Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.
Group Influence Definition & Theory
Have you ever been in a group, big or small, and went along with the group's actions simply because you were a member of that group? Have you ever felt pressured by a group to do something that is at odds with your own beliefs? In this lesson, we're going to take a look at group influence and the theories that seek to explain it. We'll also review examples that illustrate this phenomenon.
Group influence is a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of people in a group influence the thoughts and behaviors of other people within that group. Groups come in many forms, including family, friends, work, social, and so on. Groups use their shared beliefs and experiences to strengthen the group, which can be positive or negative.
For example, a therapy group in which members share their experience with trauma may bind the group together and give each member a feeling that they are understood and supported. This is positive. However, if a person is part of a peer group that encourages the use of illicit drugs and violence and shares a common belief in antisocial behaviors, this is negative.
Social Influence Theories
Social influence theories have been developed to help explain group influence, which is often found in reference groups—those groups we look to for guidance. Social influence theories include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Social Facilitation Theory, which is a theory in which some scholars argue that the very presence of a group can influence us to do our best and that we improve our skills and tasks when we are competing with others in a group.
- Deindividuation Theory: This occurs when you lose your sense of self and embrace the identity of the group or crowd, which can sometimes lead to behaviors that you wouldn't have displayed as an individual.
- Social Impact Theory: This theory posits that a group will have the most influence on you depending on how intimate or close you are to the people in the group, the specific space and time in when the group tries to sway you, and how many people are in the group. In addition, the smaller the group, the greater influence.
The Three Main Avenues of Influence
This is when we change our already existing beliefs and ideas to conform to that of the group. Conformity can be informational or normative. When informational, conformity is the result of people changing their thinking to match the group's because they think that is the correct way to think, and that they are wrong. Another form that conformity takes is normative. This is when fear of not conforming and the reward for conforming outweigh the risks, and the person conforms to avoid punishment and receive reinforcement for embracing the norms of the group.
People are influenced to conform with the group when they experience cognitive dissonance. They are uncomfortable or stressed mentally because they think differently from everyone else. When they align themselves with the group, it reduces the stress and quells inner conflicts that may otherwise be at odds with the group; a mental sense of consistency with the group follows.
This is when we are requested to do something by someone we see as an authoritative figure, and we do it—whether we agree with that person or not—simply because we're asked. We may feel they are wrong, but we go along with what the group wants.
Groupthink occurs when the group shuts down disagreement in favor of precedent and doesn't allow for other voices to be heard. People who are experiencing groupthink are often being led by a strong, rigid leader who demands cohesiveness, is not open to outside ideas or influences, and places enormous pressure on members of the group to comply. This can have disastrous, even catastrophic, results when the ideas of others are dismissed.
For example, it is believed that it was groupthink that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. President Kennedy acted without the benefit of crucial information because his departments were neither coordinating with one another nor his advisors. Kennedy's advisors made the decision to not consider information that may have been unfavorable to the invasion and closed ranks. Therefore, Kennedy and his advisors went ahead with the invasion which rose to become an international crisis.
Groupthink isn't just a function of politics either. While it certainly can be politically motivated in nature, the way people interact with others on social media can suggest a sort of groupthink is at play when many individuals start echoing similar ideas, feelings, or even memes. When people see themselves as part of a group, even online, it can result in at least the appearance of groupthink occurring. Whether this is a new phenomenon or simply part of the old pattern of groupthink remains to be shown, but many people have noted the parallels.
This is when an authoritative figure orders us to do something, and we do it without questioning.
The Nazis used the excuse ''I was just following orders,'' which is now called an Eichmann Defense, to try and mitigate the consequences for their actions during the mass genocide of the Holocaust.
All right, that was a bit. So let's now take a moment or two to review. Group influence occurs when the majority of people in a group influence the thoughts and behaviors of other people within that group. Social influence theories seek to explain group influence.
One theory, Social Facilitation Theory, argues that the very presence of a group can influence us to do our best and that we improve our skills and tasks when we are competing with others in a group. Another theory, Deindividuation Theory, occurs when you lose your identity to the group or crowd and do whatever the group or crowd is doing. And, finally, Social Impact Theory posits that a group will have the most influence on you, depending on how intimate or close you are to the people in the group, the specific space and time in when the group tries to sway you, and how many people are in the group.
Three main ways that groups influence others are:
- Conformity - This is when we change our already existing beliefs and ideas to conform to that of the group. Remember that conformity can be informational or normative.
- Compliance - This is when we are requested to do something by someone we see as an authoritative figure, and we do it—whether we agree with that person or not—simply because we are asked. We may feel they are wrong, but we go along with what the group wants.
- Obedience - This is when an authoritative figure orders us to do something, and we do it without questioning.
Examples of group influence include people conforming to the group because of cognitive dissonance, feeling mentally uncomfortable and stressed when not in agreement with the group. Another example of group influence is that of the Nazis who obeyed orders to commit genocide without question. Another form of group influence is a phenomenon called groupthink in which members of a group are pressured into compliance. You can see the influence of groupthink in no shortage of political arenas such as the decision to attack the Bay of Pigs in Cuba which led to an international crisis, but we can also arguably see it play out on our own phones with the help of social media.
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