What has psychological research told us about resisting social influence?

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Social influence can be strong, weak or non-existent and that the factors determining this can be seemingly trivial, unconscious and vary with personality. This is undoubtedly what led to Stainton Rogers’ (1995) assertion that “there are no simple answers or scientific laws to be discovered” in respect of questions of social influences. In this paper, however, I show that despite a plethora of unexpected results the research is pointing to possible new theories of social influence.

Human social behaviour may be complex but this is made up of a multiplicity of individual simple factors as in all biology, and must at some level obey scientific laws. Examples of research into social influences In 1964 two New York psychologists set out to determine experimentally the basis of an extraordinary killing. Thirty eight neighbours witnessed the chase and multiple stabbing attacks of a young woman over a period of thirty minutes, with not one of them calling the police.

The neighbours struggled afterwards to explain their own behaviour, deciding it was the ‘dehumanising effect of city life’. The psychologists were not satisfied with this explanation and set out to investigate it. They set up a variety of staged emergencies such as someone having an epileptic fit alone in a room or smoke seeping from under a door. What they found was that no-one called the police because there were 38 witnesses. If only one person was a witness they rushed to help 85% of the time but if they saw there were four others this dropped to 31% (Darley & Latane 1968).

Wells & Petty (1980) played a radio broadcast discussing dispassionately an increase in university tuition fees through headphones to students on the pretext they were testing the robustness of the headphones. One third of the students were told to nod their head up and down while listening, one third were to shake their head from side to side and the last third were to keep their head still. Remarkably, when given questionnaires later, the ‘still’ group were unmoved by the editorial and thought tuition should be kept as it was. The side to side group disagreed strongly with the editorial.

They thought the fee should drop by over $100 dollars and the up and down group had been persuaded that the fee should be increased by almost $100 – out of their own pockets! These studies show that non-verbal influences can be more important than verbal ones and we may be being influenced unknowingly via subtle signals. These results look unconnected but this research has led to theories proposed which may unify results like this into general principles. The theory of “cultural microrhythms” proposed by Condon (1982) shows that people interacting harmonise their speech, gestures, and physical movements with exquisite precision.

People who are powerful at getting others to be drawn into their ‘rhythms’ are powerful influencers. Hatfield et al (1994) describes that by mimicry we infect each other with our emotions and some people are powerful at inducing mimicry and others are susceptible. It is totally intuitive that when someone smiles the tendency is to smile back and hence feel happier but these workers also showed that much of the mimicry could be imperceptible and the recipient unaware but was still effective.

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