Social Influence - Minority Influence

It’s not just majority influence that people conform to; minority influence can also cause a change in people’s behaviour and beliefs.

Minority influence is when a small number of people affect a larger number. This can clearly be seen throughout history, for example in the 1970's activists for caring for the environment were dismissed as “hippies”, but now, thanks to minority influence, it is now then norm to be concerned about global warming. There are numerous other examples throughout social history.
Key research study:

Moscovici et al (1969):

AIM: To see whether a consistent minority of participants could influence a majority to give an incorrect answer in a colour perception test.

PROCEDURE: He tested 32 groups of six women, 2 of which from each group were confederates. The group were shown 36 blue-coloured slides, which all varied slightly in their intensity. The participants were asked to verbally describe the colour of each slide, with the confederates answering first. The confederates consistently said the slides were green.

FINDINGS: The participants agreed with the minority that the slides were green 8% of the time. 32% conformed to the minority at least once. However, when the confederates answered inconsistently the conformed went down to 1.25%.

CONCLUSION: Minority influence can make the majority conform, however consistency is very important.

Factors affecting Minority Influence:
As Moscovici’s study shows, consistency is a very important factor of successful minority influence; however there are other factors as well: 
  • Size of minority – As the size of the minority increases, so does their influence
  • Confidence in beliefs – Minorities who show belief in their point of view have a greater influence
  • Sharing common ground with majority – The more common ground a minority has with a majority the greater their influence; this could be because the majority will find it easier to relate to the minorities point of view
  • Acting from principle – If a minority is seen to be acting from morals and principles their influence increases, this could be because it seems more justified and morally correct if they have sound beliefs.
  • Sacrifice – A minority has greater influence if they are seen to make personal sacrifices. This could be because it persuades others that the minority point of view must be correct if they are willing to go to such extreme lengths to show it.
Explanations of conformity to minority influence:

The presence of minority influence amongst a majority creates conflict in both social situations, and the minds of the majority. This is because often the minority’s beliefs are radically different to the majorities, so there these new ideas can be though provoking for the majority, they might start to question their own opinion, and sometime this is all that is needed to change someone’s opinion. This is why it is important for the majority to remain consistent and draw attention to themselves, because, if the majority can avoid the minority influence, then they will.

As the minority influence increases and more of the population conform to the minority belief, it can become the majority belief. This often picks up pace, converting more and more people to the minority belief in a shorter and shorter space of time; this is known as the Snowball effect.

Evaluating research into Minority Influence:

1. The study was endocentric, as only female participants were used, there has been research to suggest that women are more conformist that men and so these findings cannot be applied to males - low external validity.

2. The minority group was not a ‘real’ group, they were strangers taking part in an artificial task. In the outside world, minority groups are likely to be more committed to their cause, to face stronger opposition and are able to provide considerable social support for one another.
Also the power/status relationships that exist in the outside world cannot be replicated in a lab.

3. Clark et al has found that when the majority group size was bigger than 4, there was a huge drop in influence, this raises questions over the extent that the findings can be applied to all majority/minority situations.

4. The study was culturally biased, as all participants were American, Smith and Bond (1998) have found that more individualistic (e.g. American, UK) cultures were less conformist that collectivistic cultures (e.g. African) so the findings cannot be universally applied.

5. Participants were deceived in this study and so informed consent could not be gained, this raises ethical issues, however, as the deception was mild and undue stress to the participant was not cause, some think that the deception can be justified.

6. The lab situation is artificial and some say that participants behaviour is also artificial in this setting. The task was also artificial like Asch’s (1951) was, it is unlikely that in real life people would disagree so often in an unambiguous task.

A cognitive explanation?

Nemeth (1986) has offered a cognitive explanation of minority influence. To explain the effect of a consistent majority, she suggests that a minority within a group that consistently disagrees has the effect of changing what the majority pays attention to and encouraging new ways of thinking.

The presence of a 'dissenting' voice may encourage people to think more laterally and creatively. In the case of juries, for example, attending to the minority view can result in paying closer attention to the details of the case and finding new ways of interpreting the evidence. This is exactly what happens in the fampus film ‘Twelve Angry Men’.

Minority Influence and Social Change:

For your exam, you will need to be able to explain how minority influence research can hewlp us understand and explain social change in society.

You may be asked to explain the process using a real life example.

The notes on minority influence and social change will help you prepare for these questions.