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Chapter 7 – Page

Chapter 7 - Social Influence


THIS CHAPTER WILL DISCUSS:
1. How group decisions often tend to be more extreme than individual decisions.
2. How proposals relating to social influence explain this tendency.
3. How group discussion can promote or discourage members' acceptance of proposals.

INTRODUCTION

In this chapter, we shift attention from the issues of conformity and deviance, which concern group structure, and focus on the process of social influence, which occurs when group interaction causes members to conform.

We partially discussed social influence in Chapter 6. In many experiments that we have examined so far, however, group interaction was artificial. For instance, in some of the studies by Asch and by Sherif, interaction was limited to the expression of choices. In other experiments, also by Asch and by Moscovici and Schachter, interaction was artificial because the "choices" of confederates were not subject to group influence. These contrived circumstances hide insights about the process of social influence. Here, we look at studies that examine more natural group interaction. We can learn more about social influence by studying these naturally interacting groups.

We will look at decisions that naturally interacting groups make and then turn to proposals that account for this behavior. All these proposals relate to the process of social influence.




Natural Group Situations Versus Contrived Situations

We have stated that test groups can interact artificially or naturally. This distinction influences our ability to study the concept of social influence.

When groups are contrived, as in the experiment of Asch that we discussed earlier, interaction is not natural. One reason why Asch's groups were artificial was that social influence could occur in only one direction. The majority could, and often did, influence the deviant. The deviant, however, could never influence the majority because the majority was made up of confederates who had predetermined wrong judgments of the lines. They never changed their opinions. The deviant was the only real participant in the experiment.

In such situations, confederates lead the group discussion. Such artificial groups can tell us something about how social influence works, but they cannot tell us all.

Instead, we must turn to experiments that examine more natural, as opposed to contrived, group discussion. As we shall see, natural interaction reveals a great deal about the process of social influence in groups.


Effects of Social Influence

To prepare for our discussion, let us consider the effects of social influence. How might social influence affect the decisions of a group?

Imagine that someone asks a group of four people to make a decision. The group members can choose from among a number of options, and they each know all these options. Every member also has an opinion as to which option is best. Under these circumstances, group members are likely to have differences of opinion. During the meeting, the members state their opinions. They examine the options and discuss the reasons for their preferences. At the end of the meeting the group must decide which option is best.

Scientists interested in the process of social influence have studied this type of situation. In it, all individual opinions somehow become "transformed" into one group decision. How does this "transformation" take place? What is the process? Scientists have been trying to answer these questions.

Through their research, most scientists have come to believe that social influence is part of the "transformational" process. As we know, social influence is the process by which group members influence one another's opinions. Researchers feel that the process of social influence is part of the overall process that a group uses to "formulate" a decision based on the members' opinions.

Each proposal in the following pages is an attempt to explain the "transformational" process, moving a group from a tangle of individual opinions to one group decision. All proposals look at social influence. They each differ, however, in their hypotheses concerning the role of social influence in the "transformational" process.




THE GROUP POLARIZATION EFFECT

Before we look at these proposals, we need to examine what researchers found when they looked at "natural" groups. How did scientists approach this research, and what did they find? What types of decisions did "natural" groups make?

Scientists looking at such groups found an overall phenomenon they called the "group polarization effect." To understand this effect, we need to examine the research that led to its discovery. Its discovery, in turn, led to the proposals regarding social influence that follow.


A "Choice Dilemma"

Imagine that someone asked the four-member group we described in our introduction to make the following decision:

Mr. Jones is a married man with two children. He has a steady job that pays him about $40,000 a year. He can easily afford the necessities of life, but few of the luxuries. Mr. Jones' father died recently. He carried a $25,000 life insurance policy. Mr. Jones would like to invest this inheritance in stocks. He is well aware of the secure "blue chip" stocks and bonds. They would pay approximately six percent on his investment. On the other hand, Mr. Jones has heard that the stock of a relatively unknown company, Company X, might double its present value. This could happen if the buying public favorably receives a new product which is currently in production. However, if the public does not like the new product, the stock would decline in value and Mr. Jones would lose his investment.

Imagine that you are advising Mr. Jones. You must choose the lowest probability that you consider acceptable before you would advise Mr. Jones to invest in Company X. For example, do you think that Mr. Jones should not invest in Company X under any circumstance? Do you think that Mr. Jones should invest in Company X only if the odds are 9 in 10 that the stock will double in value? Or will you accept odds of 5 in 10? 1 in 10? What odds would you be willing to accept?


As you can see, the four members of the group face a number of different probabilities that Company X will succeed, and they must choose from among them. Each member has an opinion about the lowest probability of success that he or she would accept before advising Mr. Jones to invest in Company X. The members will probably disagree about the lowest acceptable probability. Some might think that even if the odds are only 3 in 10 that the stock will do well, the opportunity is too good to pass up. They would consider it a good gamble. Others will find these odds too chancy. They might want odds of 7 in 10. During the meeting, the group members state their opinions and the reasons behind them. By the end of the meeting they must come to a decision concerning the lowest probability that the group would accept before advising Mr. Jones to invest in Company X.

Scientists interested in social influence have studied this exact situation. Researchers have come to call this type of problem a "choice dilemma." Faced with choice dilemmas, groups must choose between two options. One option has an attractive outcome but only some probability of success. The other option has a less attractive outcome but will definitely succeed. For example, a group must choose between traveling a long way to a stadium in hopes of getting tickets to a popular baseball game or staying at home and watching the game on television. If they travel to the stadium, they may miss the game entirely. Staying at home, however, is not as much fun. The choice dilemma involves an attractive, risky plan and a safe plan. They need to examine the odds that they will be able to get tickets and then decide what to do.

Now let us go back to the choice dilemma facing the group that needs to advise Mr. Jones. In that dilemma, Company X is the more attractive but chancier proposition. Investing in Company X is an attractive idea, but it is an unsure choice. The other option, investing in blue-chip stocks and bonds, is less attractive but safer. It is an assured option. Mr. Jones would know exactly what he was getting if he bought stocks and bonds.

The group must decide the odds for success that they would require from the more attractive but chancier option, Company X, before they recommend it.


Definition of "Risky" and "Cautious" Decisions

Before we look at how a "natural" group might deal with a choice dilemma, let us define some terms.

Imagine that the group decides to advise Mr. Jones to invest in Company X as long as the odds are 2 in 10. This means that the group is willing to allow Mr. Jones to take a chance with Company X even though the company is unlikely to succeed. The group has made a "risky" choice.

In contrast, the group advises Mr. Jones to invest in Company X only if the odds of success are 8 in 10. In this case, the group is willing to recommend Company X only if the company is highly likely to succeed. The group has made a "cautious" decision.

In general, a group is risky if it recommends the more attractive but unsure option at odds of success that are less than 5 in 10. In other words, if the choice has a less than 50-50 chance for success and the group still recommends it, the group is being risky. A group is being cautious, however, if it decides to recommend the more attractive but chancier proposition at odds of success that are more than 5 in 10.


Possible Decisions

What would a "natural" group do with a choice dilemma? We can think of several possible scenarios. Let us hypothesize about some of them.

In the first scenario, all members of the group have the same opinion. The group will almost always decide on that opinion. Thus, if all four members of our example group wanted the odds to be at least 6 in 10, the group decision would be 6 in 10.

In the second scenario, some group members tend toward risk and some tend toward caution. The group decision will probably be a compromise. We could estimate that compromise by figuring the arithmetic average of each member's individual opinion. For instance, two members of our group want odds of 7 in 10, a cautious choice, and the other two want odds of 3 in 10, a risky choice. The arithmetic average is the probability of 5 in 10. Hence, we would expect the group to compromise and agree that they could recommend Company X if the probability is 5 in 10.

In a third scenario, all group members are on one side, either risk or caution. They disagree, however, about the exact probability they would need to choose the more attractive but unsure option. Once again, we can use math to predict the group's compromise. For example, two members want the probability to be 4 in 10, and two want it to be 2 in 10. They clearly all agree on a risky option but disagree on the acceptable level of risk. By averaging their opinions, we would predict that the group would most likely agree to a 3 in 10 probability of success.


Actual Decisions

What decisions did the "natural" groups actually make with choice dilemmas? Were the three scenarios we hypothesized correct?

Researchers have experimented to see what actually occurs when groups make decisions about choice dilemmas. Many of these studies applied a particular experimental method. It was first used in a study of choice dilemmas by Wallach, Kogan, and Bem (1962).

In their study method, a number of participants first worked alone and chose acceptable odds for each of a series of 12 choice dilemmas including the one about Mr. Jones and his investments. We will label each participant's first decision the "prediscussional opinion."

Next, the researchers placed the participants in groups, and each group made a decision about acceptable odds. Finally, each participant made one last individual decision about which odds would be acceptable, again working alone. We will label the participants' last choice the "postdiscussional opinion."

What did the researchers find? One significant finding related to the third scenario above. As you will recall, in that scenario all group members are on the same side, either risk or caution. They disagree, however, about the probability they need to recommend the more attractive, but hazardous, option. We hypothesized that we could mathematically average the opinions of the group members and that this average would indicate what they would eventually agree upon.

The research findings, however, showed this idea to be false. What we expected did not happen.

For example, we are looking at the results of a group of four people in the experiment. The prediscussional opinions of two members leaned toward risk, but not too much risk. They would advise Mr. Jones to invest only if the odds were at least 4 in 10 that Company X will succeed. The other two members of the group were rather bold and would advise Mr. Jones to invest if the odds were only 2 in 10 for success.

What happened when these four people came together in a group? Earlier, we hypothesized that the group would compromise. In this case, we might expect the members to decide on the mathematic average of their prediscussional opinions. This would work out to the odds of 3 in 10.

In the Wallach, Kogan, and Bem experiment, however, this did not happen.




Risky Shift

In 10 out of the 12 choice dilemmas that the group examined, the eventual decision was riskier than the mathematical average would predict. For example, the group that we imagined above might decide that Mr. Jones should buy the stock at lower odds than the mathematic average of 3 in 10. They might decide on the lower, more daring odds of only 2.5 in 10.

Researchers have called this phenomenon the "risky shift."

In addition, researchers found that the group meetings appeared to have a lasting influence on members. The participants' postdiscussional opinions were riskier than their prediscussional ideas. Further, these postdiscussional opinions approximated the group decision. Researchers found this true both immediately after the group meeting and several weeks later when they again asked the participants for their postdiscussional opinions. Such a result is evidence that members did not merely comply with their groups. Instead, an actual opinion change took place.

The study also examined control groups, consisting of people who voiced only two individual opinions, with no intervening group discussion. In this situation, no shift took place. Thus, the research showed that members need some experience of group discussion before risky shifts can take place.


Explanations for the Risky Shift


Diffusion of responsibility. A truism of science is that researchers are dissatisfied with experimental results unless they can explain them. Two years after this experiment, Wallach, Kogan, and Bem (1964) proposed an explanation for the risky shift phenomenon. They believed that diffusion of responsibility causes the shift; in other words, group membership, in itself, is sufficient to cause the phenomenon. They postulated that the experience of being in a group creates emotional bonds among members that decrease anxieties members might have about choices. Groups do not worry about the possible negative consequences of risky decisions as much as individuals do because the group can diffuse responsibility for the decision. The decision comes from the group as a whole, not from each person.


Familiarization. Other researchers did not agree and proposed alternative reasons for the shift. Bateson (1966) created the familiarization hypothesis, in which people become familiar with a choice dilemma as they work on it. They become comfortable with it. As a result, their anxiety about the possible consequences of a risky decision decreases. This process leads to a risky shift.


Leadership theories. Other explanations for the shift include leadership theories, which examine how specific members influence their groups. These theories include the idea that high-risk takers are usually particularly persuasive. Researchers have offered two explanations for this. Collins and Guetzkow (1964) proposed that such persons are more confident in their views. Kelley and Thibaut (1969) hypothesized that daring people use more vivid language in their arguments than that of other group members.


Value theory. Brown (1965) further proposed the value theory to explain the risky shift. He maintained that risk is a social ideal. Individuals want to appear at least as daring as other group members and, therefore, take more chances in the presence of others than they would take alone.


Inadequacies of the Risky Shift Theories

As you can see, scientists proposed a number of hypotheses to explain the risky shift phenomenon. How can scientists learn which are viable? By carefully looking over experimental results. They usually find that certain theories cannot account for some data but that others can. Using this process, scientists can refine theories and weed out those that are not valid.

We can use an experiment that we have already described to demonstrate the shortcomings of one approach to risky shift. As you will recall, the familiarization hypothesis predicts that people take higher risks as they become familiar with something. According to this idea, participants will be more daring the second time they face a choice dilemma than they were the first time. This should happen even without group discussion because the participants are more familiar with the dilemma the second time around. The results from control groups in the Wallach et al. study showed, however, that this prediction is false. Without group discussion, no shift took place. Thus, the familiarization theory is not valid.

Various research data has shown that the other three approaches to risky shift are also flawed. None can account for all the results. Scientists soon realized that they had to do further thinking before they could adequately explain risky shifts.




Cautious Shift

As scientists explored these risky shift theories, a new wrinkle appeared--a "cautious shift." This was the most important finding to come out of the research.

The cautious shift occurs, as its name implies, when groups make more cautious decisions than individuals. For example, two members of a four-person group individually decide to advise Mr. Jones to make the risky investment at odds of 6 in 10. The other two members decide to advise him to make the investment at odds of 8 in 10. When the group meets, its decision is more cautious than the average of their individual opinions. Perhaps the group decides on the odds of 7.5 in 10. It took a few years for the results of the cautious shift to become evident to researchers.

Remember that only 2 of the 12 choice dilemmas in the Wallach et al. study failed to result in risky shifts. The experimenters considered these outcomes flukes. Subsequent research, however, found these results genuine. Further studies used the 12 choice dilemmas from the Wallach experiment and found that the same two items consistently led to cautiousness. Why would this happen? Certain themes ran through these two dilemmas that caused participants to be careful. Scientists took this knowledge and soon learned how to write choice dilemmas that would lead to either risky or cautious behavior. For example, experimenters learned that they could create a cautious shift if they described the hardships that would befall the protagonists' dependents if the risky option should fail (Rabow et al., 1966).



Group Polarization

Researchers also learned that risky shifts occur when group members make daring choices from the start. Cautious shifts occur when members are initially rather careful. These two results come together in the overall finding of the group polarization effect. This effect takes place when groups have members who lean toward one direction, either risk or caution, but do not agree on the same odds. Such groups tend to make decisions in the direction that the members favor. Group decisions, however, are usually more extreme than the individual members' prediscussion judgments.

Groups with members who lean toward the risky direction make decisions that are more daring than the individual members would make. People who are initially cautious make extremely careful judgments when they are in groups.

For example, four students have a group project for a class. They must decide between two projects. One is sure to succeed, and they are guaranteed a grade of C. This project is not very imaginative, however, so the highest grade they could get would be a B. The other project might fail, in which case they would receive a D. This project is very imaginative, however, and if it worked out, they would get an A.

According to the group polarization effect, if at the beginning of their discussion the group members leaned toward the guaranteed but unimaginative project, by the end of the meeting they would be strongly in favor of it. This would be a cautious shift. If instead they began the discussion slightly in favor of the chancy but imaginative project, afterward they should be enthusiastic about it. This would be a risky shift. In both cases, the students' opinions after the discussion were in the same direction, but more extreme than they were before the discussion.

The group polarization effect was an exciting and surprising discovery for the researchers who looked at choice dilemmas. Scientists subsequently have performed hundreds of studies exploring it.




Group Polarization and Social Influence
The size of this work, however, is not due strictly to the surprise effect of polarization. Another reason experimenters have devoted a great deal of time to the polarization phenomenon is that they hope it will help them understand a larger topic. Theorists feel that polarization is a "window" into the larger world of social influence and how it affects group decision making. The hope is that the study of polarization can lead to a general theory of social influence in groups.

We have centered our discussion on the choice dilemma. Polarization effects also occur in tasks other than those associated with risk. For instance, polarization occurs when groups deal with attitude extremity, when they guess light "movement" in autokinetic research, when they are involved in gambling, and when they need to decide how difficult a problem can get before they are no longer willing to tackle it. Thus, the research regarding polarization has been very extensive, and experiments have involved many tasks.




Possible Theories


Weaknesses of risky shift theories. None of the risky shift theories that we have described can account for the cautious shift. Because they do not deal with shifts toward both risk and caution, we cannot consider any of them an explanation for the group polarization effect. This does not mean that the four risky shift theories are totally invalid. Diffusion of responsibility, persuasion by risky leaders, and the other predicted processes do take place in groups and can also cause risky shifts. Scientists, however, want the most general explanations for phenomena. None of these theories falls into that category.


General social influence theories. In the past two decades, scientists have proposed many theories regarding the group polarization effect. Further, scholars believe that these proposals go beyond choice dilemmas and relate to all types of group decisions.

Why would they think this? As we know, scientists first discovered the group polarization effect when they studied choice dilemmas. After examining group polarization, scholars came to believe that it is a window into the larger process of social influence. Hence, by looking at group polarization, they could discover more about how social influence affects all kinds of group decision-making tasks. To look at group polarization, however, scholars still used choice dilemmas as a basis for research and proposals. In essence, choice dilemmas help scholars examine and theorize about group polarization, and group polarization helps them look at social influence.

For all these reasons, proposals that relate to choice dilemmas also relate to all types of group decisions.

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