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Types of Social Influence

Types of Social Influence: You're Not the Sole Sailor of Your Life

Whether we realize it or not, our behavior and habits are influenced by other individuals in society. The way in which they influence us can be studied under the different types of social influence. In this following article, we will try to shed light on the various types of social influence, the way they work and their distinguishing factors.
Rujuta Borkar
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Given that man is a social animal and lives as a part of this society, it is safe to assume that there are certain behavioral patterns, habits, feelings and attitudes that come about, or are influenced in either a small or a major way due to other human beings in society (words, actions or the mere presence). Simply put, this concept is known as social influence. Think about it for a minute - from something as simple as learning manners, or the things we buy, to something more complicated like the opinions we form about others; or something like the way we behave in certain social settings, it is all influenced by other individuals (whether we do it consciously or unconsciously). All these habits and behavioral patterns come about due to social influence, and that is exactly what we will be studying in the following sections.

Types of Social Influence on Behavior

The concept of social influence can be broadly classified under three major types. These being:
  • Conformity
  • Compliance
  • Obedience
These concepts will give us a clear idea about why we are influenced by others and the way in which it happens.


Conformity is the need to conform or fit in. Individuals bring about a change in their thoughts, feelings, behavior and habits in order to conform, belong or fit in with a group or a person whom they look upon as a superior. The need to conform stems from two basic needs - One, we want to be right (Informational Social Influence) and two, we want others to like us (Normative Social Influence).

Informational Social Influence
It has been seen that in a given situation, when we aren't sure about the right course of action to take, we usually turn to others for help with the assumption that they know what is the right thing to do. They may or may not be right, but we tend to follow them. This concept is also known as social proof. Thus we follow others because we think that they possess more knowledge than us and following them will mean that we are doing the right thing. An example of this is herd behavior.

Normative Social Influence
This form of influence stems from our need to be liked by others. That is why we will follow certain behavioral patterns in order to conform to others' expectations. Depending on how influential or popular a person or group is and how important their approval is for one, they will follow suit just so that they are liked by them. An example of this is peer pressure.

The first person to study conformity in a lab setting was Solomon E. Asch. He put forth a theory which stated that people tend to conform to a group even when the group might be wrong. In order to prove this, he set up an experiment whereby he introduced a line of a particular length and then placed 3 lines against it asking the subjects to choose one that was of the same length as the standard line. They had to undergo 18 trials of the same, and one of the subjects was deliberately asked to give the wrong answer in 12 trials. It was observed that 76% of the people conformed to the wrong answer even when it seemed that the choice was clear.


In a social setting, we comply or follow others in order to be more like them. This comes about as a form of submission where we either follow their request (implicit or explicit) out of our own free will or we are coerced into submission due to the fear of social rejection or punishment. Therefore, compliance could bring about a change in behavior, but not necessarily in the attitude.

Getting others to comply to our request requires persuasion. Based on this theory, there are 8 techniques or tactics of persuasion that have been observed. Let's take a brief look at these in the following section.
  1. Ingratiation
    This persuasion technique follows the principle of becoming more likable to the subject. In order to do this, 3 basic forms are used: One - flattery and compliments, two - agreeing with and accepting others' opinions, and three - emphasizing the positive attributes and values of one's own self.
  2. Foot-in-the-Door
    In this technique, a smaller request is followed up by a bigger request and the subject usually complies because of the bond that is created. The way in which this works is that the first request is not very significant and therefore the subject goes along willingly, therefore when the bigger request is made, the subject feels obligated to go along as well.
  3. Low-Ball
    In this persuasion technique, the initial offer is presented in a very attractive way such that the subject agrees to buy it or go along with it. Only when the subject has fully bought into the idea does the persuader tell him/her about the downside of the product or increase the price (for example). By then, the subject has already agreed and goes along with it.
  4. Door-in-the-Face
    In this technique, the persuader will make a very large request, which is very excessive and will most likely be turned down by the subject. Immediately after this, the person will make a request that is smaller and more reasonable in comparison. This works on the principle that the subject will be guilty at having turned down the persuader and will want to make up for it. Add to that the fact that in comparison to the initial request, the second request is much more reasonable and therefore, more easily followed.
  5. That's-Not-All
    In this method of persuasion, the persuader will present the things in a 'build up' format. He will offer a product and then slowly add the increments/discounts, free products and the like. This works on the principle that the subject feels obligated to buy the product because the persuader is making so many concessions.
  6. Playing hard to get
    In this technique, the persuader will put forth a product as something that is very valuable and hard to get. Thus, the general mood is created that if the subject does not go in for the product or scheme, then he is losing out on something very valuable.
  7. Fast approaching deadline
    This form of persuasion works because it has a sense of urgency to it. The product or scheme is made valuable because the subject is given the impression that this is the last time that he/she can avail of this scheme. If they don't, they can never get such a great scheme again.
  8. Putting others in a good mood
    This technique is also known as 'the wining and dining technique'. In this, the subject is put in a good mood by employing different methods (like treating him to a meal) and only when the subject is ensured of being in a good mood is the product or scheme put forth. When a person is in a good mood, he/she will not usually refuse a request.

Obedience is the quality of bringing about a change in one's behavior and habits by obeying a command that has been put forth by an authority figure. It is different from compliance and conformity in the way that in both these forms of influence, there is a choice that is available. A person may or may not agree to the terms; however, in obedience, a person feels like he/she has no choice and that he/she has to agree. There are two forms of obedience - Constructive and Destructive.

Constructive Obedience
For any society to function well enough, there have to be certain authority figures who will yield the power to bring about a positive change in society. When an authority figure commands a person/a group of people and obeying him is going to benefit the society, then that is known as constructive obedience. An example of this form of obedience is military training camps or the legal system.

Destructive Obedience
This form of obedience is called so because, it leads to the harm of individuals and the society. It has been seen that people who obey authority figures, even while being aware that it could harm people, do so only because there is an innate need to follow and obey authority figures in command. An example of this form of obedience is the Holocaust where innocent Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The concept of destructive obedience was first brought forth by an experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram. In the Milgram experiment, volunteers were invited to take part in a study/survey on learning and memory. One of them was asked to be the learner and the other, the teacher. The teacher was asked to administer electric shocks and increase the intensity of the same with every wrong answer that the student gave. The teacher was asked to strap the student onto an electric chair and a mild shock was given to the teacher himself so that he would know how it felt (you can read about the experiment in more detail with the help of the above link).

It was observed that the teacher continued to administer shocks, increasing the intensity of them for every wrong answer that the student gave (taking it to the highest level). This was done even when he knew that the subject was in pain. He did this only because he was ordered to do so by an authority figure who was present there. This experiment showed that the need to obey authority figures was so high that people were willing to hurt innocent people without considering the consequences or feeling guilty about the same, and neither did they do anything to oppose it.

Types of social influence on behavior is a very interesting and an important topic in social psychology. It goes on to show us that even though individuals might consider themselves to possess qualities of uniqueness, when studied, their behavioral patterns are not very different from other individuals.