Influence has been described as the “direct or indirect effect of one person on another” (Stang & Wrightsman, 1981, p. 47). A person can influence and be influenced by an individual, group, or entity. To accept influence is to conform (Kelman, 1958). Deutsch and Gerard (1955) described two psychological needs that explain the desire of humans to conform: informational social influence and normative social influence. Informational social influence relates to the desire to be right while normative social influence is related to the desire to be liked.

Influence and power are two concepts that are highly related, with the individual doing more of the influencing generally having more power (Spong, 2007). Influence can also be reflexive (Park et al., 2009). This would be the case if someone joined a group (e.g., a fraternity or sorority). In this case, an individual would fundamentally alter the group in some way, but the judgments and values of the group would likely also influence the attitudes and behaviors of the individual.

Influence of Norms

One major source of influence, for people, is their perceived idea of norms (Gilbert, 1998). Whether these norms are societal or local, they often exert power and influence upon the actions of those affected. Norms do not influence people comprehensively, due to an individual’s desire for autonomy; norms are thought to exhibit the most influence when conditions are uncertain, when we are similar to the source and when we seek to build or maintain a relationship with the source (Gilbert, 1998). People are sometimes influenced by perceived norms, even when they are not accurate. Such is the case when college students start binge drinking more because they falsely believe all other college students are exhibiting the same behavior (Erchull et al., 2010).

Three Processes of Influence

Conformity from influence can take on many different forms (Kelman, 1961). One can conform, but only publicly, and still hold on to their own values or one can conform in a more private and durable manner. Due to these distinctions in the acceptance of influence, Herbert Kelman (1958) developed three distinct processes of influence which he used to describe the main ways that people can conform:
  • Compliance -- a type of conformity that occurs when an individual consents to the expectations of another with the objective of seeking some type of reward or avoiding some type of punishment (Burnkrant & Cousineau, 1975). It is a public type of consent that is done for the pleasure of another. The fulfillment of this type of complicity is due to the social effect of accepting influence (Kelman, 1958)
  • Identification -- another type of conformity that transpires when an individual adopts behaviors or opinions from another because of the association with a gratifying self-defining relationship with another (Burnkrant & Cousineau, 1975). This type of consent will likely move beyond mere public compliance but it is the individual that matters more to the conformer than the behavior. The contentment from this type conformity comes from the act of conforming and being associated with the person, or people, to whom the act is ascribed (Kelman, 1958).
  • Internalization -- the third type of conformity emerges when an individual accepts influence because of a perceived utility to his/her values (Burnkrant & Cousineau, 1975). This type of consent is enduring and persists even in private when there is no one to observe. The fulfillment from this type of complicity comes from the actual content of the behavior and how it will serve in the attainment of personal objectives and goals (Kelman, 1958).

Common Influences

There are a myriad of possible sources of influence in the life of an individual. Often times when influence is accepted it is because of some perceived dictum on social norms (Gilbert, 1998). Two major sources of influence are our interpersonal environments as well as our media environments.

Interpersonal Influences

Although there is an abundance of evidence that depicts how parents and neighbors can influence our values and behaviors (Brooks-Gunn et al., 1993), pressure from peers has been found to be one of the most effective influencing agents (Tate & Copias, 2010). Tate and Copias (2010) describe peer pressure as an informal group consensus wherein values are in place; as the values change, so may the nature of the pressure. In organizations, the adoption of innovations by an individual depends on the ever-changing group consensus (Kimberly & Evanesko, 1981). It is through our interactions that we continually discover what is right and what is wrong and these interactions influence us to act accordingly.

Media Influences

Media is one of the most powerful social influences in existence today. Whether the influence is indirect or direct (such as with framing, agenda-setting, or priming), the media, in all its forms, influence individual and collective thought (Schuefele & Tewksbury, 2007). At the societal level, one of the standout theories of news media effects is called agenda setting. This theory postulates that news does not automatically tell us what to think, but its power lies in its capability to set the agenda, or tell us what to think about. Said another way, news makes certain issues more noticeable than others through regularity and intensity of coverage, and this process greatly influences audience beliefs about what issues are deemed important (Shrum, 2008).

Whereas our main sources of communal knowledge used to be school or religious services, now it is the media that we consume (Gerbner et al., 1986). We often learn of fashions, trends, politics, and modern opinions directly from our consumption of media. Even when media does not influence people directly, it still often has an indirect influence. One manifestation of this phenomenon has been termed “influence of presumed media influence” where individuals do not believe they have been affected but do not believe that their friendsare; therefore, these individuals act accordingly to avoid negative consequences of non-adherence (Chia, 2010, pp.402-403).

Media Effects as Influence

Because of the widespread infiltration of media into society, and the varying purposes and types of information conveyed, there are a number of potential media effects that influence individuals and groups. These media purposes are often categorized as those intended to persuade (e.g., advertising, propaganda), inform (e.g., television news), or entertain (e.g., narrative television, film). Additionally, these effects operate on different aspects of individuals affecting and influencing their values, beliefs, and attitudes (Shrum, 2008).

Minor edits by Nathan McCullough (2012).

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