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Social Influence

Psychology (Year 12) - Social Psychology

Jessica Pratt

What is social psychology?

The study of social psychology investigates the behaviour of individuals and groups in social situations, and attempts to describe it in the company of others.

A group is defined as two or more people that interact and show interdependence, and have come together to achieve mutually distinguished objectives. Behaviour originates from what contributes to its effectiveness.

Social Influence

Social influence refers to the real or imagined impact of the presence of others, leading to altered thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Individuals have a tendency to act differently in groups in comparison to when alone. In this, there are two types of changes that may occur:

  • social facilitation is where the presence of others leads to improved performance

  • social inhibition refers to having decreased performance in the presence of others.

Social Facilitation

An improvement in performance in the presence of others.

  • the co-action effect describes the occurrence of increased task performance when in the presence of others doing the same task, first reported by Norman Triplett after noticing that cyclists recorded increased speeds when racing against others against just a clock

    • tested this in a laboratory setting by recording how long it took children to wind in a given amount of fishing line, both alone and in pairs.

  • the audience effect is where increased performance is due to the presence of spectators

    • Dashiell (1935) found that an audience improved multiplication performance in relation to the number of simple equations completed.

    • Travis (1925) found that subjects were better at psychomotor tasks in front of spectators

Social Inhibition

When an individual restrains or alters their behaviour around others for the fear of being judged or facing disapproval. The original behaviour may be considered unusual or improper. A main example of this is the concept of social loafing - when people tend to exert less effort to achieve a goal when working in a group.

Diffusion of Responsibility

A psychological phenomenon where people are less likely to take action when in the presence of a larger group of people. It tends to explain the bystander effect - the tendency for a person present in an emergency situation to be less likely to assist if others are present to potentially assist.

Drive Theory

A theorised approach to social influence, proposed by Robert Zajonc. The theory states that as people watch us, we become alert and excited. This excitement builds up a reaction known as the dominant response.

  • Dominant responses are thing similar to well-practiced skills or habits.

    • response well-suited to the situation = enhanced performance

    • inappropriate dominant response = poor performance


The loss of self-awareness and individual accountability when in large groups or crowds. It is simply the abandoning of usual restraints in order to join in on group behaviour. The presence of others heightens arousal, leading to a diminished sense of responsibility due to having anonymity and shifted attention.

  • can result in immature behaviour.

Group Polarisation

The strengthening of attitudes when in groups of people who hold similar ones. Dominant views of the group are strengthened in group discussions, producing extreme, directional shifts that may be dangerous.

It is a phenomenon that people placed in group situations will make more extreme directions and produce extreme opinions, rather than when they are placed in situations as individuals.

It can work to explain:

  • terrorism

  • violence

  • jury decisions

  • public policy


Changing behaviour in response to group pressure.

There are two types of social influence concerned with conformity:

  • normative social influence: conformity to gain group acceptance or membership.

  • informational social influence: conformity to be correct; looking to others more knowledgeable.

Solomon Asch conducted a study (1956) that utilised 7-9 people where only one was an actual participant and the others were confederates. They were given the task of judging line lengths when compared to a standard line. The confederates always answered before the actual participant, at first telling the truth but then saying the wrong answer. 75 percent of participants conformed to the judgements of the confederates, demonstrating normative social influence as they desired to gain the approval of the group.

As a result of this, Asch found that three specific factors influenced conformity:

  • group size - conformity increases as group size increases up to four members.

  • group unanimity - conformity decreases by 80 percent when one member opposes the group.

  • task difficulty - when individuals are uncertain, they look to others for confirmation.

In relation to this, compliance refers to when a person changes their public behaviour, not private beliefs.


A behaviour change in response to social influence, instruction or direct request from a figure of authority. The consequences of disobedience are typically negative.

Stanley Milgram studied obedience via a study involving an experimenter that represented the authority, a teacher and a learner, where the teacher was the subject of the study. The teacher tested the learner on a word pair memory test where the wrong answer would result in the teacher inflicting an electric shock of 45 volts. The voltage gradually increased to a maximum of 450 volts. The teacher could only hear vocalised pain, discomfort, agonised screams and eventual silence, and was told to continue despite of protesting the task. Two-thirds of the participants made it to the full 450-volt level.

Milgram theorised the concept of the ‘agentic state’, proposing that people enter a state that allows others to direct their actions. This occurs as they perceive the individual/s giving the orders to claim responsibility.

He suggested that two things must occur for this to happen:

  • the person giving the orders must be perceived as qualified to direct behaviour

  • those being ordered must believe that the authority will accept responsibility

Zimbardo also studied obedience, observing the roles that people play in prison situations whilst simulating a mock prison. This study became well-known, referred to as the “Stanford Prison Experiment”. He randomly assigned 24 male volunteers to play the roles of either guards or prisoners. In the study, the guards became aggressive, whereas the prisoners became passive, helpless and withdrawn.

He came to three conclusions:

  1. conformity is associated with role expectations, particularly those stereotyped.

  2. the behaviour of the guards was a group norm - may have lost the sense of personal identity.

  3. learned helplessness may explain the submission of the prisoners - learning that whatever they did exerted little effect on what happened to them.

Three factors were found to influence obedience:

  • social proximity - obedience is more likely to occur when authority is close by.

  • legitimacy of authority - increases when authority is in uniform and uses a specific tone.

  • group pressure - others refusing to obey authority will lead to further disobedience.

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