In this essay I will explore some of the counter-measures one can adopt in response to social influence. I will start off by defining social influence and the three main types of behavior it comprises. I then will identify several steps one can take to counteract it. I will conclude with three real-world case studies where people successfully have resisted each one of the main types of social influence.
What Is Social Influence?
Broadly defined “social influence” is the myriad ways people impact one another including changes in attitudes, beliefs, feelings and behavior resulting from the comments, actions or even mere presence of others. There are three types of social influence: conformity, compliance and obedience (Gilovich et al., 2006, p. 215).
Conformity is changing one’s behavior or beliefs in response to real or imagined pressure from others. An example is peer group influence- to adopt a particular style of dress, listen to a particular genre of music or experiment with drugs. Conformity demands need not be explicit. William James (1890, 1950, v. II, p. 522) identified what he called “ideomotor action,” which occurs when merely thinking about a behavior makes its actual performance more likely. More recently Chartrand & Bargh (1999, p. 893) characterized this as a “chameleon effect,” which is the “nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions and other behaviors of one’s interaction partners.”
Two famous experiments illustrate principles of social conformity. The first is Muzafer Sherif’s study of how groups influence the behavior of individuals by shaping how they perceive reality. Sherif devised an autokinetic illusion, which is the apparent tendency of a point of light to move in a dark room. He found an individual’s estimate of the extent of movement (if any) tended to coalesce around the group’s perception. He called this effect “informational social influence” (Sherif, 1936).
The second is Solomon Asch’s experiment where he asked individuals to estimate the length of test lines against a target line. Once again there was a high rate of capitulation to the group estimate (Asch, 1956). This tendency results from “normative social influence,” which is one’s desire to avoid disapproval, judgment or other social sanctions from others (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955).
Compliance is responding favorably to an explicit request by another person. An example is when one is asked to do a favor and one accedes or acquiesces. Compliance is facilitated by a “norm of reciprocity,” which is the principle one should provide benefits to those who benefit them (Gouldner, 1960). If one fails to respond one runs the risk of social sanction (Cotterell et al., 1992). Compliance also can depend on emotional factors. One is more likely to agree to a request when one is in a good mood (Isen et al., 1976). The converse of this is what happens when one is in a bad mood. One attempts to alleviate it by complying with the request, a condition known as “negative state relief” (Cialdini et al., 1973). Cialdini (2000) analyzed this dynamic in detail. He combined evidence from experimental work with techniques and strategies he learned while working as a salesperson, fundraiser, advertiser and in other positions inside organizations commonly using compliance techniques to elicit affirmative responses.
Obedience occurs when a dyad power relationship is unequal and the more powerful person issues a command (not a request) to which the less powerful person must submit. The most famous example is Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments. Using a “shock generator” that looked real but actually was just a prop Milgram studied whether participants would continue to obey instructions and shock a learner even after believing the learner was in grave distress as a result of the shocks. Participants faced cognitive dissonance between the opposing forces of normative social influence and “moral imperatives” (the desire to stop the learner’s suffering) (Milgram, 1963).
Resisting Social Influence
The principles of conformity, compliance and obedience might lead one to conclude social pressure is overwhelming. Individuals however have the ability to exercise personal autonomy and resist attempts by others to restrict their freedom to act or think as they wish. If this is threatened one experiences an unpleasant state of arousal, which one reduces by reasserting one’s own prerogatives. Brehm (1956) characterized this as “reactance theory.” Several factors affect one’s ability to react. If one previously has practiced taking countermeasures then one skillfully or capably can do so again. If one has an ally then one is better equipped to resist social influence. Milgram’s experiment emphasized the “step-by-step” nature of obedience to authority, i.e. the subjects progressively were led to administering greater shocks. Awareness of this “slippery slope” increases one’s ability to resist. If one’s emotions are being appealed to then one simply can delay responding until one has had an opportunity to evaluate the situation (Gilovich et al., 2006, p. 252).
To illustrate these principles further I now will examine three real-world case studies – one for each of the three main categories of social influence identified above.
Conformity – the case of “whistleblowers.” A “whistleblower” is a person who publicly alleges concealed misconduct on the part of an organization, usually from within. This misconduct may be a violation of a law, rule, regulation or a direct threat to public interest such as fraud, health and safety violations or corruption. Whistleblowers may make their allegations internally (to other people within the organization) or externally (to law enforcement agencies or the media) (Rowe et al., 2009).
Corporate malfeasance is a serious problem. Corporations are legal entities and frequently no one person can be held accountable for organizational misbehavior. Whistleblowers perform a socially useful function. However they frequently face reprisal. For this reason legislation has been passed for their protection such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (enacted on July 30, 2002 for corporate fraud whistleblowers). §1107 of the Act, 18 U.S.C. §1513(e) provides: “Whoever knowingly, with the intent to retaliate, takes any action harmful to any person, including interference with the lawful employment or livelihood of any person, for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any federal offense, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.”
Illustrative whistleblower cases are Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins. Cooper was a vice president of the internal audit department of WorldCom who discovered an accounting fraud and confronted the company’s controller with her findings. Rowley was an FBI agent who told her superiors prior to 9/11 that the flight training of known suspects might have constituted a terrorist threat. Watkins was a vice president of corporate development at Enron who identified fraud at the company and wrote a letter to her boss detailing her suspicions rather than pretending nothing was wrong. In 2002 Time Magazine named all three women as the “persons of the year.”
More recently an investment manager Harry Markopolos repeatedly warned the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission that the disgraced financier Bernard L. Madoff was operating a Ponzi scheme. The SEC ignored his warnings and brushed him aside. In testimony before a House of Representatives Committee Markopolos declared that “Nothing was done … There was an abject failure by the regulatory agencies we entrust as our watchdog.” Markopolos said his experience with the SEC “proved to be a systemic disappointment” and led him to conclude “the SEC securities lawyers, if only through their investigative ineptitude and financial illiteracy, colluded to maintain large frauds such as the one to which Madoff later confessed.” The House Committee concluded this was due in large part to a culture of conformity and non-resistance at the SEC. Madoff was “one of the most powerful men on Wall Street” and there was “great danger” in raising questions about him (New York Times, 2009, Feb. 3).
Whistleblowers are a paradigm example of successfully resisting pressure to conform.
Compliance – sub-prime mortgages. One of the major precipitators of the current economic crisis was lax lending standards for home mortgages. Many borrowers were granted large mortgages well beyond their ability to pay. Qualification was based on inflated appraisals and false estimates of earning capacity. This resulted more from the lender’s desire to “churn” a large portfolio of mortgages rather than actual borrower fraud.
Illustrative is the experience of Keysha Cooper, a senior mortgage underwriter for Washington Mutual. She was pressured to approve loans no matter what. “At WaMu it wasn’t about the quality of the loans; it was about the numbers. They didn’t care if we were giving loans to people that didn’t qualify. Instead, it was how many loans did you guys close and fund.” In shareholder litigation WaMu’s mortgage lending operation was depicted as a “boiler room” where volume was paramount and questionable loans were pushed through because they were more profitable to the company. When underwriters refused to approve dubious loans they were punished (Morgenson, 2008).
WaMu deployed several strategies to increase the probability of compliance. It followed the template outlined by Cialdini (2000) using strategies such as reciprocation, credibility, liking-friendship, scarcity and social validation in order to close loans. “Reciprocation” means when a person does one a favor it creates an obligation to accept any reasonable request she or he might make in turn. “Credibility” means the specialized knowledge, abilities, skills or expertise of the source of a request. “Liking-friendship” means people are more likely to agree with others whom they know and like. “Scarcity” means the influence of perceived lack of availability on the subjective desirability of an object. “Social validation” means people are more willing to take a recommended step if they see others also are doing so.
WaMu also used classic selling techniques such as “foot in the door,” “door in the face,” “low ball,” “ingratiation” and “bait and switch.” “Foot in the door” is getting a person to agree to a large request by first having her/him agree to a modest request (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). “Door in the face” occurs when the requestor first makes a large request the respondent obviously will decline. The respondent then is more likely to accede to a second more reasonable request than if the second request was made without the first more extreme request (Cialdini et al., 1975). “Low ball” occurs when the seller first gains the buyer’s commitment to an item at a lower cost than the seller really intends to charge. The seller then changes the terms of the agreement but the buyer nonetheless closes the transaction in order to behave consistently with her/his earlier commitments (Cialdini et al., 1978). “Ingratiation” is getting someone to like you making it more likely they will comply (Buss et al., 1987). “Bait and switch” happens when the seller lures the buyer by advertising a product or service at an unprofitably low price then reveals to the potential customer the advertised good is not available but a higher-cost substitute is (Bhardwaj, 2008).
WaMu’s lending program will remain an unfortunate example of compliance techniques for some time to come.
Obedience – fraternization in the World War I trenches. World War I (the “Great War”) was to that point the worst military conflict in history. It also is a bright line of demarcation between older European culture dating back to the 1600s and the present. “The war stands, by most historical accounts, as the portal of entry to our century of doubt and agony, to our dissatisfaction” (Eksteins, 1998, p. 305). Casualties on both sides were immense. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for example, Britain alone sustained some 57,000 dead or wounded – more than the total in its entire history of warfare until then.
From a sociological standpoint armies still were organized by caste. Officers came from upper socio-economic backgrounds and soldiers were from lower ones. The common thread holding armies together was discipline. Discipline forged a bond of pseudo-kinship between soldiers. It made them literally into a “band of brothers” by reducing individual differences. “The idea of the intelligent and responsible soldier capable of individual initiative and rational corporate action in the main took second place to traditional concepts of mechanical obedience based on punishment and fear” (Englander, 1998, p. 192).
As might have been predicted by Brehm’s (1956) “reactance theory” this frequently did not sit well with the lower-class soldiers who by and large were cannon-fodder as the conflict ground to a halt and the combatants faced off in the stalemate of trench warfare. “Soldiers, it was found, were not manipulable from above in accordance with the precepts of the training manuals” and were “unwilling to proceed on the terms chosen by their commanders” (Englander, 1998, p. 194).
Resistance took many forms. One of the most interesting was spontaneous fraternization, a mutually-agreed suspension of hostilities leading to reduced violence. In 1914 there was an undeclared “Christmas Truce.” “Terms ranged from a temporary cease-fire to battalion-scale fraternization in No Man’s Land.” French and German soldiers gathered for meals, exchanged gifts and played soccer – not the “French versus the Germans” but with fully integrated teams. These periods of détente originated from the “bottom up” (initiated by the soldiers doing the fighting) not from the “top down” (negotiations by their officers).
By 1915 the respective high commands managed to discontinue them. Among other consequences they interfered with the process of “pseudo-speciation,” which is characterizing one’s opponent as undesirably different. If opposing troops discovered kinship bonds (however imaginal) it might lead them to the realization they’re related after all and contaminate their will to fight. Notwithstanding “informal halts or limitations of hostilities remained part of the trench-warfare experience” (Showalter, 1998, p. 50).
Another example is troop rotation. By mutual consent portions of the front became “quiet sectors” where battered divisions, French and German, could be rested and rehabilitated with hardly more risk than the men knew at home (Marshall, 2001, p. 210).
There also may have been less explicit ways of reducing conflict by working out a system of reciprocity and evolving mutual cooperation in a manner suggested by Robert Axelrod in his book The Evolution of Cooperation (2006). Side A recruits its best sharpshooter who starts firing at a point approximately 30 yards behind Side B’s trenches. Although he does considerable damage no death or injury results. This sends a tacit message to Side B that although hostilities seemingly continue in fact they have come to a de facto halt. Side B acknowledges its receipt of and agreement with this message by assigning its best sharpshooter to start firing away at a similar point behind Side A’s lines. In this way a façade of combat is maintained.
It is not hard to see how this system of signaling intentions might have evolved to the point where it was able to accommodate errors or misunderstandings. Officers (those charged with the continued aggressive prosecution of the war) may have concluded something peculiar was happening and in response would have rotated troops between different sectors on the theory newcomers would be more inclined to follow orders. One of Side A’s newbies actually might start firing at Side B’s trenches instead of the tacitly-agreed-upon distant point. A consensus then might have arisen that if there were any resulting casualties it was a matter of inadvertence, not willfulness. The way such a misunderstanding would have been resolved was by permitting Side B to engage in a similar pattern of fire for a similar period of intensity and duration, thereby restoring equilibrium. In other words it was a workable coping strategy for disobedience to an explicit command.
These spontaneous actions by troops in World War I explicitly demonstrate skillful insubordination as a way to counteract demands for obedience. Another similar example is the maintenance of nuclear deterrents guaranteeing “mutually assured destruction” in the Cold War.
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