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  • Writer's pictureSaransh Sharma

SOCIAL INFLUENCE - Definitions, Causes, Risks, Advantages & Debiasing


Social influence refers to the ways in which individuals change their behaviors to meet the demands of their social environment. It takes many forms – one of the most widely known one being conformism. Conformity refers to the act of changing one’s behavior to match the behaviors of others. The behavior and judgment of other people provides information on the normal and expected behavior in the given circumstances and what is typically approved or disapproved (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). We’ll look at some of the other forms like social proof, norms, groupthink, herding in the following sections.

An iconic series of experiments in the 1950s conducted by Solomon Asch, laid the foundation of the psychological study of conformism. A typical experiment included a group of college students participating in a simple task, such as judging the length of lines. Each student viewed a card with a line on it, followed by another with three lines labeled A, B, and C. One of these lines was the same as that on the first card, and the other two lines were very clearly longer or shorter. Each participant was then asked to say aloud which line matched the length of that on the first card. In reality, the group only had one real participant and the rest were actors. Before the experiment, all actors were given detailed instructions on how they should respond in each round. They would always unanimously select the same line, but in some rounds they would give the correct response and on others, an incorrect response. SO they began with the obvious correct response in initial rounds so the real participant wasn’t suspicious, but then gave a few wrong responses in the later rounds. The group was seated such that the real participant always responded last. the aim of the study: to test how many subjects would change their answer to conform to those of the actors, despite it being wrong. When there were no actors, participants responded correctly 99% of the time – that’s how simple the task was. But with actors, the correct reponses dropped by 36%. Overall, only 25 % participants never conformed to the group. The remaining 75 % gave the incorrect reponse to conform with the group at least once. This finding is as robust as it gets in psychology and has been replicated successfully multiple times in different contexts (Asch, 1951).


Cognitive causes are the psychological mechanisms that explain the bias. It is likely that no one of the multiple explanations can explain every instance of the bias, and each explanation is valid in some cases and invalid in others.

Researchers postulate 3 underlying motivations behind. First is the goal of accuracy, wherein given incomplete information or ambiguous evaluation criteria while making a decision, we may rely on signals from others for a more accurate evaluation (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). A related heuristic is social proof by which we infer the value or correctness of an action in a given situation by observing the degree to which others are performing it (Rao et al., 2001). So if you enter an elevator where everyone is facing an odd direction like backwards, you are likely to do the same, without questioning the rationale for such behavior. In such situations we reason that if everyone else is doing it, it must be the correct way.

Next is the goal of affiliation wherein we conform to gain the social approval of others and to build rewarding relationships with them. While much of our attempts to seek approval are deliberate and conscious, often we mimic behaviors completely unconsciously, like matching postures, facial expressions, vocal characteristics and mannerisms (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).

The third motivation is the goal of maintaining self-concept wherein we conform to others’ beliefs and behaviors in order to enhance, protect, or repair our own self-esteems (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). Social comparison theory suggests that individuals evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to similar others, therefore aligning our behaviors closely to that of our reference group (Festinger, 1954). This view is also supported by social identity theory, which suggests that we derive a part of our self-esteem from the social groups we belong to, so we follow group norms to reinforce our own identify and self-esteem (Hogg & Reid, 2006).

Now, some researchers argue that conformity is a cultural trait and every culture cultivates a different degree and nature of conformity. These categorize cultures into either collectivist, which promote conformism as a desirable individual and social trait, and individualist, characterized by lower degrees of conformism (Cialdini et al., 1999). Although this school of thought has received it’s fair share of criticism (Yohtaro & Shunya, 2008).

And lastly, research suggests that conformity peaks during mid-adolescence and then declines with age (Steinberg & Monahan, 2007). Indeed, studies have found that children in their preschool years already begin adapting their public actions in alignment with their peers, while acting differently in private (Haun & Tomasello, 2011).


There is heavy brain machinery involved in processing social influence. Let’s start with the most well-established finding – social influence changes our perception of reward. We observe this in form of increased activity in striatum, the reward center of the brain, when individuals conform to others’ behaviors (Zaki et al., 2011). Next, there is strong evidence implicating insula and anterior cingulate cortex in social influence. Now these 2 brain regions are involved in negative emotion and detection of conflicts or inconsistencies (Berns et al., 2010). This suggests that conflict between others’ and our behaviors leads to anxiety which drives people to conform (Klucharev et al., 2009). Involvement of amygdala also points to role of craving social approval and consensus in driving conformity (Burke et al., 2010). Orbitofrontal cortex, the brain region that integrates emotional and motivational information, takes inputs from the forementioned regions and informs decision making. Increased activity in OFC is associated with conformity (Campbell-Meiklejohn et al., 2012). But interestingly, evidence is emerging regarding another mechanism by which social influence impacts decisions – others opinions or actions can change our perception (Berns et al., 2005). That means that in Asch conformity experiments, some individuals may actually see two lines with clearly different lengths as having the same length, based on the actors’ lies.


For the bias to be passed down genetically or culturally to us from our ancestors, it must be beneficial in certain conditions.

Conformism, and social influence in general, allows individuals to take advantage of the information, intelligence and experiences of others. This tendency would have been especially beneficial to our early ancestors who lived in small groups, where all members would be exposed to same problems, tools and alternatives. So an individual’s hard-won information could benefit everyone who mimics them, instead of each individual having to reinvent the wheel. Literally, use of fire, tools and wheels could be widely adopted because our ancestors copied each other well. This tendency to use information gained by observing others is known as social learning, and it is probably the defining characteristic of our species. Social learning is so hardwired in humans that within minutes of birth, infants mimic the observed facial expressions of adults (Bikhchandani et al., 1998).

Another benefit of conformism is that it allows behaviors to spread locally, such that individuals can observe the advantage of synchronizing their behaviors. So if an individual tries to move a big rock, they may be unsuccessful, but if other copy him, they could together move the rock, thus discovering the benefits of cooperation (Mengel, 2009).

Also, conforming to group norms signals group membership, which allows individuals to enjoy the benefits that group membership offers such as protection, support, identity, and so on (Hogg & Reid, 2006).


Firstly, social influence is a double-edged sword: it is easy for decision makers to use, but precisely because it’s easy, it is overused and leads to bad decisions (Rao et al., 2001). This becomes more problematic due to the fact that mostly we are not aware of the extent to which social influence impacts our decisions (Nolan et al., 2008).

Secondly, the tendency to conform is agnostic to the behavior one conforms to. This means that undesirable behaviors can spread widely due to conformism. Studies show criminality, ethnic violence, copycat suicides and radicalism spread from person-to-person or as group norms (Patacchini and Zenou, 2012; Mesoudi, 2009; McDoom, 2013).

Next, groupthink occurs when people set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the rest of the group in order to conform to the perceived consensus. When counterpoints and criticisms are not entertained before making a collective decision, consequences can be quite disastrous, especially if the stakes are high as in the case of policy decisions. United States’ decision to invade Iraq without evidence of WMDs and India’s recent demonetization misadventure are considered possible consequences of groupthink (Janis, 1971).

Next, conformity at scale often leads to idiosyncratic and fragile fads to emerge and collapse, which can have large adverse effects. For example, markets often rise and fall based on speculations and rumors. Similarly, early reporting of voting trends can impact elections as people may change their vote based on other’s voting behavior (Bikhchandani et al., 1998).

Managing Bias

Finally, let’s look at some strategies to avoid the undesirable impacts of conformism and use it to our advantage.

Firstly, given incomplete information or ambiguous evaluation criteria while making a decision, our reliance on social proof increases. Similarly, if the task is difficult or the pressure to perform is high, we tend to fall back conforming to others’ actions and decisions (Baron et al., 1996).

Also, we tend to conform to the actions and opinions of majorities – larger the majority, higher the tendency to conform. Although, if we perceive others to be outside of our social group, we are less likely to conform (Bond and Smith, 1996). These are the situations where we must assess whether we are blindly relying on other’s decisions.

Next, in order to either promote conformity to desirable behaviors or preventing conformity to undesirable behaviors, it is crucial to identify individuals who have disproportionately high influence on their social groups (Boucher, 2016). For example, authorities often concentrate their investigatory resources on some particular individuals who, once removed, lead to the highest aggregate crime reduction (Patacchini and Zenou, 2012).

Next, marketers use conformism all the time. E.g. offering free samples or initial discounts for new products and services helps get early adopters from whom the behavior can spread through social influence (Bikhchandani et al., 1998). The same principle is used by adding laughter track to comedy content as hearing others laugh can influence an audience (Platow et al., 2005).

And lastly, online spaces are highly social and are therefore fertile ground for social influence. Social cues such as comments, likes and ratings influence online behavior significantly. A study found that ‘‘The recommendations of other consumers’’ influenced individual choices more than ‘‘recommendations of an expert’’ on online shopping platforms (Chen, 2008).



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