The role of social influence processes in social change
Social change is the process by which society changes beliefs, attitudes and behaviour to create new social norms (expected ways of behaviour and thinking).
Minority influence is the main force for social change, with minority viewpoints slowly winning the majority over to accept new social norms. Minority influence acts slowly, involving systematic processing (thought processes) that changes belief systems. It is therefore resistant to change.
Majority influence is more immediate and unthinking. Its main role is to help maintain social order by getting people to conform to social norms which have already been established through minority influence.
During the process of social change comes a moment of critical mass, whereby the minority viewpoint becomes that of the mainstream and the majority begin to conform to the new viewpoint through compliance (see page 2). This involves only public (not private) agreement, with individuals still holding their original beliefs. More permanent social change requires conformity through identification, where belief systems are changed.
Obedience serves like majority influence to help oversee and maintain existing social orders. Individuals who show high levels of resistance to social influence are more likely to become agents for social change by modelling the attitudes and behaviour necessary for such change to occur.
Fig 1.10 Would an argument against voluntary euthanasia be more resistant to change if supported by a minority or a majority group?
Martin et al. (2007) investigated whether opinions given by minority or majority group influence are more resistant to conflicting opinions. Forty-eight participants, who were initially supportive of voluntary euthanasia, received 2 messages. The first was the pro-attitudinal message, which gave 6 arguments against voluntary euthanasia and was supported by either minority or majority group influence. The second was the counter-attitudinal message, which gave 6 arguments for voluntary euthanasia. Attitudes were then measured. When the pro-attitudinal message was supported by minority influence, attitudes were more resistant to change. This suggests that minority influence creates systematic processing (consideration) of its viewpoints, leading to attitudes resistant to counter-persuasion. Therefore, the opinions of minorities are subjected to higher-level processing than those of majorities. The findings also suggest that minority influence leads to social change through systematic processing, causing changes to belief systems that lead to changes in viewpoints and behaviour.
• Martin & Hewstone (1999) found that minority influence leads to more creative and novel outcomes than majority influence, which supports the idea that minority, rather than majority, influence is a greater force for innovation and change.
• Burgoon (1995) reported that it is the unexpected and unusual behaviours exhibited by minority groups that are alerting and attention-grabbing, and which lead to deep-level analysis of such behaviours and ideas. This suggests that it is the breaking of social norms by minorities that leads to systematic processing and ultimately to social change.
• Nemeth (2009) reported that it is the ’dissent’ of minorities to accepted social norms that ’opens’ individuals’ minds to search for information and consider other choices, which ultimately makes them more creative, better informed and better able to make decisions. This demonstrates how the resistance of minorities to conform to and obey social norms acts as a starting point for social change to occur.
Rather than viewing majority influence, minority influence and obedience as working independently of each other, a more constructive view — allowing greater understanding of the role of social influence processes in social change — is to view these processes as working in combination with each other. So minority influence brings about social change in an ordered and considered manner, and majority influence and obedience oversee and regulate the new social order that minority influence creates.
Research into social change mainly involves experiments, which show cause and effect relationships and allow individual variables to be isolated and tested to assess their relative roles in social change.
Clark & Maas (1990) found no minority influence effect upon a majority group larger than 4 people, which suggests that minority influence is restricted in its ability to convert and incur social change.
Many experiments into the role of social influence processes in social change lack external validity, as they often involve artificial tasks that lack relevance to real-life situations. This lowers the validity of conclusions drawn from the findings.
Experiments into the role of social influence processes in social change often result in ethical issues, especially deceit, meaning that informed consent cannot be gained.
A practical application of research into social change is that in business and industry companies should not place only ’yes men’ (people who conform and obey readily) into management, as they stifle innovation. Minorities of dissenters should also be included, as they will promote an atmosphere of innovative change.