Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity - Cialdini et al. - Article

The study of social influence is renowned for its demonstration and explication of dramatic psychological phenomena that often occur in direct response to overt social forces. Some of the most memorable images from the field’s history are will be explained below.

Milgram’s research(1974) on ‘Work on Obedience to Authority’.

Freedman’s & Fraser’s research (1966) on seminal investigation of the foot-in-the-door technique.

Asch’s conformity experiments (1956)

Freedman’s & Fraser’s foot-in-the-door technique is an example of compliance gaining without overt pressure, revealed the subtler aspects of social influence. Although all three lines of research have been prominent in stimulating decades of insightful inquiries into the nature of compliance and conformity, scholars in recent years have been inclined to explore topics more in line with the latter approach, researchers have tended to concentrate their efforts on examining social influence processes that are subtle, indirect and unconscious.

As an organizational framework, this chapter focuses on the extent to which three central motivations (to be accurate, to affiliate and to maintain a positive self concept) drive targets' cognitions and behaviours in the areas of compliance and conformity.


Compliance refers to a particular kind of response (acquiescence) to a particular kind of communication (request). This request may be explicit, as in the direct solicitation of funds in a door-to-door campaign, or it may be implicit, as in a political advertisement that touts the qualities of a candidate without directly asking for a vote. But in all cases, the target recognizes that he or she is being urged to respond in a desired way.

Goal of Accuracy

People are motivated to achieve their goals in the most effective and rewarding manner possible. A person’s desire to respond appropriately to a dynamic social situation demands an accurate perception of reality. The need to correctly interpret and react to incoming information is of great importance, particularly to targets of compliance-gaining attempts. One inaccurate perception or behaviour, could mean the difference between getting a bargain and being duped. There are several influence-techniques to which people react differently.

  • Affect and Arousal is an influence technique where many researchers have focuses on the effect of discrete emotions on targets’ cognitions as well as on the eventual outcome of the influence attempt. After receiving a request, targets use their feelings as cues for effective responding. Individuals alleviate feelings of shame and fear via public compliance and feelings of guilt and pity via private compliance.

Searching for a broader perspective on the role of affect in compliance scenarios, Forgas argued that the conditions under which affect mediates the processing of and responses to requests can be explained by the Aim model: Affect Infusion Model. The Aim contends that a target’s mood will permeate the processing of a request to the extent that the processing is effortful and exhaustive.

That is, an individual’s affective state is likely to be integrated into the processing of the request in situations that call for constructive elaboration of the available stimulus information. The AIM, like many other theories or affect and cognition, focuses on processes that occur while an individual is experiencing a transient emotion or set of emotions.

Dolinsky & Nawrat established the success of a technique designed to increase compliance immediately after a particularly arousing mood has subsided. They were founders of the famous Fear-then-Relief procedure. This procedure states that people who first experienced anxiety and then relief are more likely to comply to a request then people who continued feeling anxious or then people who never felt anxious.

  • The that’s not all technique is as in the fear-then-relief procedure, targets in compliance situations are often burdened with the task of correctly comprehending, and responding to requests in a relatively short time, and therefore lack the luxury of entirely deliberate and rational decision making.

One strategy commonly employed by sales professionals that takes advantage of people’s limited abilities to make well-reasoned judgments is the that’s not all technique.

Influence agents utilize this technique by presenting a target with an initial request, followed by an almost immediate sweetening of the deal, before the message recipient has an opportunity to respond. Thus, by first elevating someone’s anchor point, the salesperson increases the likelihood that the better deal will fall into a range of acceptance that is based on this higher anchor point. This technique creates the appearance of a bargain.

  • Another influence-technique is resistance. Following the work of Polock et al., some researchers have placed the that’s not all tactic among a class of influence strategies referred to as Disrupt-then-Reframe techniques. The DTR technique operates by disrupting an individual’s understanding of and resistance to an influence attempt and reframing the persuasive message or request so that the individual is left more vulnerable to the proposition. The procedure is thought to work by disturbing the evaluation stage of Gilbert’s two stage model for message and situation comprehension.

The disrupt-then-reframe tactic enhances the likelihood of compliance by suppressing the target’s resistance processes rather than by directly bolstering the desirability of request fulfillment. Knowles & Linn argue that forces drawing targets away from compliance (omega forces) in any given circumstance may be of a qualitatively different nature than those driving them toward compliance (Alpha forces).

  • Authority and obedience as an influence technique is based on the fact that individuals are frequently rewarded for behaving in accordance with the opinions, advice and directives of authority figures. In recent analyses of the many forms of influence at the disposal of authorities and other agents, researchers have categorized strategies employing expert power in a class called soft tactics and approaches utilizing hierarchy-based legitimate power in a class known as harsh tactics. Soft tactics come from within the influence agent and harsh tactics are derived externally by means of an existing social structure.

The Milgram studies revealed the potentially harmful consequences of an illegitimate authority posing as a legitimate authority.

  • Using social norms is the last influence-technique in goal accuracy. In addition to authorities, individuals often look to social norms to gain an accurate understanding of and effectively respond to social situations, especially during times of uncertainty.

There are two types of norms: injunctive norms and descriptive norms. Injunctive norms inform us about what is typically approved or disapproved. Descriptive norms tell us more about what is typically done.

Given that relevant norms must be salient in order to elicit the proper norm congruent behaviour, individuals attempting to persuade others to engage in a particular behaviour face the dual challenge of making the norm salient not only immediately following message reception, but in the future as well.

Goal of Affiliation

Humans are fundamentally motivated to create and maintain meaningful social relationships with others. There are several factors that influence this relationship.

  • Liking is one of the clearest implications of our desire to affiliate with others. The more we like and approve of others, the more likely we are to take actions to cultivate close relationships with them. The more we like someone, the greater is our willingness to comply with the request. Researchers have focused recently on the extent to which heuristics (generally provide accurate shortcuts for effective decision making) lead individuals response to people.

Examples of heuristics that make us like people more are:

  • Greater perceived similarity is another cue for potential friendship. If someone is similar to us, we like him/her more.

  • Dialogue with closer relationships and monologue with strangers. If we have a dialogue with a stranger, a heuristic automatically makes us believe that we like the stranger more, only because you had a dialogue with him/her.

  • Impression management through ingratiation is another means by which individuals utilize the liking principle for maximal influence. Research has demonstrated that even subtle forms of ingratiation, such as remembering a person’s name, can potentially shape that person’s response to a request.

The traditional explanation for the target-observer difference has been that the target is motivated to accept the obsequious comments as genuine praise in order to serve his or her self-esteem. Observers, on the other hand, can analyse the behaviour more critically because their feelings of self-worth are not on the line.

  • The norm of reciprocation is the rule that obliges us to repay others for what we have received from them. This is one of the strongest and most pervasive social forces . It helps us build trust with others and pushes us toward equity in our relationships.
  • Door in the face technique: The norm of reciprocity has also been used to explain the effectiveness of the door-in-the-face technique. One employs the strategy by preceding the request for a truly desired action with a more extreme request that is likely to get rejected. In this way the final way feels as an concession.

O’keefe & Figgé proposed an alternative account for the DITF effect based on guilt. They contend that targets feel guilty after rejecting the initial request, and seek to mollify this negative affect by agreeing to fulfill the subsequent request.

Taken as a whole, it appears that recently proposed explanations for the DITF effect are not fully consistent with the available data. This is not to say that multiple factors never operate in DITF exchanges, nor is it likely that the compulsion to reciprocate a genuine concession is the driving force behind the strategy’s efficacy in every case.

Door-in-the-face (DITF) technique is a compliance method commonly studied in social psychology. The persuader attempts to convince the respondent to comply by making a large request that the respondent will most likely turn down; much like a metaphorical slamming of a door in the persuader's face. The respondent is then more likely to agree to a second, more reasonable request, compared to the same reasonable request made in isolation.

Goal of maintaining a Positive Self-concept

People have a strong need to enhance their self-concepts by behaving consistently with their actions, statements, commitments, beliefs and self-ascribed traits.

This notion provides the basis for much of the recent research on compliance, particularly with regard to the role of self-perception processes. Examples of techniques that use this principle:

  • The foot-in-the-door technique (FITD) is one compliance strategy designed to take advantage of people’s basic desire for consistency. The procedure involves first asking a target individual to comply with a small request, typically one that is minimally invasive so that the target is almost certain to respond affirmatively. After securing compliance, either the initial requester or an associate of the requester makes a larger request. The strategy is effective when the demanding task’s compliance rates are superior for those who received the initial request as compared to those who received no earlier request.

Freedman & Fraser speculated that a major process underlying the FITD effect is one akin to self perception. That is, after agreeing to the initial request, targets ascribe traits to themselves reflecting their recent actions, and this change in self-view helps direct future compliance.

Cialdini et al. (1995) argued that dispositional tendencies toward consistent responding might moderate the degree to which individuals behave in line with predictions made by consistency theories; they developed the Preference for Consistency scale to measure such a construct. The researchers showed that only those who scored high on the PFC scale complied in accordance with consistency based theories, including FITD. They concluded that those individuals who score high in PFC are more consistent than those low in PFC in that they are more likely to determine their reactions to novel stimuli.

  • People are not only driven to be consistent with their self-attributions, but also with their previous behaviours and commitments. The extent to which one’s commitments are made actively is one powerful determinant of the likelihood of request compliance.

An influence agent employing this tactic first offers an acceptable deal to the target. Once a target’s commitment to the proposal has been secured, the cost of carrying out the deal substantially increases. The case of car sales, the technique is successful because prospective buyers face their own commitments to the requester and perhaps to themselves when decided whether or not to accept the modified deal.

Public commitments also tend to be more persistent than private commitments. Car salespeople regularly utilize strategies , such as the low-ball technique that take advantage of our motivation to act consistently with our prior public commitments. Individuals whose cultures place less of an emphasis on self-concept positivity and related maintenance and enhancement goals may be less susceptible to tactics that exploit these motives.

A core assumption regarding the success of consistency-based compliance techniques is that targets act consistently with their self-views and prior commitments in order to serve the ultimate motivation of maintaining or enhancing their self-esteem.

1.2 Conformity

Conformity refers to the act of changing one’s behaviour to match the responses of others.

Nearly half a century ago, Deutsch & Gerard (1955) distinguished between informational and normative conformity motivations., the former based on the desire to form an accurate interpretation of reality and behave correctly, and the latter based on the goal of obtaining social approval from others.

Goal of Accuracy

Research on accuracy as a central motivation for conformity has examined the phenomenon in some diverse and relatively unexplored domains. Investigators, have demonstrated that individuals may conform to information supplied by a group of confederates when reconstructing their memories for stimuli. Individuals also tend to conform to the majority, even though the majority makes flawed decisions. If we are held accountable for our own decisions, we are more likely to resist the pressure to conform to the majority.

  • Perceived consensus tells us something about the way we react to beliefs held by others is often contingent on our perceptions of the level of consensus for those beliefs. Social psychologists have continued to investigate how individuals differentially process messages associated with numerical majorities and minorities to explore the extent to which normative and informational influences govern motivations to conform to each type of source.

The two most prominent theories, The Conversion Theory and the Objective consensus approach differ in their interpretation of the influences exerted by majorities and minorities in terms of cognitive and motivational processes. Conversion theory suggests that majority influence is normative, whereas the objective consensus account views it informational.

  • Much like the majority of social psychological research, traditional investigations of conformity phenomena have been dominated by static social influence environments described by relatively microlevel theories. Recent years, however, have been marked by an increased emphasis on the processes that drive conformity in more fluid, complex systems and on the group-level consequences of dynamic behaviour and belief shifts over time. These are called dynamical systems.

Latané developed Dynamic social impact theory (DSIT) to explain the higher order processes that emerge over time from local-level conformity within multiple person assemblages of varying sizes, functions, complexities and levels of interpersonal interaction. motivation to conform to others is initiated, at least to some degree, within the target’s awareness. Conformity may also be the product of the less mindful activation of accuracy or affiliation oriented goals, providing an adaptive shortcut that maximizes the likelihood of effective action with minimal expense to one’s cognitive resources.

  • Automatic activation is a non-conscious process that influences the likelihood of conforming to the majority. When people were primed with words related to conformity, they were more likely than those who were primed with neutral words to adhere to the group.

Conformity is a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group.

Goal of affiliation

  • Interest has resurged in a conformity phenomenon known as behavioural mimicry, which appears to operate completely outside of conscious awareness. Also dubbed the chameleon effect, the term describes behaviour matching of postures, facial expressions, vocal characteristics, and mannerisms that occurs between two or more individuals. Chartrand & Bargh found that participants non consciously conformed their facial expressions to closely mirror a confederate’s gestures. Behavior matching is more likely to occur in circumstances that enhance a would-be imitator’s attentional focus on others and less likely to occur in situations that diminish external focus.
  • Unlike the subtleties characteristic of behavioural mimicry, individuals often engage in more conscious and deliberate attempts to gain the social approval of others, to build rewarding relationships with them, and in the process, to enhance their self-esteem. Conformity offers such an opportunity, although the extent to which the phenomenon is not only socially described, but also normatively embraced.

Researchers have also continued to investigate the extent to which affiliation and self-image enhancement goals are activated and strengthened when an individual’s self-esteem is threatened by the prospect of not fitting in with the group.

Goal of maintaining a positive Self-concept:

As we have already described, people are frequently motivated to conform to others’ beliefs and behaviors in order to enhance, protect or repair their self-esteems. Following this logic, one way to combat conformity behaviour might to be affirm individuals self-concepts.

  • Majority and minority influence represents the extent to which one identifies with a message source, be it a majority or a minority. This is a significant factor in determining the information processing strategies one employs as well as the outcome of an influence attempt.

The self categorization theory holds that the conventional distinction between informational and normative influence creates a false dichotomy because the two processes are interrelated in most cases.

  • Self-categorization theory has also been offered as an explanation for conformity-related deindividuation phenomena in the form of the Social Identity model for Deindividuation effects. The SIDE model.

The side model distinguishes itself from classical deindividuation accounts in that ‘responsiveness to a group norm is not a mindless or irrational process reflecting a reduced sense of self, but may be a conscious and rational process relating to a meaningful sense of identity.

In further support of the SIDE account, common-identity groups, in which members perceive a common social identity with the entire group, exhibit greater group salience and are more likely to induce conformity to group norms than are common bond groups (characterized by bonds between individual group members) when members are anonymous.


In this article, we emphasized three core motivations that provide the bases for targets’ responses to influence attempts: accuracy, affiliation and the maintenance of a positive self-concept. We associated each social-influence-related phenomenon with whichever goal appeared to be principal driving force underlying the occurrence of that phenomenon.

However, it should be noted that targets’ behaviors often serve multiple goals. For example, self-categorization theory holds that conforming to valued ingroup members may fulfill all three goals. We also examined the extent to which targets were mindful of the activation of these goals and of external influences in general, finding that recent research has tended to favour social influence processes that are subtle, indirect, heuristic-based, and outside of awareness. This is consistent with the recent movement in social psychology toward the demonstration of nonconscious goal activation and automatically in everyday life.

It is noteworthy that although this review has focused almost exclusively on recent developments in the areas of compliance and conformity, many of the field’s classic investigations are relevant in today’s research. A great deal of empirical work continues to explore the mediators and moderators of traditional compliance tactics, such as the foot-in-the-door techniques and the door-in-the-face. Deutsch and Gerard has made a lasting contribution to our understanding of how multiple goals operate in social influence settings. And Milgram’s research on obedience to authority continues to spur debate on several levels, including interpretation of the original results.

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