What is social influence? Social influence is the change in behaviour that one person causes in another, intentionally or unintentionally, as a result of the way the changed person perceives themselves in relationship to the influencer, other people and society in general.
Types of social influence on behaviour are 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 behavioural patterns are not very different from other individuals.
The purpose for this study is to determine if social influence is bad or not. The two types of social influence that will be discussed are conformity and obedience. Conformity is the tendency to change one’s behaviours or beliefs to match others. Why do people change because of social influence? Social psychologists provide two main reasons for the effects of social influence which are normative social and informational social influence ( Deutsch & Gerard, 1995 ). Obedience is obeying an order from someone that you accept as an authority figure. Obedience can be constructive and destructive. How social influence can affect people’s behaviour will be discussed in this study.
Peer Pressure and how it affects behaviour
Peer pressure is an example of normative social influence. This form of influence stems from our need to be liked by others. That is why we will follow certain behavioural 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.
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Teenagers especially face many issues related to conformity and peer pressure. They are pulled between the desire to be seen as individuals of unique value and the desire to belong to a group where they feel secure and accepted. As a result, teenagers reject family or general society values, while feeling pressure to conform rigidly to the values of their peer group. For example, this can be seen when young people join gangs. By joining the gang they are rejecting the community’s way of dressing and behaving. They have to conform to the gang’s own style of dress, behaviour, and speech. They must follow what the other gang members are doing. Sometimes, they are involved in all kinds of negative activities such as smoking, drinking, taking drugs and so on.
Peer pressure by itself is neither positive nor negative. For example, both high and low academic achievements are closely linked to peer influences. Several studies say that the values of the peer group with whom the high school student spends the most time are a stronger factor in the student’s level of academic success than the values, attitudes, and support provided by the family. Some students who spent time with an academically oriented peer group got better grades despite the fact that their families were not so supportive.
People get influenced easily when they join gangs. They start drinking, smoking, taking drugs and doing all kinds of negative activities. For them, it is fun doing such things because they are in a gang. They influence one another to do bad things.
Peer pressure also influences the degree to which children conform to expected gender roles. For example, girls get better grades in science and mathematics compared to boys up to grade six, but during adolescence girls test scores and level of expressed interest in these two subjects tend to decline. The tendency is to abandon competition with boys in favour of placing more emphasis on relationships and on physical appearance.
In expressed peer pressure, a boy may be challenged by the group to prove his manhood by having sex or performing a risky stunt such as car racing. On the other hand, girls may be told that if they want to be part of a group they must do something illegal such as taking drugs. Studies show that both girls and boy take risks they do not want to take because they believe the risky behaviour will increase their standing in the eyes of their peers, make them more popular and assure their acceptance in the group. They can feel safe and secure in the group. Implied peer pressure is more subtle and can be harder to combat. For example, a group of boys may make fun of the way another boy is dressed, pressuring members of their group to dress only in one acceptable style. Because of this, people who look, dress, act in a different way or have different interests from those of their age group become outcasts. Pressure groups place on their members not to associate with anyone unlike themselves. This can lead the rejected person to feel desperate and depressed.
However peer pressure isn’t all bad. You and your friends can pressure each other into some things that will improve your health and social life and make you feel good about your decisions. Think of a time when a friend pushed you to do something good for yourself or to avoid something that would’ve been bad. There are some good things friends can pressure each other to do such as be honest, avoid alcohol, avoid drugs, not smoke, and respect others.
One good example is group studies. In a group study, friends are able to encourage one another to study well. They are able to help one another by discussing difficult topics, solving problems and also understanding a particular topic well by actually interacting with one another. These are all the good sides of peer pressure. These types of behaviours are influential. One can be influenced but in a good way. One is influenced to do good things rather than doing bad things.
Peer pressure provides individuals with a yard stick for self evaluation, leading individuals to being more competent. Interaction among peer groups who exchange different viewpoints for example political, religious or educational can promote moral development and independence in personal expression.
Internet and how it affects behaviour
Informational influence is a form of conformity which occurs when an individual turns to another in order to obtain information. It occurs when the person does not know what to do and turns to another person or other sources of information and believes the information from this person or source is true. This particular phenomenon takes on specific qualities on the Internet. On the Internet there is nobody standing in front of the room speaking or guiding the group. Nonetheless informational influence certainly occurs.
A cue used in forums, which can be dedicated to any subject ranging from music to international politics, is the ‘post counter’. To know how many times they have written a post, a small number under the user’s screen name will be able to indicate it. Ranking sytems can be found in some forums. As they become more involved in the community and continue making new posts, they will be ranked as experts. So, people tend to get influenced and think that the contributions written by users with the most posts and has a higher ranking are more valid than those of new users. Users often believe in information provided by these individuals rather than others.
The information stored in the Internet is portrayed and interpreted in a different way than by exposure through meetings in person. The influence physical appearance such as clothing has on the perception of authority is a different social psychological phenomenon, yet it is an important factor in informational influence. There are many different things that can be done by the web designer to improve the visual aspects of the site, which replaces the physical appearance of the individual. This is done since people are not able to see how an individual behind a website appears. This in turn gives the impression that the information on the website is more credible and reliable. A well designed website can be particularly effective if it organizes and portrays information in a particular way.
Older individuals or those who have limited experience with computers are easily influenced. The mere fact that the Internet is text based is also a form of informational influence in itself. People often feel that information conveyed through text is more reliable than information passed through word of mouth.
The influence of the Internet has caused an impact on the way we communicate, learn and even shop. Through the Internet, all kinds of information can be easily spread. The introduction of mail service has changed the way people connect to others in their social world. Mail made possible connections among people without physical proximity.
On the one hand, since the main use of the Internet is for communication, some people might speculate that the Internet will have positive social consequences in people’s everyday lives because it increases the frequency and quality of interpersonal communications among people. People with easy access to others would feel better connected and more strongly supported by others, leading to happiness and engagement in families, organizations, communities, and society more generally. People are able to communicate more easily.
The Internet also allows people to work more easily from their home, to search for any information that they need, to form and sustain friendships and even romantic attachments from their home, to vote and engage in political and social issue based discussions with others.
Some people are able to maintain long distance relationships through the Internet. For example, people are able to communicate through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and so on. In this variety of ways, Internet communications can potentially displace face-to-face communications. According to some psychologists, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter demonstrate that group polarization can occur even when a group is not physically together.
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Blindly trusting information that they find online can be bad. As we know, not all information that is online can be reliable. There are many fake websites that are created by web designers in order to influence people and they also have all kinds of schemes that can trick people of their money. Besides, information that we get through forum websites on the Internet are sometimes not reliable and not true. Some users tend to simply post information out of nowhere and that brings no meaning at all. So, people that are searching for information on a certain topic for example would belief such posts and think that it’s true. They will think that the information on that website is true and reliable when it actually is not that reliable.
Besides, social networks can influence people in a bad way. For example, Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg started the website with the intention of helping students to get to know each other better. As we can see nowadays, people are so addicted to Facebook. Children that spend more time on the Internet tend to develop anxiety, more stomach aches and more sick days from school. Besides, as we can see students that spend most of their time with the Internet, like using Facebook get lower grades in their exams. Facebook’s applications can be really addicting. Facebook is giving people the chance to turn to another person to obtain information. We can even form our own group and invite others to join it. There is even an ‘anti group’ group. As we can see, Facebook is actually influencing people to create and join such groups that can bring harm to themselves and the society. (James M.Henslin, Third Edition,2009 ,Pearson International Edition, Sociology )
Obedience to authority and how it affects behaviour
An example is the classroom authority. Teachers use a different set of techniques for fostering obedience than they do for facilitating personal responsibility. Most obedience techniques rely on punishment and reward. Teachers try to demonstrate consistency in applying these positive and negative consequences to maintain a safe and orderly classroom.
Students are to honour their teacher. This goes beyond obedience. It means to hold high or to give a special place of respect. Obedience will be the result of such honour, but obedience can be performed without honour.
This is a simple situation where obedience to authority can be seen. Primary 2 students for example were told to memorize their times table and they were told that their task was to help another subject like themselves learn the times table (in pairs). Each time one made a mistake, they would be punished together by the teacher. For example, standing in midfield or running around the field. They would then be given a second chance by which if they made a mistake a second time the punishment would be more severe.
Besides, there are some teachers that use positive reinforcement to get their students to obey them. For example, a teacher rewards his or her student with a chocolate when he or she memorises the times table correctly. Positive reinforcement always works better on a child than punishment for negative behaviour or disobedience. From this, we can say that students will definitely obey the teacher and memorise the times table properly in order to avoid the punishment.
A social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo carried out the Stanford Prison experiment (1971) showing a fine example of perception of authority to social roles. Zimbardo selected volunteers and randomly assigned them to either a prison guard or a prisoner role to observe their interaction. Zimbardo believed that the behaviour in prisons could be best explained using a situational attribution. In particular he believed that the conditions were influenced by the social roles that prisoners and prisoner guards are expected to play. Not even Zimbardo foresaw how the study would turn out. Students were then selected from a response to an advertisement in a newspaper asking for volunteers to participate in a psychological study into prison life. Guards were told about their duties and the prisoners were arrested and blindfolded. This experiment was carried out at The Stanford University Psychology Department. The experiment was supposed to be for 2 weeks. Unfortunately, it only lasted for about 6 days due to the situation becoming all too realistic. They became engulfed by role that they were acting out. The guards became abusive to the point where they would humiliate and push the prisoners around. The prisoners were depressed and some were even released few days after the experiment had begun. Zimbardo’s study shows that the roles we play as members of a group can have a powerful effect on behaviour. ( Taylor S.E , Peplau L.A, Sears D.O ( Social Psychology, twelfth edition ) )
The question whether obedience is good or bad arises. Our society raises us to believe that obedience is good and disobedience is bad. We are taught to obey others and to be disobedient is something that is not good. Society tells us this, but it is not really true. Obedience is required for our society to function, yet, because of the power of authority, individuals may obey in ways which are destructive and against their personal, moral values. Most people will even be obedient to the point of causing harm to others, because to be disobedient requires the courage to be alone against authority. In Stanley Milgram’s “Perils of Obedience” experiment, his studies showed that sixty percent of ordinary people would agree to obey an authority figure even to the point of severely hurting another human being. Zimbardo’s prison guards were abusing their power and controlling the prisoners. This shows that those in higher positions tend to influence others immorally. In this experiment, the prisoners became traumatized, depressed and dehumanized. Zimbardo’s prison experiment is a form of destructive obedience. The trauma inflicted being large or small seems to be unnecessary or avoidable and arguably unethical. Zimbardo failed to question the morality of what was going on and what the prisoners were going through. Was he showing any regard as to the well being of the participants? He had become a participant rather than the observer to his work.
Being disobedient is not always wrong. As we can see in Hebrew mythology, human history began because of an act of disobedience. Adam and Eve gained independence from nature by disobeying God and eating an apple. Man’s development has largely been affected by being disobedient to authority. It’s as though we are allowing society to imprison us by accepting the roles assigned to us. Obedience is a behaviour deeply ingrained in us. It can be seen as an impulse that overrides ethics and sympathy. The tendency to locate the source of behaviour disorders in a particular person or group underestimates the power of situational forces. Constructive obedience benefits society. Without obedience to authority, society could not function.
Constructive obedience is building upon obedience in a positive way. It uses positive reinforcement to get results using positive psychological methods. For example the teacher rewards the student for good behaviour and does not punish them for bad behaviour. Destructive obedience is when we obey blindly. We obey to do things that will harm us or others.
We tend to obey easily because when we are obedient to an authority, we tend to feel safe and protected. We can’t make mistakes because the authority decides for us and we can’t be alone, because the authority watches over us. No matter what our behaviour is, it can be justified on the ground that we are only following orders, doing what we’re told from above. We can easily be brought to view ourselves as an instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and so we no longer feel responsible for our actions. Unfortunately, that can make us feel responsible to the authority, instead of the content of the orders the authority is giving. The focus is changed although there is still morality there.
However, this does not necessarily mean that all disobedience is good and all obedience is bad. That would ignore the relationship between obedience and disobedience. Acts of obedience to one principle is usually and act of disobedience to another. If a man can only obey, then therefore he is a slave and will accomplish very little. But, if a man can only disobey, he is a rebel and does not act in the name of a conviction or principle.
We have to obey authority otherwise there would be chaos. This scenario would be far worse as you wouldn’t be as safe and many of your basic rights could easily be violated. There have been people throughout history who have challenged authority to great effect. This occurs because the people in authority issue ‘laws and rules’ that are unfair. Simple rule is, we obey to society’s rules because they normally benefit us.
Is social influence bad? Well, as we have discussed, social influence has its pros and cons. Therefore, social influence can be good and it can be bad. As for peer pressure, the difference between good peer pressure and bad peer pressure is often summed up with a simple comparison. When it is good, you are a member of the crowd and when it is bad, you are part of a mob. If peer pressure is telling you to act in a generally appropriate way, to do the right thing when you may not otherwise, or to do more good than harm, experts say it is safe to say this is good. As long as following the crowd does not cause one to act without consideration, following is not always a bad thing to do. In a situation where peer pressure is good, individuals in the groups would be acting as individual parts of a whole, each working with the other.
We have also discussed about the Internet and how it influences behaviour. Well again, it has its pros and cons. It can be a bad influence but at the same time it can be a good influence too. It all depends on the individual himself. If you look at it as something good and beneficial, then yes it would be beneficial to you and it would influence you in a good way but if you chose to use it in the wrong way then it can be a bad influence on your behaviour. For example, like Facebook. If you chose to use Facebook for communication purpose or as a faster way for exchanging information with someone else, then it could be a good thing. But if you use it for the wrong reasons, then you could be influenced to do things that are not so good and that could leave a bad impact on your behaviour and others.
Regarding obedience, if our minds are so quick to obey an authority, we should channel our obedience towards our knowledge. Transform morals into authority, make decisions and carry out actions which affect our society in a positive and effective way. If we can accomplish this, our morals, values and critical discourse will determine our contribution to society. The danger comes when we blindly obey such figures and as a result behave in an immoral way as a result. Again, obedience has its pros and cons.
Therefore, we conclude that social influence can be good and can be bad.
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