Disclaimer: This is my attempt to internalize the book Person and Situation, I am but an interpreter of these ideas.
Why are people’s attitudes and behaviors are influenced so much by other people even by whom they don’t know ?
Informational aspects of social influence
People around us are one of the best sources of information about the world. if some people tell me what looks like a cat is not a cat but is in fact a dog I would likely ignore then. But in matters that lack definitive answers, turning to other people’s opinions is rational because over the long haul the average of two people’s opinions is always more likely to be correct than just one person. People who do not take into account other’s opinions are deemed reckless and opinionated.
Disagreement with other people induces a state of distress that we have to resolve by either moving to their positions, moving them to our positions or to decide that they’re not a reliable source of information in this problem that we’re encountering. An interesting consequence of this conformity pressure is that not only majority opinions have effects on group opinions, minority opinions also do, especially if expressed consistently and confidently.
Normative basis for social influence
Another reason is that moving towards group goals demands a certain degree of unanimity between group members. If we disagree about goals and the methods, even in the understanding of what the relationships between them are, then collaboration is impossible. Thus groups tend to fight their deviates because deviates tend to block group movements. This acts as a moral force that makes us think twice before deviating from the group’s opinions to avoid distressing others.
Social influence as System of Tensions & Cognitive Dissonance
Groups should be considered as systems under constant tensions. On one hand there’s a force of group uniformity that demands everyone to get on the same ground. On the other hand individuals always have different information sources and ways to construe the world. Force of uniformity directs towards a static state in which everyone agrees, but because of personality differences there will always exist divergence. When this divergence becomes great enough in important issues, the group sometimes will have to socially reject the deviated members or subgroups.
Individuals may also be thought of systems under constant tensions. On one hand there exists pressures to move towards the group’s opinions, on another hand there exists pressures to maintain one’s view. This tension can be alleviated by moving the group’s opinions towards one’s views, opening one’s views to be influenced by the group’ views, or to reject the group as a standard for one’s own opinion. In the event that:
- It seems improbable to move the group’s opinions towards one own’s view, and
- The group is not informationally convincing enough, and
- One is unwilling to reject the group.
Then we have a kind of tension in play called cognitive dissonance. This tension is usually resolved in favor of the group’s opinions, not as simple compromises but as adopting the group’s views and suppressing one’s own views. A well known example is in military where group members suppress their disbeliefs about a planned course of action, which prevent them from seeing alternatives that avoid catastrophic consequences. Likewise, in workplace cognitive dissonance may prevent useful directions from being explored because of short-sightedness of some of the more powerful figures.