Why Online & Social Media Influence is Tragically Misunderstood

Influence especially online and social media is all around us.  This article is part of a series regarding the science and psychology of influence. Check out part 1

Social Media’s Role in Influencers

If I made the statement that people just want to be liked & have an inherent fear of rejection; most people would have an easy time accepting that as truth.  Because, as humans, we are social creatures & barring psychological damage?  Most rejection is not fun especially when it comes to social media and online influencers.  So, in an effort to be liked & avoid rejection; we seek affiliation:  being closely related or associated to others in our society in what we say, think, do, believe.  As much as we love the slogan “Dare to be different;” from childhood we’re conditioned that being different?  Is difficult, more prone to rejection and we begin to embrace the concept of conformity.

Psychology Influence Case Studies 

Conformity, on its face, is not a bad thing; in fact, our society would cease to civilly function without it as it provides basis for standards and ‘societal norms.’  We base many of our decisions, especially ones where we find the options to be unclear or in conflict with our known beliefs, on the judgements/decisions of others.  Don’t believe me?  There are a pair of psychological tests that beautifully illustrate this:

  • The first is Musaf Sherif’s Robbers Cave Study of 1935 on Intergroup Behavior and realistic conflict theory.  He studied group cohesion through friction & derogation between two groups of boys… how group heiarchy was established & how two groups could subsequently integrate & achieve harmony.  While there were many significant observations made as a result of this study; Sherif noted how the desire to be accepted and favored by those in one’s ingroup were strong, resulting in further friction with the ‘outgroup;’ such as name-calling, aversion, and other derogation.  This only changed when both groups could rally around a shared cause or goal that benefited everyone – giving both groups a reason to conform to a new standard of behavior.. which they did.  Conformity was a constant throughout the experiment; it was only the associations that changed as a result of external pressures/situations.
  • The second is the subsequent experiment on conformity known as the “Asch Conformity Experiment” first conducted in 1951.  You see, Asch was convinced that Sherif’s findings were flawed since, in his study, there was no one correct answer.  Without a definitive answer, how could you ensure there was actually conformity?  So, he created a visual, judgement task test whereby he could test the extent social pressures truly had on judgement.  While he intended to prove the conformity of Sherif’s experiments were as a result of a lack of a concrete ‘right answer;’ he actually proved the opposite.  Have a look at the figure below. Compare the line on the left with the three lines on the right: A, B & C. Which of these three lines is the same length as the line on the left? While the answer is clearly “C,” over 18 trials, 32% of participants consistently chose wrong in accordance to what the ‘control group’ stated was right; 76% went along with the group at least once.
We inherently look to conform; but to be able to do so, there has to be someone (or a group of someones) that we feel comfortable in their knowledge/decision making who have first set a trend or tone for us to conform to.  Cue the “Influencers.”

How to Influence Others. Take Me to Your Leader

While last installment, we looked at what was necessary to be able to persuade – how to be an online  ‘influencer’ and influence others; this time we look at what elements are necessary from the “influencee’s” point of view.  When selecting who we will let influence or persuade us, we look for three basic elements:
  • Common Afflilation:  someone who is ‘like’ us is more likely to understand us; we look to maintain an in group.
  • Expertise & Accuracy:  an expert has a higher degree of likelihood of providing accurate information; decreasing our likelihood of being ‘wrong’ – people like to be right.
  • Ability to leverage our need for consistent self-conceptualization:  people who can help us maintain continuity with our own values & self-image – allowing us to ‘adopt’ their views while staying ‘true’ to who we believe we are – is more likely to be allowed to influence us than someone who demands radical change.

Why Universal Influence is a Myth

This all builds up to why it’s impossible to be ‘universally influential.’  Outside of superheros, one person can not have a universal affiliation – and, since even superheros have arch-enemies? One could argue they’re not universally accepted, either.  To know something about everything means a person has to maintain a somewhat shallow knowledge base – that’s a bandwidth/time issue.  So subsequently, they become the personification of the phrase “Jack of all trades; Master of none;” how influential is that? It’s not .   One of my favorite illustrations of the absurdity of this is from Annie Get Your Gun in the song – “Anything You Can Do.”  Unfortunately, the song can’t be embedded from youtube, so I’m sharing a parody version of the song with Harry Potter.

 Psychology of Influence and the Role of Ego

You quickly realize that it’s ego leading the person and there’s nothing influential about that as it comes from a selfish place & that’s contrary to what we want in a leader.  Ego -overblown- is neither believable, nor likable.  It defies the three things that we look to in a leader; so, the lack of credibility impedes those afflicted from being able to maintain a position of ‘thought-leadership’ and diminishes influence. They may still recognize you; but their full faith is likely to be put elsewhere.

It’s important to understand that the position of ‘influencer’ can not be chosen for one’s self; it’s an appointed position that requires no campaigning.  To instill the confidence in others to allow them the desire to ‘appoint you’ to that position; just be aware of your surroundings, build a deep knowledge base in core competency that you’re able to execute on, and allow people to maintain the picture they have in their head of who they are.. or better yet, help them improve it without compromising them in the process.

Next time, we’ll look at how to begin to apply influence in your workforce in business.  Check out the first article in my influence series, Understanding the Psychology of Online Influence.

Crystal Miller, known on Twitter as @theonecrystal is a builder of talent communities, addicted to Instagram, and avid social recruiter who also co-hosts a weekly radio show called #TalentNet. Visit her blog, TheOneCrystal.com to learn more. 

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Crystal Miller

Crystal Miller runs corporate marketing & develops client digital marketing strategy for Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax is the workforce marketing agency, working with HR and recruiting to drive sustained, exponential brand amplification by aligning employee and corporate messaging on LinkedIn and across social platforms. Additionally, Crystal shares her views and experience on social recruiting, culture communications, and leveraging workforce marketing/social media as a speaker/guest educator at various conferences and universities around the world. Outside of work, Crystal enjoys spending time with her 2 daughters in Dallas, Texas. You can connect with her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/theonecrystal and follow her Twitter handle: @TheOneCrystal.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. AvatarChris Jones says

    Crystal, this is an excellent piece, and I couldn’t agree more on your points and conclusions. Affiliation and belonging are deep-seated, though our culture seems to value the entrepreneur and the rebel. Interesting dichotomy there ..

    Especially resonated with your input on ego. Huge negative factor in relationships.

    From my view, the psychology behind affiliation and influence are at the core of our social experience, yet most everyone plows into tweets and posts and likes with hardly a thought as to motivations beneath the surface, or the objectives for doing so. The one place where I do watch and learn on Twitter connections is what I call “follow philosophy” .. which is to say, what makes people choose to follow someone? Your points above help explain some of that ..

    Great thread here, hope it continues to expand ..

    Chris

    • AvatarCrystal Miller says

      When I was little, I loved vanilla ice cream (and in truth, many other flavors – but vanilla works best for this example, LOL). It wasn’t so much the vanilla ice cream that did it for me; but the fact that if I chose vanilla, ANYTHING I wanted to top it with would work. It was versatile.

      I think it’s kind of the same thing with our culture & conformity. We want the versatility that comes with the ‘vanilla conformity;’ and by having that we’re ABLE to appreciate the value of the entrepreneur. I’d argue that the value placed in the rebel is limited; as there are tight boundaries set by society as to the acceptable limits the rebel can safely play in before they’re seen as a negative force/undesirable.

      Actually, I’d further argue that we value the entrepreneur because we don’t see it as contradictory to social conformity. When you look at the core of why people go into business for themselves; the PR machine hypes the ‘rebel’… but, really? It’s the same values that we all tend to have/things we all want: control/security, income, fulfillment, etc. It doesn’t ‘buck the social system’ – just the corporate one.

      But, as such, when you look at how the resumes of entrepreneurs and consultants are treated during the hiring process; you can see how they ARE treated as ‘outliers’ by that tighter, ‘Corporate society’ … it’s quite common to hear a hiring manager say, “Oh, they’re a CONSULTANT… they won’t fit in here” or to be asked/told during an interview “So you’ve really got an entrepreneurial background; that’s great but I wonder how well that will work in our system… aren’t you worried about getting bored, having to do the same thing day after day that you don’t get to control??”

      Interesting indeed. Great thoughts, thanks for sharing & I really appreciate the feedback!

  2. AvatarPaul Hebert says

    Great discussion. I spend about 99.99% of my time with clients discussing these exact issues and I think there are some other things to consider…

    1. While the Asch experiment did show how we can be influenced to “go along” in the presence of a dissenting opinion – it only really had effect after 3 or 4 people in the group (ie: a majority) cited a wrong answer to the question. In the presence of one dissenter the subject typically went with their own answer. This means that even a small minority of dissenters can eliminate the effect of group consensus. This is important when we have so much available information on the web – it is actually getting harder to show a specific point of view because we have SO many now. When there is no clear consensus – and we have multiple dissenting opinions we are kind of in limbo… making us change our opinion often. I see this a lot today.

    2. Not sure if we “value” entrepreneurship or if we just see a lot of mainstream (and not so mainstream) press highlighting the “success” of a few. We tend to believe something more if we see it repeated enough. Even thought the success rate of new businesses is pretty low (over half fail in the first 2 years) we like to believe we’re different and we see/hear evidence over and over that being bold pays off. The fact that we have millions of bloggers now doesn’t help get the real truth out since we now how even more evidence to support a point of view even if it isn’t true.

    These two points would seem to be contradictory – we are less influenced by the crowd when we have at least one dissenting opinion, and we are more influenced when we see something constantly repeated (even it is untrue.)

    The tie breaker in my mind is “authority” – when the mainstream press gets involved we still want to believe they have done a better job vetting the information and use them as the tie breaker. In fact, in this day an age of citizen journalism and blogging – I believe we will see an increase in the value of the opinion of the mainstream press – we need someone to break through the noise.

    • AvatarCrystal Miller says

      Very good points… & on your first point regarding the Asch experiment? I’m actually using that as the backbone for the same train of thought in my next installment as it relates to group dynamics (that I discussed in the last series on communities) – so was seriously geeked up reading your thoughts there! 🙂 #validation

      While 32% is certainly the minority; it’s still nearly 1/3rd that held to the wrong answer in the face of the ‘majority’ opinion. A third of any given group is a significant number. The Asch experiments, while they addressed social pressure, didn’t really explore neither the depth of any preexisting relationships, nor the motivating factors for dissent. Those things add interesting dynamics, as well; especially when you think of the psychological impact existing loyalties/fealty might have on motivation to avoid ridicule. At any rate, transfer that into a business application and normative social influence can be cause for serious pause as it relates to topics such as sales, productivity, team dynamics, and retention.

      When you look at “authority” in any one given group, how does one get to that level? Demonstrated informational & normative social influence. When it comes to journalism and “online media” then yes, I agree mainstream press will play more of that ‘definitive influencer’/authority role.

  3. AvatarPaul Hebert says

    Social influence is a very strong influencer. That’s why many incentive and reward programs show the top performers on their “leader boards.” It can backfire if not handled well – showing that you’re 144th out of 145 doesn’t do much to get you to the top.

    One of the things that I get tangled up with in this discussion is that there are so many “micro” groups now – driven by the increase in the available communities on the web.

    With so many different groups – with varying degrees of real difference in opinion/values creates a false sense of “norm.” When I can find a group of like-mined individuals easily – even if they are waaaaaay off base, I feel validated by membership. This makes it increasingly hard to build consensus on anything (politics is a great petri dish for that issue I think.)

    Blogging/twitter/facebook – all have created micro communities and micro celebrity. Both of which skew the real impact of social norms and consensus. I’ve not seen any studies on that. All of the studies that we use (me included) have been conducted long before the impact of social media and readily available micro communities.

    I wonder if the assumed impact of these social persuasion theories still apply – or if they are more important from an influence perspective than in the past.

    Historically, if I knew a majority of people believed the earth was flat I was more likely to believe it too. If the majority of the population now believes it is round – I’ll probably go with that (in absence of any conflicting facts – that’s an important element of social proof and consensus.) Nowadays… I can probably find a group of sufficient size that believes the earth is rhomboid – therefore, I can now believe that and have the security of not being an outlier – heck – 2,000 people on twitter and facebook believe it too so I feel comfortable in my opinion.

    I just wonder – does all this community building decrease our ability to influence – or decrease it? Things that make me drink.

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