Social Influence

I was looking back at some writing I did for my social psychology class last spring, and found some thoughts I wanted to share and expand on here. The subject in question was conformity and group influence, and specifically the classification of influence into two types: normative influence and informational influence.

Normative influence is essentially when you follow what others are doing in order to fit in. This might manifest as peer pressure, but also things like following the ways of a different culture when visiting. Informational influence is when you follow what others are doing or saying in order to get things right. When you don’t trust your knowledge in a given situation, you might go along with the crowd if they seem to know what they are doing.

As I was reading about this, I kept thinking about how these concepts apply to autistic people. I don’t think we’re immune to social influence and the pressure to conform, but our relationship to social interaction is often so different from the typical population that we may respond to them in different ways.

For example, the textbook mentioned that people often respond to normative influence without realizing it; they pick up social cues and adjust their behavior accordingly to fit in. It’s a sort of unconscious conformity. But for an autistic person who may not intuitively notice or understand those social cues, what often results is not unconscious conformity but unconscious nonconformity. The social rejection that often follows is then completely baffling.

Personally, I think many autistic people blend informational and normative influence to a large extent: we absorb the social “rules” through an informational process of studying others and learning what we’re “supposed” to do. We may then follow those rules for normative reasons, but we got there through an informational process. There was an example in the book where the author was in an audience where people rapped on the table instead of clapping, and I found this to be a good illustration: due to normative influence, the author didn’t want to be the only person clapping, and he learned what to do instead through informational influence. I think this is fairly typical of the way autistic people use the two to try to fit in.

I also, however, experience a strong aversion to some forms of normative influence; in many cases, I just don’t care to do what everyone else is doing. If something seems nonsensical to me, I’d rather simply be elsewhere than follow along to fit in. (This likely underlies some of my problematic relationship with groups, as mentioned in last week’s post.) I also tend not to privilege group consensus over my own research or perceptions when it comes to factual matters. I’ve seen both of these attitudes in a lot of other autistic people, too, and it really makes me wonder what would happen if some of the classic conformity studies were repeated with autistic participants.


10 thoughts on “Social Influence

  1. I like what you wrote. I was baffled the other day when a friend told me she saw a famous person wearing a pair of shoes and she did not know if she liked the shoes because they were worn by that famous person or because she actually liked them. maybe it is this new international age maybe it is just that I don’t get why people feel the need to follow others, to conform. Thank you.

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  2. It seems that other than stigma, we share a common interest in social psychology too. I studied psychology briefly (not at a degree level) and social psychology was my favourite, I hope one day to further my studes in this area.

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    1. Yes, I find it fascinating. I’m primarily pursuing an education in sociology right now, but social psychology is an interesting counterpoint to it. I think of sociology as the study of larger group forces in society, while social psych studies the effect of those forces on the individual. They’re sometimes strongly overlapping, so I like to read widely from both. 🙂

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  3. “Unconscious nonconformity” – I absolutely love this! It eloquently sums up *exactly* what I’ve experienced in my interactions with the world at large, especially offline. Online life has been a mixed bag for me, as social media profiles can have somewhat of an equalizing effect, where everybody has a profile with all the same elements and “only” the content varies. I’ve also felt some self-exerted pressure to conform to various groups on social media throughout the years, and sometimes I’ve found the nature of social media to be either more or less difficult to do so, as the social cues on social media are different than those of offline interaction. But anyway, oh yes, your post hit home, and as a casual student of psychology and sociology, I can totally relate 😘👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼💓💓

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  4. Reading this tickled me because it’s so similar to what I recently attempted to express. It’s like we had the same thought, took vastly different routes, then arrived at destinations near enough to wave at each other. Times like these are when I recognize I’m not as isolated from humanity as I feel. All my flailing about still manages to connect, sometimes. Yay.

    Regarding social conformity, I think I realized what I was doing unconsciously (the consequences are loud,) and decided to make it conscious because I’m strongly compelled to remain in control of myself as much as possible. (Probably a consequence of being perceived as different from jump.)


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    1. Yes! I think we often (eventually) see our own patterns and consciously figure ourselves out, too. It just might take a little while. I know that as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten both more capable of consciously managing my social presentation *and* more willing to let it slide and not give a shit if that’s how I feel. 😉

      And I’m glad it connected with your thoughts, too!!

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