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Normative Social Influence


Explanations > Theories > Normative Social Influence

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



There is a fundamental human need to belong to social groups. Evolution has taught us that survival and prosperity is more likely if we live and work together. However, to live together, we need to agree on common beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors that reduce in-group threats act for the common good.

We thus learn to conform to rules of other people. And the more we see others behaving in a certain way or making particular decisions, the more we feel obliged to follow suit.

This will happen even when we are in a group of complete strangers. We will go along with the others to avoid looking like a fool. However the forces are strongest when we care most about respect and love from others in the group. Thus families and friends can apply very strong normative influence.

People with lower self-esteem and who crave approval of others may well be more easily influenced this way.

When a person in a group does not conform, then they may be considered a deviant and both private and public advice may be given to them on how to fit in. If they still do not obey norms, they will eventually be ejected and membership of the group revoked.

National culture also has a significant effect, and people in countries like Japan, who have collectivist cultures, are far more likely to be influenced than in more individualistic cultures, such as in the USA (although it is a testament to the power of this effect that it still has a massive impact here).


Solomon Asch showed a group of people a line on a card and asked them to find a matching line from a group of three lines on another card, one of which was pretty obviously the right choice. The catch was that all except one person in the group were collaborators and chose the wrong line. When it came to the ‘victim’s turn, guess what? In a range of experiments, 76% of them followed suit. The presence of just one supporter reduced this to 18%.


Fads and fashions lean heavily on normative social influence. So do racial, political and other situations of persuasion.

So what?

Using it

To change a person’s behavior, put them in a group who (perhaps primed) clearly all exhibit the desired behavior. Then engineer the situation so the person must exhibit the behavior or face potential rejection or other social punishment. If they do not comply, ensure the group gives steadily increasing social punishment rather than rejecting the target person immediately. When they do comply, they should receive social reward (eg. praise, inclusion).


Where you want to do something and the group in which you currently are socially punishes you for doing it, make a conscious decision as to whether it is worth fighting back or just giving up and leaving. If they mean nothing to you, just carry on and ignore them.

It can also be very heartening to watch other people resisting (and your doing so may well give heart to other doubters).

You can also acquire idiosyncrasy credits, where the group puts up with your eccentricities. To do this, be consistent in what you do, whilst also showing that in doing so you are not threatening the integrity of the group.

See also

Social Influence, Informational Social Influence, Social Impact Theory, Social Norms


Asch (1951, 1956, 1966)


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