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Definitions make communication easier. If you are new to the field, here are a few definitions that will enhance your understanding of social influence. These definitions represent my understanding of the literature; others define concepts differently. You can easily start an argument among scientists by invoking a definition! And for this reason I've kept the definitions as basic as possible.

social influence

Influence investigates the causes of human change--whether that change is a behavior, an attitude, or a belief. Inducing a change in behavior is called compliance. Inducing a change in attitude is called persuasion. Inducing a change in belief is called either education or propaganda--depending on your perspective.

Social influence is said to be employed by an agent or practitioner upon a target. The agent's message is called her advocacy. If your goal is to get your husband to stop overeating, you may seek compliance-- by getting him to stay out of the refrigerator--or you may influence him to internalize different eating habits, in which case he would be persuaded. You are the agent, your husband is the target, and your tactics or message would be your advocacy.


Compliance is often a quick-fix solution to a social problem. Compliance doesn't require the target to agree with the advocacy--just simply perform the behavior. The sixth example I used on the examples page provides a case in point: convenience stores sometimes have problems with teenagers "hanging out" in their parking lots. The stores want the teens' business, but not the fights and drug-dealing that sometimes accompany late-night loitering. In a situation like this, influence agents would not attempt to persuade teenagers that parking lot loitering is bad; the agent would attempt to modify the environment to deter gatherings. As I mentioned earlier, it has been found that simply playing classical music or Frank Sinatra over a loudspeaker will empty a parking lot full of teens in no time. And those teens have not changed their attitudes one bit!


Persuasion attempts to win "the heart and mind" of the target. Thus persuasion must induce attitude change, which entails affective (emotion-based) change. Although persuasion is more difficult to induce, its effects last longer because the target actually accepts and internalizes the advocacy.

There are many persuasion tactics, one of which utilizes the Socratic Effect, studied by the famous influence researcher, William McGuire. It states that by merely directing thoughts to attitudes and beliefs with logical implications for one another, those attitudes and beliefs become more consistent.

If my wife wants me to start and maintain an exercise program, she might bring up other topics which have logical, positive implications for exercise. She might tell me about a friend who recently experienced a heart attack. That may lead to a discussion about the benefits of good health and the horrors of hospitals, and how people who are in good health are better looking, have more energy, and are more successful. Without ever pointing it out, my wife will have caused me to notice uncomfortable inconsistencies in my belief system. I don't like hospitals, and exercise will help keep me out of them--so why don't I go jogging with her? I will likely decide to do just that the next time I see her putting on her running shoes. At the next social gathering we attend, she may capitalize on the situation and mention that the two of us are now exercising together. I will agree, and in so doing will have made a public commitment--which will compel me to remain consistent with my stated behavior.

If my wife is an artful influence practitioner, my jogging will cease to be an external imposition--it will have become an internal value. As such, it will become part of my self concept and will become a long-term behavior pattern.

(Surprisingly, the correlation between attitude and behavior is weaker than you might think! So just because someone has a positive attitude does not mean they will invariably behave in a consistent manner. But that's a discussion for another time . . .)


Education is the propagation of a set of beliefs, or Propaganda. We call it "education" if we already believe in it, and "propaganda" if we don't. Beliefs are things known or believed to be true, as opposed to attitudes, which are evaluations of objects that we think about. Beliefs are important precursors to both attitudes and behavior, but are often used or created after the fact to defend attitudes and behaviors we already own.

We call the learning of knowledge education if we believe and agree with the advocacy, and we call it propaganda if we don't--especially if a discrepant belief system is advocated through a large-scale, mass media appeal. The first documented use of the word 'propaganda' was 1622, when Pope Gregory XV attempted to increase church membership by strengthening belief (Pratkanis & Aronson, 1992). The term now connotes mass persuasion attempts manufactured by political entities, which manipulate far more than mere belief. Nonetheless, central to both education and propaganda is the role of the fact, the statistic, the element of knowledge that the target believes to be true.

brainwashingthought control

The term "brainwashing" was first used by the news correspondent Hunter in 1951 to describe the conversion process that American POWs had undergone in Chinese prison camps during the Korean war. He translated the term from the Chinese concept of hse nao, "wash brain." Actually, Mao Tse-tung used the term ssu-hsiang tou-cheng, or "thought struggle," as early as 1929 to denote what we now commonly refer to as "mind control," "thought reform," or "thought control" (Singer, 1995).

Thought control truly represents the dark side of social influence, as it combines compliance, persuasion, and propaganda tactics into a powerfully insidious form of coercive manipulation that robs an individual of his original identity and replaces it with another that the individual would not have freely chosen of his own accord. Thought control requires isolation of the individual from his normal social references, and is therefore best accomplished in a separatist group such as a cult. (For further information about cults, please refer to the Cult Tactics page.)

social psychology

Social Psychology is the science that studies individual beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in settings where other people are present (or merely implied or imagined--which makes the definition pretty broad). Notice the focus is quite different from sociology, where groups of people are studied, but closer to psychology, where individuals are studied. The focus of social psychology is the individual within the group. As such, it is an ideal venue for studying those forces that change humans-- their beliefs, their attitudes, and their behaviors.

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Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, PhD
All rights reserved.

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