Social influence is an interesting and multifaceted term that has many connotations. It is a process, as a result of which changes in the behavior of the individual, in his mood, beliefs, and actions occur. The reason is the actions of other people that can manifest themselves in the form of psychological pressure, targeted influence, or marketing. Social influence is exciting to study since it is an abstract concept in the context of its assessment: one cannot say whether it is good or bad. However, one may assess a specific case of social influence and propose an evaluation. There are two main types of social influence, which, although being similar to each other, have different basic principles, namely conformity, and obedience.
Social influence can be represented in different forms: it can be as a submission, in the form of beliefs, or as the result of psychological pressure. Social influence includes some actions of one person which resulted in a change of behavior or beliefs in another individual (Gass and Seiter, 2018). There are many reasons for this, including some internal psychological tricks. For example, a feeling of gratitude: when one does something nice to a person, this person is more inclined to make concessions and obey.
Similarly, the model of social proof, or as it is called by a simple herd instinct: if one does like others, one will not mistake. Researchers identified that there are two types of influence, namely majority and minority ones (Gass and Seiter, 2018). The latter is characterized by the effect of normative, informative, and group factors leading to social influence.
These questions are also interesting in terms of the “loss letter” experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram. This trial shows how people are influenced by the background information about a certain object. During this experiment, some letters were left for both private individuals and fictional organizations. Almost all the letters for private individuals were delivered, however, letters for fictional organizations were brought only if the names of companies had positive associations for people. These involve the names of health institutions or research centers, and the letters addressed to organizations with negative reputations such as “The friends of Nazi Party” were not delivered. Thereby, this experiment shows that people are likely to be influenced by different factors.
One of the types of social influence is conformity, and the term “conformism” is often used as a synonym for it. However, it is worth distinguishing between these two terms since “conformism” may have a negative connotation, being more akin to opportunism. In comparison, conformity is often used in politics and symbolizes conciliation and agreement, acquiring a positive characteristic. Nowadays, researchers have noted three basic rules of conformity, which to some extent represent certain patterns. Thus, people tend to believe in more confident persons, in addition, a member of a group has more chances to become a leader.
The reason for such behavior lies in paradoxical conclusions, which the human mind does in accordance with wrong reasoning chains (Gross, 2020). It is interesting as it is contradictory principles, but at the same time, one may consider them credible.
Obedience is a form of behavior, according to which an individual does what is said by another individual who, as a rule, has more social influence. It may be the reason for the individual’s belonging to the authorities: in other words, to those who have more authority. Indeed, experiments have shown how easily we obey the authorities and to what extent we do not underestimate the tendency of people to obey (Dolinski and Grzyb, 2020).
Moreover, some experiments show that an individual is willing to inflict serious injury on another while being obedient (Dolinski and Grzyb, 2020). The root causes of such behavior of people are not completely clear, and perhaps it may lie in the historical context. For example, the slave and the bond systems: obedience to orders could be transmitted to us genetically. In general, it used to be normal to carry out orders, especially when it came to seizure lands and territories.
The question of conformity and obedience would be interesting to consider in context whether one obeys authority even if one does not believe in it. However, minority influence has some significance as it constitutes the conflict with the majority itself (Gass and Seiter, 2018). In other words, if one takes into account that usually the authorities are not believed in by the minority. For many people, the authorities are an unshakable authority, thereby, those who do not believe the leaders will not obey it. Hereof, they do not conform to society, given that the majority (society) is subordinate to the authorities. It seems that one submits to power only if it satisfies the needs and represents the weight for one.
In the context of definitions for the terms obedience and conformity, one should understand the fundamental difference between these. Thus, obedience as a type of social influence is the execution of direct orders, which can be in a veiled form. Conformity means maintaining the opinion of the majority, it presupposes agreement with people of the same status. Conformity, conversely, can manifest itself when dissatisfied with the authorities: one agrees with the opinion of the majority, but the same statute, without any pressure. It formulates the fundamental difference between the definitions of these two terms.
Social influence is a complex and controversial phenomenon, as it has a dual character. On the one hand, one may think that any social influence carries a negative connotation. It may be explained by the fact that a change in beliefs, moods, or opinions about something occurs with social influence. Therefore, there is a deviation from their personal opinions, reflections, and ideas. On the other hand, if social influence represents an individual’s agreement with the majority opinion, which is morally correct, it has no negative connotation. For example, the majority agree that war is bad, and if a person who thought differently under the social influence of the majority changed his mind, then it will not be negative. In other words, it all depends on the context of a particular situation, it is impossible to determine whether it is good or bad without prehistory.
Further, one may distinguish the following types of social influence: normative and informative. By the normative influence, one means the desire of the individual to conform to the group. Thus, a person accepts the opinion of the majority in order to become part of the group and avoid the threat of becoming an outcast. Informative influence occurs when a person does not have sufficient information about an object. In this case, the individual turns to the group to obtain data and accepts it, realizing and thinking it over. Therefore, there is a desire to comply with a normative influence and with an informative one – a desire to obtain information.
Consequently, one may conclude that social influence can be viewed in the context of conformity and obedience. Although these two terms are part of the same component, there is a difference in their essence. Thus, conformity implies agreement with the opinion of the group, and similarly to the term “conformism,” it does not always have a negative connotation. Obedience is characterized by the execution of someone else’s order, who usually has more social influence and pressure.
Dolinski, D. and Grzyb, T. (2020) The social psychology of obedience towards authority: An empirical tribute to Stanley Milgram. Warszawa: Routledge.
Gass, R. H. and Seiter, J. S. (2018) Persuasion: Social influence and compliance gaining. (6th edn.). Routledge.
Gross, R. (2020) Psychology: The science of mind and behavior. (8th edn.). London: Hachette.