Monday, February 28, 2011

Social Influences on Behavior

Social Influences on Behavior

Social influence, whether from a group of many or a solitary comrade, powerfully affects the behavior of all human beings, although some people are influenced more than others (Quiamzade, 2009). The extent to which people are influenced depends on their level of self-esteem and the strength of their self-identity, morals, and values (Velden, 2007). Daily influences include measures of common courtesy to inappropriate agreement in group situations based on the group's demand for consensus. People are guided by an internal compass that forms the parameters of perceiving what is considered right and good according to personal values and social expectations (Velden, 2007). Many of the things people do are done to ensure themselves a place of acceptance and familiarity and to avoid exclusion (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Relative to individuals' fundamental human needs is the desire for social acceptance and a sense of belonging. For many people, the need for acknowledgment and approval exceeds the value of authentic individual identity (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

Group Mentality

Human behavior can change radically in a group situation when the individuals in the group leave their own identity to take on a composite group identity (Quiamzade, 2009). Individuals may take on a different demeanors and may participate and agree to actions, agendas and behavior that is not typical of their normal and average behavior (Quiamzade, 2009). They may seek membership and acceptance by the group and consciously agree to lose their individual sense of identity to take on the ideas, ideals, and values of the group, whether or not the agendas align with their personal values and morals (Velden, 2007). They understand that losing their individual sense of identity is a determining factor in their acceptance by the group (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).

     Based on previously learned material, this type of group mentality is referred to as "group think," which is a thought process that occurs between members of a cohesive in-group, subconsciously agreed upon as a way to minimize conflict and maintain consensus within the group. Based on similar material, the term "groupthink" was coined by sociologist William H. Whyte, Jr., in an effort to describe conformity as a rationalized choice among group members. Group mentality or group think occurs in the context of the group when members cease to think individually and respond according to group expectations and without reference to the individual's personal agendas. To maintain the equilibrium of the group, members value unanimity more than they value their own realistic and personal view of situations and actions.

Normative Social Influence

     Normative social influence is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person's behavior is motivated by the desire to be socially accepted (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). People experience this to some extent in their daily lives without being aware of its influence. Following fashion trends and daily routines and habits are highly influenced by what people perceive as normal and acceptable (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Although not always determined by a desire to be part of a large cohesive group, it is another form of conformity motivated by a dominant need to be accepted. For a person under this influence, the desire to be liked and accepted becomes more important than personal thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity (Straker, 2010). This phenomenon often leads to public compliance but not always private acceptance of a relationship's norm (Straker, 2010). In normative social influence people are motivated to act and respond according to what is perceived as behavior that will promote others to like and associate with them. The strength of the motivation varies by degree and in its most extreme example, this particular motivation outweighs any sense of authentic self-identity.

Precursors and Consequences of Both Social Influences

     The fundamental psychological underpinnings of both group mentality and normative social influence have been explained by human's social animalistic nature that prompts them to prefer functioning in groups or run in packs (Brock, 2010). Pack animals find safety in numbers, so instinctively and from an evolutionary perspective, people join groups for the purpose of safety, even though they may believe that they are seeking comradery or fulfilling a need to belong (Brock, 2010). Other individual precursors to groupthink and normative social influence may include identity confusion, defined as the inability to identify oneself properly, as typically characteristic of adolescence, and people with low self-esteem (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). If an individual does not have a definitive self-identity, they may seek identity through group association or by associating with someone with an identity more powerful than their own, whether or not they approve of the individual's or the group's values (Brock, 2010).

     If humans naturally congregate in groups because of an intrinsic evolutionary safety mechanism, then this mechanism may produce a preparedness for group thinking to occur. From an evolutionary perspective, maintaining the singular focus of a group or relationship is necessary to prevent attacks from an outside force or to maintain a concerted effort to gather or hunt food (Brock, 2010). Group mentality naturally strengthens the group and prevents chaos and infighting (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Similarly, in the case of normative social influence, a sense of unanimity and consensus must be maintained and people under this influence will renounce their true identity and values to maintain the safety of the relationship (Straker, 2010). As in group mentality, normative social influence may occur in individuals with identity confusion, low self-esteem, and a lack of authentic intimate relationships. The individual seeks to fill these lacking elements by creating associations that seem idyllic, but are not authentic or legitimate (Quiamzade, 2009).

     The consequences of group mentality and normative social influence are far-reaching with ramifications extending into many cultures and communities (Brock, 2010). When a group has a singular way of thinking and the agenda includes intolerance of other groups or cultures, such as in the case of gangs, disaster may ensue with fighting, random killings, and social upheaval. Although there may be benefit in therapeutic intervention, the typical interference is one of legal imposition in which group leaders are apprehended in an effort to impede the group's function. Another consequence of group mentality is deindividuation, which is the loss of personal identity and an ability to judge right from wrong (Quiamzade, 2009). These individuals develop a sense of anonymity and may no longer hold themselves accountable for their actions (Quiamzade, 2009).

     In the case of individual normative social influence, this phenomenon may be controlled with therapy to strengthen self-esteem and provide guidance toward associating with people who have similar values and goals, and appreciate a diverse group of relations. Additionally, it may address intimacy issues that prevent the individual from maintaining close authentic relationships. This type of social influence may prevent an individual from the typical growth and evolution that results from normal social interactions as it limits the individual's legitimate and authentic involvement in social relations (Kowalski & Westen, 2009).


     The pressure to conform can be overwhelming even though it may appear subtle. Conformity is the changing of attitudes or behavior to accommodate the perceived standards of other people or a group (Kowalski & Westen, 2009). Changing attitudes and behavior has an appropriate place in the life of an evolving healthy person. However, if the change is not authentic, or if it takes place in someone who may be at risk for inappropriate social influence, it may be to the detriment of the changing individual and, as in the case of gangs, to the detriment of society (Quiamzade, 2009). Those most likely to experience excessive social influence tend to be people who find their fundamental sense of self or identity from their group memberships or primary relationships (Quiamzade, 2009). Individuals who base personal identity on their group and relational associations will have a greater need to conform to the standards of others (Quiamzade, 2009). The effects of inappropriate and excessive social influence have destructive powers both for the individual under its influence, and the community in which it occurs. Communities and the whole of society will continue to spend countless resources to address and reduce the harsh and destructive elements and effects of this influence.


Brock, K. (2010). Understanding gang mentality and why people join them - by Karlin Brock -
Helium. Helium - Where Knowledge Rules. Retrieved August 03, 2010, from

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2009). Psychology (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Quiamzade, A. (2009). Social influence and threat in confrontations between competent peers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(4), 652-666. doi: 10.1037/a0015822

Straker, D. (2008, October). Normative Social Influence. Changing minds and persuasion -- How we change what others think, believe, feel and do. Retrieved August 07, 2010, from

Velden, F. S. (2007). Majority and Minority Influence in Group Negotiation: The Moderating
Effects of Social Motivation and Decision Rules. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(1),
259-268. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.92.1.259

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