May 2006

Social Influence Techniques Used Online

by Nancy Willard
Director, Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

One important foundation for making safe and responsible choices online is ensuring that you are, indeed, the one who is making the choice. Our society is awash with messages that are seeking to influence our attitudes and behavior--and the Internet is especially so.

Social science researchers have engaged in in-depth studies of the techniques that are effective in influencing attitudes and behavior. There are three basic categories of social influence. They are:

Robert B. Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University, has written an excellent book on this subject entitled Influence: Science and Practice. This article will only scratch the surface of this subject. It is exceptionally important for parents to have a better understanding of the ways in which others can influence the attitudes and behavior of both themselves and their children. Sometimes, influence can have a very beneficial impact--for example, influences that have encouraged recycling, energy conservation, racial tolerance, and the like.

But other times influence can have a very damaging impact. Virtually all of the Internet risks and concerns are grounded in the negative impact of social influence. Empowering your child with the knowledge of how social influence works, skills to resist such influence, and a fierce commitment to act in accord with family and personal values--and not be swayed by those seeking to influence attitudes and behaviors in another direction is of critical importance.

Understand that all of the "dangerous strangers" on the Internet--sexual predators, hate groups, cults, gangs, hackers--as well as all of the commercial advertisers have a high degree of understanding of the techniques of social influence. Other youth also utilize these techniques, although likely with less intention. The best way to empower your child is use "teachable moments." Be highly alert to incidents that occur in everyday life that demonstrate social influence techniques and discuss these incidents focusing on the type of strategy and techniques to resist the strategy. This is not a one-time lesson. Repeated focus is necessary. The pay-off of this will not only impact your child's choices online--but also in "real life." So many of the parental concerns about the behavior of teens--drinking, sex, drugs, reckless driving--all involve the negative impact of social influence.

Here are the six basic techniques of social influence:

Rule of Reciprocity
The rule of reciprocity is an extremely strong basic norm of human culture. The rule is: If someone gives you something--a gift, a favor, or a concession--you have an obligation to give something back to that person. The rule of reciprocity triggers the feeling of indebtedness, which requires a return.

Obviously, there are many socially beneficial impacts of this rule. But because this rule is so strong, people seeking to intentionally influence others in a direction that is not safe, appropriate, responsible, have a powerful tool to use. For example, if a sexual predator wishes to influence your child, sending your child a gift can influence your child to think that he or she must provide something in return.

You must understand that this is an incredibly powerful rule that functions at a very subconscious level. It is necessary to recognize and discuss the instances when this rule is at work in order to prepare your child to recognize when someone is seeking to use this technique to influence his or her attitudes or behavior. Bring the technique to a conscious level of understanding.

The rule works even if the person receiving something did not expect or ask for the gift or favor. Have you received a solicitation for a donation that included a gift of address labels? This is a good example of this rule at work. Organizations soliciting donations know that there is a significantly higher rate of return if they include such gift. The Hari Kreshna's used this technique very effectively in fund-raising. They would hand people a gift--a flower or a book--indicate that this was simply a gift, but then they would ask for a donation.

Frequently, the rule stimulates a return that is greater than the value of the original gift or favor. When people feel obligated to return a gift or favor, this creates an uncomfortable feeling of indebtedness to another. The person who has given the gift or favor can ask for something in return that is of greater value.

There is a second way in which this rule works--rejection-then-retreat. Instead of providing a gift or favor, the person makes a concession. The way this works is that the person first makes an extreme request, which is rejected, and then responds with a smaller request. The act or favor of making a concession triggers an obligation on the part of the other person.

To defend against this technique it is necessary to be consciously aware of gifts, favors, or concessions that are provided. Many times there is no malicious intent to influence. Such gifts or favors can be accepted in good faith. But if it appears that the person offering the gift, favor, or concession is doing so in an attempt to influence attitudes or behavior, the knowledge of the intention behind the act should be used to cancel the feeling of obligation or indebtedness.

If someone is trying to manipulate you by giving you something, like doing a favor for you or giving you a gift, and the reason they are giving you something is that they want you to give them something back, you do not need to give them something back. This person's attempt to manipulate you cancels any obligation or indebtedness you might feel.

Commitment and Consistency
People have a strong desire to act and think in ways that are consistent. Consistency is valued because it leads to trustworthiness--a person who is consistent can be trusted to act in certain ways under certain conditions. Being consistent is also convenient. If we always respond in a certain way to a certain situation, then there is no need to take the time to figure out how to respond.

People are strongly influenced to be consistent with a commitment they have made. If a person makes a commitment, takes a stand, expressed a position, then that person is extremely likely to act in accord with that expressed commitment, stand, or position. This is true even if the circumstances that led to the original commitment have changed.

This is a manipulation technique that sexual predators use very frequently. Early in the relationship, the predator will seek to have the victim make a commitment of trust. He will ask, "You trust me, don't you?" It is the rare child who will respond to this question with, "No, I do not trust you." This would be rude. Once the predator has solicited from the child a commitment of trust, the predator will use this commitment as a vehicle of manipulation. If the predator seeks to push the child out of a comfort zone and the child is resistant, the predator will remind the child of the prior stated commitment: "But you said that you trust me, didn't you."

An extremely dangerous way in which commitment can influence harmful behavior is in the context of unsafe communities--groups of youth who are promoting suicide, self-harm, hate, gang activity, violence, or any other dangerous or illegal activity. A commitment to the social norms of the group can influence behaviors in accord with those norms--up to and including suicide and murder.

To resist intentional manipulation requires paying attention to the clues our body will give us that something is not right--a gut reaction that someone is now trying to influence us in a direction we really do not want to go.

Sometimes people will try to get you to commit to something and then later use your statement of commitment to manipulate you into doing something that is unsafe or irresponsible. Someone might ask you if you trust him or her. Then later this person will ask you to do something that does not feel right and the person will remind you that you made a commitment of trust. Other times you might make a commitment to or express agreement with what others think. Later you will feel that you have to go along with activities that the group thinks appropriate because you made a commitment to this group. The way you can tell if you have made a commitment that is now wrong is to pay close attention to how you feel inside. If you have a gut reaction that something is wrong, be sure to pay attention to this. The part of you that wants to make right choices is trying to tell you that this is a bad choice. Your decision about whether something is a good choice or a bad choice should be based on what you think now, not a commitment or agreement you made in the past.

Social Proof
People are influenced by what other people think and do. One research study that revealed the strength of this influence involved a situation where the person whose behavior was being studied was in a room where all of the other people were part of the study team. The task was to determine whether two lines were the same length or a different length. At first the members of the group who were part of the study team answered correctly. Then they started to answer incorrectly. Even though it was very obvious that the answers given by the other members of the group were incorrect, in many cases the individual being studied went along with the group.

This technique is used very effectively in promotional seminars for a business model. A charismatic speaker (person who has authority, see below) will extol the virtues of the business model that actually has a dubious chance for success. Confederates in the audience or members of the group who have already made a commitment to the model (commitment and consistency, see above) will then be provided with the opportunity to express their commitment to this model. A newcomer to the group will be highly influenced to go along with the group thought.

Social proof--or going along with "group think"--works best when there is some level of uncertainty or ambiguity in the situation. People are also much more inclined to go along with others who they perceive as being similar.

Social proof influence factors are alive and well online. Teens post sexually provocative images because this is what others are doing. Teens collaborate with each other in cyberbullying. Teens stay up will past midnight communicating with outers online--because that is what all of their friends are doing. All of the unsafe online communities function in harmful ways because of the contagion of group thought. In the past, school shooters generally operated on their own. In Spring 2006, as this book is being written, there have been a rash of news articles about groups of five or six boys who have been arrested for planning a violent attack against a school.

Commercial advertisers are also seeking to use the social proof technique for online marketing. "Everyone who is 'anyone' has our product." They seek to encourage "viral marketing"--a technique that seeks to influence people to communicate marketing messages to their friends. The power influence of this marketing technique is that the marketing message has been communicated by another teen. Here is a description from an article in Business Week: "Viral marketing is a powerful theory." It attempts to harness the strongest of all consumer triggers--the personal recommendation. In the Net age, it may well be possible to include consumers in marketing and let them spread the word to global millions."

Social influence is also having a major impact on parental involvement in the online activities of their children, especially teens. Many parents know that their children who are under the age of 13, which is generally the minimum age for registration on the social networking sites, but have allowed this "because all of my friends are on MySpace." Parents allow their child to have a computer with a web cam in the bedroom "because all of my friends have a computer and a web cam in their room." Parents who are uncertain about appropriate standards for Internet use and who perceive that the parents of their child's friends are allowing their children to do certain things, may be influenced to make the same decisions.

To reduce susceptibility to "group think" requires independence of mind and the willingness to make decisions based on an honest appraisal of the situation--not what others think.

Sometimes groups of people, especially teens, can make bad choices. If you are in a group that has made a bad choice, you will likely feel that should go along with the group. If you are in a group that wants to go in one direction and your "gut" is telling you that this is a bad choice, listen to your "gut" and take a close look at the situation. You might need to get away from others to think about this on your own to make the right choice. Don't do what others are doing just because they are doing it. Make your own choices.

People are more influenced by others who they like. There are many factors that go into a consideration of whether or not a person is likable:

If we like someone, we are far more likely to comply with a request from that person. This is fine if the person deserves our good opinion and is making an appropriate request. This is very dangerous, if the person who our child likes is a dangerous stranger who is specifically using these techniques to manipulate our child. Predators use this factor a lot, especially similarity and praise. They have an in-depth understanding of youth culture, research an intended victim's profile, and not-so-surprisingly, indicate that they share many of the same interests as the victim. They also seduce victims through frequent use of praise. "You are so wonderful. I am so happy I met you."

Beyond the concerns of dangerous strangers, commercial advertisers are also using this technique as a component of their viral marketing strategies. They pay close attention to traffic on sites that attract teens and seek to identify and recruit the more popular teens, who they refer to as "connectors," "thought leaders" or "influencers." These teens are then offered free products or services in exchange for communicating about the products or services to others. This strategy utilizes a combination of the influence of liking and social proof (see the Seattle Times: "Teen recruits create word-of-mouth 'buzz' to hook peers on products").

The Internet provides the ability to "image manage"--to create an online "persona." Individuals, as well as many companies marketing products and services online, can use these principles to establish an online image that is "likable"--and thus influential.

There is a strong pressure in our society to comply with requests of demands from a person in a position of authority. Our society, and most organizations would not operate effectively if deference to authority were not one of the prevailing norms.

Unfortunately, sometimes deference to authority can lead us in a very bad direction of the person in a position of authority's determination of direction is not well-advised. Readers can likely identify a number of critically important recent events that likely would not have gone as wrong as they have if there had been more independence of thought and less inclination to defer to authority.

There is some evidence to suggest that the power of this factor is shifting. Early research in computer-mediated communications revealed that use of technology communications systems had a tendency to impact the social structure influences on communication. In in-person office discussions, the "secretary" rarely participates, especially if the "boss" is present. But in online discussions, the "secretary was far more inclined to participate.

Young people who are growing up with this technology appear to be far less sensitive to or respectful of authority. The explosive growth of youth use of the Internet has occurred just in the last number of years. The first wave of youth who have had extensive experience communicating with others online is just beginning to attend the university. A recent NY Times article reported that university professors are grappling with issues related to receiving email from students that is overly familiar and occasionally rude or inappropriate. The younger generation appears to have significantly reduced deference to authority--at least with respect to electronic communications with professors.

This will be an interesting trend to pay attention to. What will the impact of this be as this generation moves into the workplace? The students who are in college today were not immersed in social networking environments when then were in middle school, as many teens are today. How will this impact their deference to authority?

Indicators of authority are an exceptionally important aspect in assessing the credibility of information presented on web sites. Probably nowhere is this more important than in seeking answers on health related questions, which is a frequent online activity for adults, as well as teens.

There are two key questions that one can ask to assess the appropriateness of deference to someone asserting authority who is seeking compliance or obedience:

People assign more value to something if it is less available or if restrictions are or may be imposed on attaining this "thing." Advertisers make full use of this principle to promote sales: "Only a limited number." "Offer ends soon." "Get it now, before it is too late." "Offer good for today only." Products are perceived to have more value and to be more attractive, if there is a possibility that the product will not be available at a later date.

The scarcity principle is grounded in two factors. When something is more difficult to attain, it is typically perceived to be more valuable. Also if something is less available, the freedom to have it may be lost. Both of these factors stimulate more active resolve to obtain the "thing."

The scarcity principle has a very interesting impact in the teenage years. The scarcity principle also relates to actions. If restrictions are placed on engaging in a certain action, then engaging in the action becomes more desirable. The impact of this principle in relation to efforts to manage youth access to pornography through the use of filtering software would backfire by creating an increased level of value for the restricted "thing."

Parents should remain mindful of the scarcity principle in seeking to guide their child's Internet use. As indicated by the title for the Introduction, "Just say no" is likely to be significantly less effective than "Just say know."

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