Social Influence: Why We Do What We Do…

Human beings are one  of the most social creatures on the planet. All of the major hallmarks in our lives are marked by a social event, and throughout everyday we are subject to a number of influences. So it is no wonder that even our behavior can and is dictated by our interactions with others, and our need to be social.

A few of these influences take the shape of conformity, compliance, obedience, and the chameleon effect. Any of these influences can occur at any given time and in any combination. They center around making us more appealing in the eyes of others, but not all of them are as simple as, I’m doing this because I want you to like me.


Conformity is: Changing your behavior to match others in response to real or imagined pressure.

If everyone is trying to go against conformity does that make everyone a conformist? Does anyone even know what conformity means, it’s a word tossed around often by teens going through their teenage identity crisis.  For the rest of our lives conformity is what influences us to paint our house a particular color, dress a certain way at work, face the exit door in an elevator.  It’s that invisible pressure that makes sure we behave certain ways, or that nagging, what will everyone else think, whisper that drifts in the backs of our heads.

So does that mean everything I do is conformity? 

No, conformity is only one type of social influence, and is a result of real or imagined pressure, while the rest are not.


Compliance is as the name suggest,  doing what has been asked of you. However, there are factors that influence compliance and help to determine a person’s likelihood to follow through. Most notably is the relationship between the asker and the receiver. If your spouse or significant other were to ask you to get them a glass of water you’ll comply. If, however, a stranger were to ask you to borrow twenty dollars you are extremely unlikely to comply.

In both instances there are a number of factors influencing your decision. Including ingratiating, has the person ‘warmed’ you up first. What groups, if any, are present. Your disposition toward the person, the mood you are in, and even the words used in the request. Our brains processes all of this information and more almost instantaneously which culminates in forming our decision to comply or not.

On a general level someone’s likelihood to comply can be broken down to three things:

1. Cost-how much effort will going along with the request need.

2. Disposition-how does the person feel about you, and how do they feel about themself.

3. Benefit-what does the person get out of this, and is it worth it (ties back to cost).

Being aware of these three things, and catering your request to maximize or minimize each will make those in question much more likely to comply.


Obedience is: Submitting to the will of someone perceived to be more powerful.

When we believe someone is in a higher position than us, an immediate and subconscious decision is made to submit to that person. This decision to submit also limits our ability to properly assess what is being demanded of us, and hampers our moral compass.

Military’s place such a strong emphasis on rank because it allows for efficiency, and for decisions to be made without question by subordinates. While this is good in some cases, such as rapidly mobilizing a response  team to an attack, it can also be harmful when the submissive parties begin to commit crimes under the guise of ‘following orders.’

Chameleon Effect

Chameleon Effect is the term used to describe a subconscious action in which we mimic the manners, expressions, and movements of the people we are interacting with. To put it simply, we become human chameleons.

The next time you and a friend are sitting across a table, pay attention to how both of you are seated. After a while, shift your own seating style to a more relaxed or tensed posture  and note how your friend mimics the posture soon after. This is the chameleon effect at its best.

But why does it happen?

As social creatures we naturally like and are drawn to people who hold similar beliefs and have similar behaviors to our own. The chameleon effect is our mind’s way of giving us a leg up when it comes to making friends, by subtly mimicking their posture of behavior we are enhancing the person’s disposition toward us, and ingratiating ourselves.

These are only a few of the factors that influence our everyday social interactions. Within each one are a number of subtle nuances that  influence how effective they are at any given moment. Being more aware of how you react to the people in your life and figuring out why will give you valuable insight into both your relationships and yourself. You”ll probably be surprised to find that some relationships are structure differently than you first assumed, but that’s part of the fun.



Would You Jump Off A Bridge If……

…..All your friends were doing it?

Yes, when I was seven.

Welcome to the power of the group, one of the most useful tools and weapons at humankind’s disposal. Virtually all of our major decision-making occurs in a group setting, from the government to party attire it comes down to one thing, the group.

Why groups are powerful:

Groups pull their power from four major areas, responsibility, acceptance, thought, and polarization. In group settings it’s easy to think someone else will do it, or to feel so empowered (by the support of other members) that you’re able to ask for that number or accept that death.

Diffusion of Responsibility-This is the sense we feel when acting out at a bar with our group of friends. It’s the feeling of anonymity provided to us by a group, outsiders won’t know which one of us in the group shouted that obscenity, or pulled that prank just that it occurred. It’s also the sense we feel when walking down the street with friends and ignoring the homeless asking for change. Someone else will give it to him. When we’re in a group there is always someone else.

Social Acceptance-Whether we are in a group of criminals or a group of church-goers being accepted by the group, particularly the influential members is a powerful motivator. If we believe our actions will garner approval we become extremely more likely to do it, even if it’s out of our comfort zone. An ambitious new getaway driver will still participate in the high stakes bank heist if he believes it will get him an ‘in’ with the boss. A struggling middle class family in a strong church community will still donate money they might not have, if they believe they will appear more pious for doing so.

Group Think-How is it that ants or termites are able to build such massive complex structures to live in without a floor plan, or a head insect directing them to their tasks? While the exact reason remains a mystery to me, it is still an excellent example of group think. A cognitive phenomenon that occurs when decisions that are believed to influence the group as a whole need to be made. This is something that large organizations of any kind excel at; when something grows too large for one person to manage more managers are created. As the managerial group increases so does the likelihood of group think. While group think is something that occurs in a state of deindividualization it is powered and maintained by the individual.

Group Polarization-In today’s society this event is portrayed as extremist. This brings with it all the negative connotations of a rioting populace, terrorist, displeasing politicians, or religious groups that are even rejected by their non-extremist counterparts. This is only the stereotype of group polarization it does occur in less publicly known circumstances. Imagine yourself going out with a group of friends; all of your friends swear that the restaurant you all are going to is amazing, while you on the other hand are on the fence. By the end of the night you may not think the restaurant is amazing, but you’ll at least think it’s better than most.

All of these components combine to act as the fuel the gives groups their power, and each one is fueled by its own set of components, ranging from the individual to the environment, to the voice of the weakest minority or powerful majority. While groups are capable of unspeakable evil they are also capable of unheard of good and in the end it is up to the individuals in that group to determine what and where they’ll be known for. In the end, it is up to you.

The Grass ISN’T Greener On The Other Side

Is it really greener on the other side?

Jealousy is an interesting thing; we experience it in our love lives, among our friends, at the work place, among family, and with our neighbors. It’s something that we pick up when we’re children and the other kid has the new action figure or Barbie doll. Psychologist have noticed and sought to find an explanation, what they’ve found is relative deprivation. A phenomenon that gives us some insight into why we tend to think the grass is greener on the other side.

What is it: Relative deprivation is the experience of feeling deprived when we compare ourselves to others that are in a same or similar situation as us. We see the person, in this case our neighbors, as doing better than us even though they may be doing the same or worse. While they may have just bought a new car, which looks good on the outside, the may be under a tighter financial budget than you are due to the added expense.

How’s it work: Relative deprivation works off of our natural tendency to evaluate ourselves through the eyes of others. It’s something that is programmed into us going as far back as childhood, parents and teachers encourage us to be more like (insert successful person here), our childhood friends encourage us to be more like our favorite super hero(ine). With all of this reinforcement to evaluate ourselves through comparison the relative deprivation phenomenon is a natural evolution of our psyches.

How to be aware: With something such as relative deprivation that has permeated almost all of our thought processes being able to successfully modify it can be difficult. One of the simpler ways to go about doing so is to notice when the thoughts are occurring and ask yourself if what they have really is better for you. Take a moment to think about if the item or ability in question would really improve your life, and if it’s worth investing the necessary resources.

If your car works just fine, and shows no intention of breaking down in the next year or so, do you really need to add the extra costs to your finances? Will buying the new pair of shoes that your friend is wearing really make that much of a difference? Chances are you’ll find that everyone likes you the same whether you have the item in question or not. So instead of thinking of yourself as deprived when comparing yourself to others, think of yourself as unique, because that same person is wishing they were you.

I Was Just Following Orders…

“I was just following orders,” how often are those five words uttered in defense of crimes committed during both war and peace times. It’s a phrase everyone is familiar with, and one that has both let men go free and sentenced them to a life in prison. Despite the immediate attachment those words have with war crimes and acts of torture the situations that create them occur on an almost daily basis to everyone everywhere.

When children go to bed at nine, after brushing their teeth and preparing their bags for school the next day, they are in essence ‘just following orders.’ When a person hands their license and registration over to an officer that has pulled them over they are also ‘just following orders.’ When a gang initiate robs a corner store to prove his worth he is also ‘just following orders,’ but what about when the robbery goes a step further and becomes a homicide. Is he still ‘just following orders,’ or is he now acting according to his own free will?

This is where the power of situational factors come into play. At any given time there can be as few as half a dozen, or as many as hundreds. However, there are a few in particular that play a significant role in allowing people to ‘just follow orders.’ The first, and most universal is the need to belong, everyone has this need whether we acknowledge it or not we all want to belong to something and someone.

The desperate teenager joins the gang because of the need to belong to something bigger than himself, something bigger than the small home that holds too many people with too little resources. The child prepares for bed because of the need to belong to his/her family, the need to gain the approval of his/her parents, and the inherent idolization of their parents. A person handing over their license and registration may do so because they feel hopeless to alter the situation and the pending outcome. The opposite is also true, the officer feels obligated to process the person’s information and crime because he/she is part of something bigger than themselves, something that is for the betterment of their family, their society and a host of other things.

That is what allows the soldiers to torture their prisoners, the fearful teen to rob the grocer his family has purchased groceries from his entire life, the naive child to do as they are told whether they want to or not. It is all fueled by the belief that the actions performed are for the betterment of [insert cause of your choice]. It’s only when their behaviors and actions are questioned by a higher authority, that “I am just following orders,” is given as the reasoning.

So if we are all ‘just following orders’ in one way or another, how can we hold each other accountable for the actions we are ordered to commit? How can the teen be held accountable for the robbery and possible murder, the customer service rep held accountable for luring a client into an extended warranty, the solider for mistreating prisoners that he has been trained to think of as less than human.

This is the power of situational factors, they allow people to reach a sense of defused responsibility. “I didn’t want to burn that man I was ordered to,” “I didn’t want to rob that store, I had to,” “I don’t care if you buy the extended warranty, its company policy.”  When the personal sense of responsibility is low, and a powerful external identity is present it becomes frighteningly easy for people to engage in actions they would never be capable of under different circumstances.

“I was just following orders,” is a useful and ready reasoning to fall back on when being held accountable, the question is, how much of it was orders and how much of it was real?


Are You Really In Control

John, a sophomore in college is about to take a chemistry test. He’s fairly comfortable with the information but worried that he won’t do well, (he went partying the night before and the professor has a reputation for being a somewhat difficult grader). The next day John finds out that he barely passed the test. Which of the following do you think is the reason for John’s success?

  1. The professor was lenient in grading
  2. He’s a good student and studied well

Did you answer 1 or 2?

The question has to do with helping to determine your locus of control. Locus of control is one of the four elements of core self-evaluation, which is used by psychologist as the foundation for understanding personality. It pertains to determining to what degree someone thinks they can control events that affect them. Someone with an internal locus of control would explain their success at something by saying they worked hard, studied hard, prepared, etc. Someone with an internal locus who failed at something would say that they didn’t prepare enough, or didn’t try hard enough.

As a whole these are the people we tend to admire, the ones we refer to as having ‘character’ or ‘drive.’ In stories those with an internal locus of control are our accomplished heroes, they are the ones we admire for going from an external to an internal locus.

But what is an external locus of control? Those of us with an external locus of control tend to attribute our successes and failures to as the name suggest external reasons. “I failed because such and such did x, I succeeded because I’m lucky, or Fran went easy on me.” These are all explanations that focus on outside influences and fall into the external locus space.

Despite what our very base locus of control may be, we go through both external and internal phases throughout the day. Consider when you are out shopping at the mall and see sale sign, or come across what seems to be a really good deal. In these instances of excitement and high stimulation our locus of control shifts to external. We are no longer aware of how much our budget is, or what we originally came to the mall for, we’re now focused on the external stimuli, such as that nice shirt or those new shoes.

Even when doing something as simple as watching a game, that feeling of being ‘involved’ in the game, when we feel as if we are actually there. Those are instances of external locus of control, we are no longer aware of our selves, but rather of the group that we are watching.

Think back to the last time you felt accomplished, tired, energetic, happy, sad, powerful, these are all instances of internal locus of control. Thinking back about what you’ve done today is another instance of internal, feeling sleepy, waking up, feeling invigorated after your cup(s) of coffee. Internal locus of control simply means we are paying more attention to our self, rather than to what is going on around us.

When going to make a major purchase, such as a car, we may go in thinking, “ok I want this car, with such and such feature,” or “I’m not looking at cars that cost more than $$$) these are all internal focuses. However, when we meet the car salesmen we are immediately shifted and most likely kept in an external focus. The smile, the warm handshake, the clear confident voice, allowing ourselves to be led by someone, the dazzle of the polished cars, the leather seats, the nice sound system, the chance to take the car for a spin.

All of this keeps our focus externally, which can be a dangerous thing when it comes to major expenses or purchases. Keeping the focus on the car, and how much it’ll supposedly improve your life is a great way to forget your internal focus and the things that matter in the long run such as costs.

While there are instances where it is good to have and maintain an internal focus, such as making life impacting decisions. There are also times when its good to have an external focus, ever have a good time at a party when you were preoccupied with thoughts of your ex? Or of the list of things you have to do the next day? That’s an instance where having an external focus works in your favor as it allows you to forget everything and just “go with the flow,” as they say.

Regardless of whether you are primarily external or internal, being aware of and utilizing both at the right times will only work in your favor. Also being mindful of yourself, will help you to become more mindful of others and lead a more satisfying and fulfilling life.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

We’re starting today’s post with two scenes, the first paragraph of each is the same, the second paragraph is different.

Version 1

Driver John has spent the day running errands. He is nearing the end of his list and is heading to the grocery store to grab the last few items. He’s alone in his car listening to music, the next car is some distance ahead, the lights are all green and he is still some distance away from the grocery store. He allows himself to relax and settle in to the drive, humming along with the music and thrumming his fingers against the steering wheel.

His phone, resting in the cup holder begins to vibrate, he glances down and picks it up just as a car swerves in front of him. John slams on the breaks, cursing at the driver that nearly side swiped him, “dumbass” he mutters turning back to the message on his phone.

Version 2

Driver John has spent the day running errands. He is nearing the end of his list and is heading to the grocery store to grab the last few items. He’s alone in his car listening to music, the next car is some distance ahead, the lights are all green and he is still some distance away from the grocery store. He allows himself to relax and settle in to the drive, humming along with the music and thrumming his fingers against the steering wheel.

His phone, resting in the cup holder begins to vibrate. He ignores the phone and keeps his attention on the road, out of the corner of his eye he notices a car attempting to past him. “No you don’t,” he mutters and speeds up, the car slams on its breaks, the screech of the tires and roar of the horn are pierced by the short scream of a woman. John glances in his rear view mirror, the car has come to a dead stop, in front of it the body a woman lays crumpled on the ground.

The obvious difference in these scenes is John’s decision to keep the car from passing, and the dead woman. However, we’re interested in a more subtle difference in the scene’s, which is John’s interpretation of the driver that attempts to get in front of him. In the first scene the car succeeds, John labels the driver as rude and foolish, in the second he is too shocked to label the driver as anything, and feels guilty for not allowing the driver to pass.

This act of labeling, of assuming someone’s behavior is a direct indicator to the type of person they are is known as the fundamental attribution error or FAE. Fundamental attribution error is not limited to behaviors that are interpreted in a negative way, it can also apply to positive behaviors.

If we see a man, helping an elderly woman cross the street, we will automatically assume he is a nice man with good intentions. When in actuality, he is helping her to earn her trust for an impending con.

Being aware of FAE and how it influences your perception of those around you can help you remember that our actions are not always a direct indication of our character or personality.

FAE influences our perceptions of everyone, from politicians, to pets, to characters in a book, FAE occurs on a near constant basis. The effects it has on us become stronger when our lives settle into routine and the need for active thinking decreases. However, you don’t have to be subject to it all the time.

Taking a moment to observe your surroundings, or that of the person can go a long way in explaining why they behaved a certain way, and can help to keep you from assuming the worst of a nice person, or trusting someone who is just out to get you.