Normative Influence

Power and Psychology of Social Media: Normative Influence

In July 10, 2017
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We follow others because they provide information, but we also do for a second reason and that is something called normative influence. And the idea behind normative influence is we don’t just look for information, we care about fitting in. We care about achieving awards and avoiding being ostracised.

Imagine I asked you to help me with an experiment. It’s gonna be really simple. It’s just a simple visual task to look at perception. I’m gonna show you three lines, A, B, and C. One’s short, one’s middle and one’s long. And I’m gonna show you the fourth line and ask you which of the three first lines it’s most similar to. Is it most similar to the small one, the middle one or the long one? Seems like a pretty easy task, shouldn’t have any problem in doing it. Easy to match up the length of lines. But imagine for a moment other people did it before you. Imagine you come to a room and seven other people, that look sort of like you are sitting around a table. They’re similar in age, they are dressed similarly, they have a similar demographic background. Everyone introduces themselves and the study begins. You are doing the same line length task I told you about a second ago. But some people are gonna give their answers before you. So the first person will give their answer, the second person will give theirs, the third and so on. And you happen to be sitting at the end of the table so eventually,  it will get around to you.

The first person says the answer is b. Now that’s sort of surprising cuz you thought the answer was a but the first person says b. Okay, maybe they just missed it. But then the second person says B, and then the third person says B, and everybody says B, and then it gets to you. You thought the answer was A. You’re looking at those lines, and they match up exactly to have A as the right line. Yet everyone else said B. Would you still say A? Would you go against the group and say something different, or would you go along with the group? Most people actually in a study like this they went along with the group. They said well my eyes say one thing, but the group says something else. Maybe I am wrong, and it was not because the group provided information. Our eyes provide more than enough information in this task. We see what we see, but we do not only care about what is the right answer. We care about fitting into that group. Think about going out to dinner, for example. Going out to dinner with a group of friends. You might have your eyes set on dessert. You’re really excited about ordering dessert. You have one or two you’re picking between. But, then, if it goes around the table and no one else orders dessert, you feel bad about ordering dessert. You want dessert. You’d like to pick dessert. You have your eyes set on the double chocolate cake, but you’re not going to order it because no one else did. They didn’t provide

Our eyes provide more than enough information in this task. We see what we see, but we do not only care about what is the right answer. We care about fitting into that group. Think about going out to dinner, for example. Going out to dinner with a group of friends. You might have your eyes set on dessert. You’re really excited about ordering dessert. You have one or two you’re picking between. But, then, if it goes around the table and no one else orders dessert, you feel bad about ordering dessert. You want dessert. You’d like to pick dessert. You have your eyes set on the double chocolate cake, but you’re not going to order it because no one else did. They didn’t provide you with any information. You just wanted to fit into that group. You didn’t wanna be ostracised and you didn’t want people to think you’re weird or unusual. Same with the line lengths. People went along with the group because they didn’t want people to think they’re weird or crazy. So what do you think? Is this a surprising idea or not? On the one hand, you could say, not really. I mean we know people conform. We know that people do what others do all the time. Yet, at the same time, it’s pretty amazing to see that, even when people have the right information, even when their eyes are telling them the correct answer, they still rely on others.

Even when the answer’s obvious, we still care about what others think, and so we might go along with the group. So one important question’s, then, well, when do people conform and when are they less likely to conform? If we want to stop people from going along with others, what can we do? One factor that matters a lot is the number and the consistency of others. Not surprisingly, the more people there are saying the same thing, the harder it is to go your own way. If everybody is saying B and you’re saying A, the more people doing it, it makes it more difficult for you to go against the group. But the consistency of the group matters as well. What if someone else said the same answer as you? Would that make you feel more comfortable with giving your own opinion It probably would, right. Now you’re not alone in the room. Now you have an ally. Someone else who sees things the same way you do and so it makes you much more comfortable in sharing your own opinion. Interestingly though, that person doesn’t necessarily have to be an ally, they just have to be someone that’s not saying the same thing as the rest of the group. If everybody’s saying one thing, even having someone who’s saying something else, anything else, even if it’s not saying the thing that you think will make you more comfortable in sharing your own opinion. Because having just one other person that’s not saying that same thing as the group creates some sense of doubt. It turns something from being a right answer to a matter of opinion. And because of that, people are much more comfortable in sharing their own opinion.

This idea of conformity has some important implications for how we structure our lives. Think for example about the ubiquitous meetings we often have at work. A whole bunch of people come into a room, they share their opinions and at the end, we make a decision. It turns out, not surprisingly based on what we’ve talked about, that the first person who shares something in that meeting has a big influence on what the rest of the people end up saying. If there is one way to go or another way to go and the first person says one way, the people after that person will tend to follow along. Jump on the bandwagon if you will. And the group may end up going one way. Where if someone could have said something different, they might have gone a completely different direction.

There’s a famous idea of the wisdom of crowds. The notion that a crowd is wiser than any individual might be alone. But the crowd is only wise if each person shares their opinion. If each individual contributes the unique information they have. If everyone just agrees with everybody else the crowd is not going to be wiser than any one individual could be. And when groups get together to make decisions, we often see something called group think. A bunch of people make a decision that’s even worse than they might have made individually because they end up gloaming on. So, how can we prevent group think? How can we make our meetings more effective and get to a better outcome. We want to make sure that all the diverse viewpoints are heard, that people don’t just go along with the crowd. One easy way to do that is to make opinions private, or make voting private. For group think at the beginning of the meeting ask everybody to write down their vote or write down their opinion, and then submit it anonymously. Doing that first will encourage people to stick with their opinion, will solicit those diverse views, and make sure we get to a better outcome as a result.

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