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What are Social Influences?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Social influences could be defined as the sum of all things that may change or have some effect on a person’s behavior, thoughts, actions, or feelings. This is a concept studied both in social psychology and sociology, and it has broad applications in a number of other fields, especially in marketing. Studies may focus on ways in which behavior is influenced by outside factors, and this could be behavior of a whole group or of discrete individuals. Certainly in things like psychological practice or therapy, the degree to which a person is socially influenced may say much about his or her mental status.

A variety of scholars have defined ways in which individuals respond to social influences. The individual in an influential situation could comply, identify, or internalize, as defined by Professor Herbert Kelmen, a well-known scholar in this subject. Compliance might look like agreement with others in a social setting, but below the surface, the person has by no means been fully convinced. For instance, if in a conversation between two people, one person makes a racist comment and the other is offended and says nothing, this could be viewed as complying, so that the appearance of agreement is maintained.

Other people may identify with an influential person they either idolize from a distance or know intimately. A person whose wardrobe choice is solely influenced by the fashion advice of a supermodel would be expressing identification. Alternately, people may internalize belief systems of others. If the two conversing people in the previous example both express racist statements, they are showing they have a belief system in common, however repugnant it may be, and they have moved far past the point of compliance.

A different set of terms could instead be conforming, complying, and obeying. In conformity, people choose to adjust their behavior to make it line up with others. Social influences here are often called normative influence because the true influential component is what “other people” or a group is doing, and how to change behavior or thinking so that it matches other people. People who comply with others directly do what they are asked, such as taking out the trash, and those who obey others do what they’re told. Interestingly, children may move in the opposite direction as they grow, progressing from obedience to parents, compliance with parents (and possibly peers and teachers), and then conforming to peer groups.

Another way of viewing these influences is to discuss the types of things that may affect the behavior the average person. These include the person’s family, family beliefs, and family structure. Other factors, particularly as people progress to adulthood, become involved. What other people are doing in peer groups is a powerful influence.

Moreover, any exposure to media is likely to be influential in shaping a way a person thinks, behaves, and acts. Constant marketing blitzes on television do influence the way people think and feel, as do the words of favorite celebs, politicians, and virtually all media. The degree to which a person responds to influence can depend on many factors, including personality, rearing, and life experiences, though there tends to be some predictable response in certain settings.

Social influences in group settings have been explored, especially as relates to how a group will respond to a call for help. The bystander effect is one example of this. When a large group witnesses a crime, no one may respond because there is assumption in the group — a conforming assumption — that someone else will help. Should one person begin to help, however, others will break out of the group mentality and likely assist too. People who are in danger in front of a group are urged to appeal to an individual by describing that individual or calling that person by name to break this conforming standard of the group.

Ultimately, social influences can affect people significantly, and they come in many forms. Not everyone is equally coerced to maintain cohesion in thinking with a group to which they belong. Interestingly, there are some things that may change a person’s willingness or lack thereof to comply or agree. Those who suffer significant fear or those who are in love are more likely to become much more compliant with a group’s ideas or much more resistant to them. Perhaps strong emotion of many kinds may have this effect and change the normal dynamic.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By cupcake15 — On Aug 06, 2010

Sneakers41- I have felt like that before. I wanted to say that it has to do with social age.

Social age is really a matter of maturity. When people say, “Act your age” they are really asking for a certain level of maturity.

That is just like the example of the older woman and the shorter dress. She was adhering to her social age because of normative social influence.

By sneakers41 — On Aug 06, 2010

Normative social theory means to conform to what's acceptable. Although the group is conforming they may not be happy that they're doing so.

They continue to behave in an acceptable fashion in order to be accepted by the group.

For example, an older woman might want to wear a short mini dress but instead chooses a knee length dress because it is more socially acceptable.

The older woman wore the dress that she didn't want to wear but she did so because she wanted to conform to the group and knew that the longer dress would be more socially acceptable for the group. It is a form of peer pressure of sorts.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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