Informational Social Influence

Imagine two scenarios: the first is taking a test by yourself. You come across a confusing question and are unsure of the right answer. Now imagine that you are taking the same test with two other people. The question is the same, and you still don't know the answer. However, the two people taking the test with you quickly select the same answer option. What do you do? Do you choose the same answer that they did?

Informational Social Influence Informational Social Influence

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Contents
Table of contents
    • We will first aim to understand what informational social influence is.
    • Next, we will explore why informational social influence occurs.
    • We will then discuss Sherif's 1935 experiment and evaluate it.
    • Finally, we will look at some real-world examples of informational social influence.

    Informative Social Influence

    Maybe you've just started college and aren’t familiar with the location of your psychology classroom. You find a group of students talking about the subject, so you might be tempted to follow them, assuming they know where the classroom is. This is a classic example of informative social influence.

    Sometimes, informative social influence can be referred to as 'informational social influence' - these terms can be used interchangeably!

    Informational Social Influence Definition

    The easiest way to define informational social influence is that:

    It is an explanation for conformity that is driven by our wish to be correct. It occurs when we lack information (an ambiguous situation) about something and look to others for guidance.

    Now that we have understood this phenomenon let's take a moment to explore why it occurs in the first place.

    Why does Informational Social Influence occur?

    As individuals, we sometimes find it hard to be wrong - be it regarding an answer at school, a problem at work, or even basic etiquette when at a restaurant. Sometimes, the answers we are looking for can be found with a quick Google search, yet we find ourselves scanning the room around us to see if anyone else is hinting at the correct thing to do. Agreeing with what someone is saying or doing the same thing as someone else are two common ways we cope with the uncertainty around us; this is known as conformity.

    Conformity is when an individual changes their belief or behaviour to fit in with the group around them.

    You might be wondering if conformity has been studied, and if it has, then what impact does it have on the world around us? Let's discuss Sherif's experiment and see what the results of it were.

    Sherif 1935 Experiment

    Sherif's 1935 experiment involves the autokinetic effect and informational social influence. He wanted to observe how group norms are established. We already know what informational social influence is, so let's take a brief second to understand the autokinetic effect and group norms.

    The autokinetic effect is a phenomenon that causes light observed in a dark environment to appear as if it's moving.

    You might wonder how this is possible and how our eyes can deceive us. But, when you stare at a fixed point for a long period, your brain removes distracting shakiness from your vision; this is done to make your vision clearer. However, doing so makes you unable to tell if your eyes are moving or the object itself. This often makes still objects appear as if they are moving, which is especially noticeable when a bright object is visible on a dark background.

    An everyday example of this would be how stars appear to be moving in the night sky.

    Now, let's tackle group norms. Have you ever worked in a team where you've all had to discuss different ideas and reach a common conclusion? I think we all have!

    Group norms are long-lasting, agreed-upon ideas resulting from a process called 'norm crystallisation'.

    The question in your head might now be 'what is norm crystallisation?' Norm crystallisation is the process of a group of people reaching a consensus together.

    In addition to exploring how these interact together, Sherif was also interested in observing normative social influence vs informational social influence.

    Normative social influence is an explanation for conformity driven by our need to fit into a group. It occurs when we feel social pressure from others, our environment, or society.

    While normative social influence occurs because of pressures from those around us, informational social influence occurs due to our lack of information, resulting in us looking at what others are doing and then doing the same thing - that is the key difference!

    The Experiment

    Sherif's experiment was a lab experiment and consisted of a black screen and light. The idea was that, as a result of the autokinetic effect, the light would appear to move when projected onto the screen.

    The participants were asked to estimate how much the light had moved in inches individually. It was established that estimates ranged from two to six inches. After the individual responses were recorded, Sherif placed participants into three groups. He selected the groups based on their responses so that two group members would have a similar estimate and the third would have a very different one. Participants were then asked to say out loud what their estimate was.

    Results

    As nobody was sure of the answer, they looked to the other group members for guidance. Therefore, this experiment is an example of informational social influence. The results from this study confirm that when in an ambiguous situation, people will look to others for guidance to follow the norm.

    Since no one was sure of the answer, they looked to the other group members for guidance. Therefore, this experiment is an example of informational social influence. The results from this study confirm that when in an ambiguous situation, people will look to others for guidance to follow the norm.

    Criticisms

    Sherif’s study was not without its criticisms. Let's discuss some of them below.

    Group

    Sherif's study only dealt with groups of three at one time, where only two members would initially agree with one another. It could be argued that this doesn’t count as a group, especially when later studies such as Asch’s line study demonstrated that conformity was as low as 12% when the confederate group consisted of two people.

    Ambiguity

    Since there was no right or wrong answer in this study, the ambiguity of the task could be considered an interference variable, which may have made it hard to determine if conformity was occurring. In comparison, Asch (1951) had clear right and wrong answers in his study, ensuring that conformity was actually affecting the results, which made the results valid.

    Now that we have thoroughly discussed Sherif's 1935 experiment let's look at some other examples of informational social influence to solidify our understanding.

    Examples of Informational Social Influence

    Here, we'll discuss examples of informational social influence in different aspects of an individual's life. First, how does informational social influence play out in an education scenario?

    If you're in a school or university class and the teacher asks a question which you don't know the answer to, you might find yourself listening around to hear others talking about what it is. Often, someone might scream out the answer, and you might nod in agreement, thinking that it is correct.

    Next, how does informational social influence play out in the workplace?

    If you observe someone carrying out a potentially dangerous task without following proper safety procedures, and find that they are not harmed and have managed to get the task completed quicker than if they had followed safety procedures, you might be influenced to do the same when you are asked to carry out a task.

    Finally, how does informational social influence play out in social situations?

    Imagine going to a fancy restaurant for the first time with your friends. You sit down at the table and see three different types of forks you can use, but you don't know which one is the correct one for the food you are eating. In this case, you might look around the table to see what others are doing and then act similarly.

    Alternatively, when everyone is splitting the bill and adding a tip, you may not know the appropriate amount for a tip. Again, you might find yourself trying to check how much other people are tipping so that you can follow in their footsteps.

    These examples prove that informational social influence is a phenomenon that occurs in our daily lives without us even realising it!

    Informational Social Influence - Key takeaways

    • Informational Social Influence is an explanation for conformity that is driven by our wish to be correct. It occurs when we lack information (an ambiguous situation) about something and look to others for guidance.
    • Agreeing with what someone is saying, or doing the same thing as someone else are two common ways we cope with the uncertainty around us, and this is why informational social influence occurs.
    • In Sherif's 1935 experiment, participants were asked to individually estimate how much the light had moved in inches; their responses were recorded individually, after which they were split into groups.
    • Groups were selected based on their responses so that two group members would have a similar estimate and the third would have a very different one. He found that, as nobody was sure of the answer, they looked to the other members of the group for guidance, thereby confirming informational social influence.
    • Two criticisms have been associated with Sherif's experiment, namely, the group size and the ambiguity of the task.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Informational Social Influence

    What was the Sherif experiment?

    Sherif’s autokinetic experiment was a conformity experiment. Participants were asked to estimate the movement of a stationary light that appeared to move due to the autokinetic effect.

    What is informational social influence?

    It is an explanation for conformity that is driven by our wish to be correct. It occurs when we lack information (an ambiguous situation) about something and look to others for guidance. 

    Do normative processes include informational influence?

    No, they do not. Normative social influence is an explanation for conformity which is driven by our need to fit into a group.

    What was the main difference between the Asch line matching studies and the Sherif autokinetic effect study?

    Asch had control over his participants. Sherif did not.

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