OPERATING UNDER THE INFLUENCE, SOCIAL INFLUENCE THAT IS…

Most social acts have to be understood in their setting, and lose meaning if isolated. No error in thinking about social facts is more serious than the failure to see their place and function.  – Solomon Asch.

            Nothing is without meaning.  Nothing is without context.  A few days ago I was fascinated by my 3-year old niece’s sense of independence, or as her mother would say, her stubborn will.  It happened during her swimming class.  She was excited to get into the water.  No problem there.  However, there was one exercise that she just did not enjoy – dunking, being fully immersed under the water.  Each time she was dunked she made her way to the edge of the pool, climbed out, and sat on the side.  Nothing could stop her.  Her actions said, “This is just too much.  I need a minute.”  After some time, the swim teacher would coax her back into the water.  But, inevitably, she would get dunked again.  Each time, without fail, she made her way to the edge of the pool, climbed out, and sat on the side.  This forced her teacher to reach out to her and to coax her back into the water several times.  Why did the teacher persist?  Simple answer: Because she is the teacher and she had to get her student to understand the power of the water and its natural rhythms.  She had to get this little girl back into the water each time that she felt overwhelmed by it, so that she would know that she has control of her body in the water.  Eventually, her student complied from the pressure of the other student waiting for her and sometimes as a result of obeying the teacher’s instructions.

Social influence is an important topic to Social Psychologists because it helps us to understand “how thoughts, feelings and behaviour of individuals are influenced by actual, imagined or implied presence of others” (Allport, 1968).  For example, “Why would your loved commit such a surprising act?”  “Why do you stop when a police officer in uniform holds up his hand palm out at a traffic light?”  “Why do you leave the building at the sound of the fire alarm?”  “Why do terrorists attack large crowds in culturally significant public places where they can have maximum damage? How do you explain the brand loyalty that people have to companies like Apple, Kentucky, Wal-Mart, BMW, American Express, and Aldi?  It is social influence.

Every thought, feeling or behaviour that a person thinks, feels, or does is as a consequence of three social processes: (1) conformity (to social norms); (2) compliance (attitude and behaviour change induced by group pressure); or, (3) obedience (yielding to authority).  Classic psychology experiments illustrate the power of social influence over individual thoughts, feelings, and actions.  Solomon Asch demonstrated through a visual experiment that only 25% of individuals will remain committed to their correct response.  “Over the 12 critical trials about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participant never conformed” (McLeod, 2008).  Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiment showed that that 65% of the participants were fully obedient when ordered to deliver painful electric shocks at increasing intensities to innocent subjects.  They obeyed even when they knew that they were hurting them.  Lastly, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison study illustrated the power of the prison scenario to induce college students to believe that they were actual guards and prisoners.  The wardens treated the prisoners so harshly that they experienced the acute psychological distress of incarceration.  The effects were so severe that, in less than 36 hours, a “prisoner” had to be released from the experiment.  Ultimately, the experiment had to be shut down within 5 days because of the psychological distress being experienced by all the actors – the superintendent, the guards, and the prisoners.  Over the years, market research studies and other applied research have continued to demonstrate the power of social influence.

The question is this:  If we are aware of the power of social influence upon thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, is there anything that can be done to manage it, and to ultimately change it?  The answer is, “Yes.”  Absolutely yes!  The responsibility lies with us.  As adults, we can educate ourselves about our attitudes and where we obtained them.  We can also teach children to do the same.  If the target of the attitude is not inherently dangerous, we can deliberately expose ourselves to the target and see if our attitude or behaviour remains the same.  Testing our assumptions against real life and applying the results, can eventually lead us to success.  Knowing is indeed half the battle.  Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than through organizational development and corporate success.  Let us consider the power of social influence in a few of the successful brands named above.  People know the stories behind their creation and they build upon others who will buy, eat, wear, and use their products or services.  In every instance, social influence revealed a problem to someone and suggested to another how they could solve it.

In the case of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne, had to create a way to support themselves with the skills they had in computing, electronics, and a fascination with calligraphy and graphic art (Apple, 2017).  For Colonel Harlan Sanders,  he was an entrepreneur during the Great Depression, who saw the potential for fast food chicken to rival the popular hamburger.  His solution – offer the people that comforting taste of fried chicken just like mom and grandma would make it.  So, he began selling fried chicken from his roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky.  One dream led to a bigger one – restaurant franchising.  The first “Kentucky Fried Chicken” franchise opened in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1952. ”  Historically, KFC was one of the first fast-food chains to expand internationally.  Retail outlets reached all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Mexico, Japan, Jamaica, and the Bahamas by the mid-1960s (NetIndustries, 2007; Successstory, 2017).    KFC created history when it became the first Western restaurant chain to open in China in 1987.  Today, “There are more than 20,000 KFC outlets in 125 countries and territories around the world” (KFC, 2017; Successstory, 2017).

Social influence culminates in the values that we possess and the people and opportunities that exist around us.  At Walmart, the slogan is – “Save Money. Live Better.”  Inspired by the earlier success of his dime store, Sam Walton opened the first Walmart in 1962 at the age of 44 in Rogers, Arkansas.  His competitors did not believe that a successful business could be built around low prices and great service.  But, “Mr. Sam” proved them wrong (Wal-Mart, 2017).  So today, with “Everyday Low Price,” no one needs to find a sale at the Mall to be able to get what they need.  From clothes, shoes and food, to house ware items and sporting goods, Sam Walton stocked it all at conveniently low prices combined with great customer service.  In 1970, the company went public and the proceeds financed the expansion of the retail giant that exists today.  Among the biggest companies in the world, ” Walmart – the US retail giant that owns Asda in the UK – retained the top spot for the third year in a row,” (Telegraph, 2016).

In the light of global social influences, we have to consider how foreign chains have become successful in the American market.  How does one explain the success of the German-owned Aldi chain in the American landscape?  Aldi started in 1946, when Karl and Theo Albrecht took over the management of their mother’s grocery store in Essen, Germany. From a small provincial store, they built one of Germany’s biggest retailers.  The store is synonymous for their “everyday low prices” policy and focuses on own-brand products, accounting for around ninety per cent of their sales in the UK (Ruddick, 2013).  By 1990, Karl expanded his share of the Aldi Sud stores into the UK.  By 2013, 500 Aldi (“Albrecht discount”) stores had opened across the UK.  Favourable trade agreements between the USA and Germany suggested that Aldi could be successful in the American market.   Aldi opened its first US store in Iowa in 1976.  Now, “headquartered in Batavia, Illinois, ALDI has more than 1,600 stores across 35 states, employs over 25,000 people, … and by 2018, will bring its total number of US stores to nearly 2,000” (Aldi, 2017).

So, can you see the power of social influence?  It is in every interaction – from a mother’s and father’s love, to a child’s swim class and the police directing traffic, to the transformation of small family-owned shops into global conglomerates.   So, from this day forward, carefully consider those who influence you.  Consider your motives for being around them.  Consider their goals and your goals.  Do you like where their dream is taking you?  If you like the glimpse into the future, keep the relationship.  But, if you do not, if you feel that their dream does not respect you or does not express your value, consider changing your circle of influence by meeting some new people.  Just a few quick suggestions: join a service club; join a chamber of commerce; take a new class at your local university; travel and experience another culture; visit the local library or the local athletic club; join a professional organization.  Nothing is ever accomplished by sitting still and wishing about it.  Nothing ever gets done by complaining about the same problem to the same set of people.  Here is my advice, if you choose to accept it: Change your perspective.  Get a bird’s eye view and keep moving.

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