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Informational Social Influence


Explanations > Theories > Informational Social Influence

Description | Example | So What? | See also | References 



When we do not know how to behave, we copy other people. They thus act as information sources for how to behave as we assume they know what they are doing. Also because we care a great deal about what others think about us, this provides a safe course of action—at the very least, they cannot criticize us for our actions.

We are more likely to use this principle when the task in question is important to us.

This leads to such effects as people ignoring public muggings and cult members being led into bizarre and even suicidal acts.

Private acceptance occurs when we genuinely believe the other person is right. This can lead to permanent changes in beliefs, values and behaviors.

Public compliance occurs when we copy others because we fear ridicule or rejection if we behave otherwise.


Informational social influence (also called social proof) occurs most often when:

  • The situation is ambiguous. We have choices but do not know which to select.
  • There is a crisis. We have no time to think and experiment. A decision is required now!
  • Others are experts. If we accept the authority of others, they must know better than us.

In other words, when we are not sure of our own ability to know what to do, we will look to others to tell us.


Police often find themselves in situations of ambiguity and crisis. People will naturally turn to the police for advice in such situations.

So what?

Using it

Get the other person into a state of relative confusion where they are uncertain about what to do next, then lead them to where you want them to be. It works best if you go first, doing it. Telling them what to do can also be effective, but requires them to accept you as an authority.

For permanent change, precede this by sufficient work that they trust you completely and view you as an authority with enviable values and beliefs.


When the situation is ambiguous or in crisis, do not just look to other people (who may well be looking to you). In particular, beware of people who set themselves up as an authority without adequate proof (and a white coat or commanding attitude is not proof).

Know that you always have individual choice, just as you have individual responsibility for your own actions. In any situation, you always have common sense available to you. Do not abandon it.

See also

Social Influence, Normative Social Influence, Social Contagion, Social Norms


Cialdini (1993)


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