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date: 07 December 2019

The Future of Social Influence in Social Psychology

Abstract and Keywords

With notable exceptions, social influence has not played a major role in social psychology since the mid-1980s. The chapters in this volume, along with other developments, set the stage for a return of social influence to its once preeminent position. The chapters contribute to the renaissance of interest in social influence in a variety of ways. Some chapters show us that it is time to re-examine classic topics in the context of what has been learned since the original research was conducted. Others show how integrations/elaborations that advance our understanding of social influence processes are now possible. The chapters also reveal lacunae in the social influence literature, and suggest future lines of research. Perhaps the most important of these will take into account the change from traditional social influence that occurs face-to-face to social media-mediated influence that is likely to characterize many of our interactions in the future.

Keywords: social influence, social psychology, conformity, compliance, obedience, attitudes, influence sources, social identity, social comparison

It could be argued that research on social influence reached its high water mark in the 25 or so years following Asch’s (1951) seminal work on conformity. Certainly there was more work done in the core areas of social influence, like conformity, compliance, and obedience, in this period than in any other. The same can be said about research in many of the other areas covered in this volume (e.g., social facilitation, social inhibition [e.g., bystander effect], deindividuation).

However, by the mid-1980s, interest in social influence had waned, corresponding with an increase in interest in social cognition over the same period, the leading edge of which was marked by work on attribution and person perception. This shift in interest can be seen in the marked decline in the use of behavioral measures, a hallmark of work in social influence, in the decade from 1976 to 1986 in research reported in the premier journal in personality/social psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Baumeister, Vohs, & Funder, 2007).

With the notable exceptions of the work of Moscovici on minority influence (reviewed by Butera et al., this volume), and Tajfel and Turner on social identity (reviewed by Gaffney & Hogg, this volume), social influence has not played a major role in social psychology since the mid-1980s. However, we believe that the chapters in this volume, along with other developments, set the stage for a return of social influence to the preeminent position it once held in social psychology.

The chapters contribute to this renaissance of interest in social influence in a number of ways. Some chapters show that it is time to take another look at classic areas in social influence. For example, as Burger points out in his chapter on obedience, few, if any, lines of research have had the shelf-life of Milgram’s program of research, but despite its importance in the field, work in this area has not really advanced much beyond the original research. Burger describes a number of directions that work in this area can now take. For example, although direct (p. 434) replications of Milgram’s paradigm are no longer possible, Burger (2009) has described a variant of the basic procedure that can be used in the original paradigm. He also notes that there are many settings in which people in authority give orders (e.g., supervisors, parents, elected officials), and examining the factors that determine whether people follow instructions from these sources would be of great interest. Also, instead of limiting our attention to the destructive effects of obedience, Burger suggests that studying situations in which obeying commands is beneficial (e.g., following instructions from medical professionals) would have practical as well as theoretical benefits.

We should also note that the behavior of obedience and the assumption that the source of the command is an authority have been inextricably linked since Milgram’s seminal program of research. However, must they be so tightly linked? By defining obedience as something done in response to an authority, we necessarily preclude the question of when and whether people obey sources of similar or lower power status levels. It is not inconceivable to face a demand from an underling; however, this question currently is illogical to ask or examine if we insist that obedience can only be studied with the source as an authority figure. We encourage future obedience researchers to untether themselves from authority and, instead, use source power and status as independent variables worthy of investigation on their own.

Spears’s chapter on deindividuation suggests that another look at this classic area of research is also warranted. He argues that the theory’s central premise that “people lose their sense of self in the crowd and become more prone to mindless aggression, has not stood up well to closer empirical or theoretical scrutiny.” However, he goes on to note that the tenets of the theory have not been tested under optimal conditions, and that advances in techniques for measuring unconscious states and processes made since the time of the original research now provide the opportunity for more definitive tests.

Other chapters contribute to renewed interest in social influence by showing how integration/elaboration that advances our understanding of social influence processes is now possible. For example, in another chapter on a social influence classic, conformity, Hodges proposes that our understanding of conformity would benefit from incorporating work from anthropology and developmental and cognitive psychology, as well as from considering forces that produce divergence as well as conformity. That is, instead of looking at conformity in isolation, this phenomenon should be considered within a broader context of social influence processes. Hornsey and Jetten’s chapter on stability and change within groups not only represents a step in just this direction, but also an extension in that they suggest exactly how change occurs within the group (e.g., who seeks it; who is effective at it). In their chapter, Hales, Ren, and Williams contribute to our understanding of ostracism, an important topic in its own right, but also elaborate our understanding of conformity processes by showing exactly how normative pressure represents such a potent force in producing conformity effects. That is, Deutsch and Gerard (1955) argued for the role of normative pressure in producing conformity; Hales et al.’s work on ostracism identifies the source of this pressure.

Over the years, much has been made of the need for greater integration of personality and social psychology. Nezlek and Smith persuasively argue that the intersection of personality and social influence represents a place where such an integration could profitably take place. By bringing together work in a number of areas that rely on social inhibition processes (e.g., helping behavior, emotional expression), McCarty and Karau advance our understanding of social inhibition at a conceptual level, as well as suggesting new avenues for research. Seitchik, Brown, and Harkins describe a model that not only provides the basis for understanding social facilitation effects but also may allow for the integration of work on the effect of threat on task performance in many other domains (social loafing, goal setting, intrinsic motivation/creativity, achievement goal theory, and stereotype threat).

The chapters also reveal a number of lacunae in the social influence literature. For example, in his chapter on social influence and clinical intervention, Heesacker argues that “the most important future direction in this area is refocusing the efforts of social influence scholars back onto clinical applications of social influence theory and research.” He notes that there is a wealth of basic research on the internalization process (e.g., elaboration likelihood model; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), but next to none in clinical settings. Instead, a clinician-developed approach to internalization, motivational interviewing, has generated a great deal of work. According to Heesacker, it would make a great deal (p. 435) of sense to pit accounts from basic research against the motivational interviewing account in clinical settings.

In their review of social influence and the law, Demaine and Cialdini note that a great deal of attention has been devoted to the study of social influence in the legal system (e.g., eye witness identification; pretrial publicity), but very little has been directed toward the study of the legal regulation of social influence in our everyday lives (e.g., deceptive advertising; corrective advertising; consent to search and seizure) or to the law as an instrument of social influence (e.g., the legitimacy of legal authority and the morality of law). Because, as Demaine and Cialdini argue, the striking difference in the amount of attention paid to the three areas is not a result of differences in the number of empirical questions in or in the importance of these areas of research, these relatively ignored areas provide fertile ground for future research.

These are examples of some of the many ways in which the chapters of the volume can contribute to a renaissance of interest in social influence. Of course, the term “renaissance” suggests a renewal of interest in the topic. There are also topics in social influence that have little, if any, past but hold great promise in the future. For example, in their chapter in this section, rather than asking how we influence and are influenced by others, Sagarin and Henningsen ask how we resist influence from others. Unlike the other chapters, this chapter includes substantial input from research and theory on persuasion—in this case, resisting persuasion—primarily because there is surprisingly little literature on resisting social influence attempts aimed at eliciting behavioral responses. The authors acknowledge this gap and offer astute speculations as to how behavioral resistance might be similar to, or different from, attitudinal resistance, suggesting a number of areas for future research.

In a recent paper, Bohns (2016) describes another topic in social influence that has a promising future but little past: people’s perceptions of their influence over others. She reports a series of experiments that show that people underestimate their ability to produce compliance with their requests, apparently because they fail to appreciate how difficult it is for the target of the influence attempt to refuse the request. She goes on to describe some factors that do (e.g., monetary incentives) and do not (e.g., request size) impact the underestimation-of-compliance effect.

Work on this underestimation process will be a welcome addition to the traditional focus of social influence research, but for the field to regain its prominence, it must also make a fundamental change. In the past, social influence research and applications have largely focused on face-to-face encounters. If not true already, we will soon enter a time in which people interact and influence each other through social media more than they do in person. There is a certain irony in the fact that the ebbing of interest in social influence was marked by the decline in the use of behavioral measures documented by Baumeister et al. (2007), but its renaissance may be characterized by more button-pushing, rather than a return to the behavioral measures of yesteryear. For example, major historical social actions have already occurred largely through the influence of social media (e.g., Arab Spring). As another example of the effects that can be produced by social media–mediated influence, as opposed to more traditional forms, the last chapter in this Handbook is a blog entry, “The Echo Chamber,” by the singer, songwriter, author, and thinker David Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads). Here Byrne engagingly spots important nuances that social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—offer (or fail to offer) that significantly affect the process and direction of social media’s special type of social influence. We could have peppered his blog with citations to existing research that spoke to his insights, but we chose to leave his piece unaltered. We think readers will be intrigued by his ideas, whether they agree or disagree with them. We hope to challenge future social influence researchers and theorists to bring what they know from the past to bear on what we are witnessing now with the rapid evolution of social media, to take us into the 21st century of social influence.

We close with reflection and a call for action. In our experience teaching social psychology for over 40 years (each), we know of no other topic that has garnered as much interest and enthusiasm among students as the research included in this volume on social influence. Students love behavioral measures; they are captivated by the findings of clever field studies that show surprisingly powerful effects with subtle tactics, and years later, these are the studies they remember. The cognitive revolution, in conjunction with statistical analyses that purport to discover psychological process, retarded the development of research and theory on social influence because intrusive measures searching for (p. 436) mediators of effects are ill suited for this type of research. Perhaps also contributing to the decline of high-impact social influence research is the fact that these studies often required the carefully controlled creation of dramatic situations, reenacted over and over again by skilled actors, in order to capture the psychological essence of the phenomena being studied. These procedures are much more difficult and time consuming than paper-and-pencil (or computer) methodologies. Perhaps if we consider the fact that social influence in the future will largely occur online, then we can conceive of both realistic and meaningful experiments that also happen to allow for more efficient means of data collection. As we trust is obvious to our readers, there are many new and important avenues of exploration in this domain. We hope that this volume will contribute to a resurgence of interest in research and theory related to social influence.

References

Asch, S. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership, and men (pp. 177–190). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.Find this resource:

Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Funder, D. C. (2007). Psychology as the science of self-reports and finger movements: Whatever happened to actual behavior. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 396–403.Find this resource:

Bohns, V. K. (2016). (Mis)understanding our influence over others: A review of the underestimation-of-compliance effect. Psychological Science, 25, 119–123.Find this resource:

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? (2009). American Psychologist, 64, 1–11.Find this resource:

Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629–636.Find this resource:

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 19, pp. 123–205). New York, NY: Academic Press.Find this resource: