Neuberg, Robert B. Caldini, Social Psychology. Goals in Interaction, Pearson 2019

Reference literature

Hassan S., Combatting Cult Mind Control, Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc, 2015

Kenrick D.T., Neuberg S. L., Caldini, R.B. Social Psychology. Goals in Interaction, Pearson, 2019

Nawrat R. Manipulacja społeczna, przegląd technik i wybranych wyników badań, Przegląd Psychologiczny 32, 1989, s. 125-158

Nowakowski P.T., Sekty – oblicza werbunku, Maternus Media Tychy, 2001

About the author

Agnieszka Bartczak, MA - Her research interests include psychology of work, organisation and management, in particular professional procrastination, professional tasks and their correlation with different work regimes, job crafting, counterproductive behaviour and managing human resources in remote work.