Monday, July 14, 2008

The choices you make - indirect social influence.

I thought I was pass on this brief perspectives essay from Science by Jerker Denrell:
To what extent are the opinions you hold simply a reflection of the opinions of those you associate with? Most people like to think that their opinions are based on their own deliberations. Of course, there are exceptions. You may take into account the opinions of others if you believe they are better informed. You may even conform to the majority opinion in order to avoid being seen as deviant (1, 2). Studies of how norms and beliefs vary between groups, and how they are transmitted from peers or parents, testify to the importance of such social influence (3).

Explanations of social influence usually focus on why people are persuaded by or conform to the opinions of others (4). Although important, this research has neglected the role of information collection in belief formation and how biased beliefs, as well as social influence, can emerge from biased search processes (5).

For example, suppose you are deciding which of two cars to buy. If your neighbor buys one of the cars, you can observe it more closely and will thus learn more about its attributes. This opportunity to observe the car can bias your decision toward buying the same car, even if you do not care about whether you have the same car as your neighbor. This is especially true if acquiring information about cars other than your neighbor's is costly (6). If the information you learn about your neighbor's car is strongly positive, it makes sense to buy this car and discontinue the search. In this case you will not find out whether the other car is superior. If the information you learn is not very positive, however, it then makes sense to examine the other car. Only in this case will you find out how the two cars compare. Because the comparison process is asymmetric, you are overall more likely to buy the same car as your neighbor even if the information you learn is equally likely to be positive or negative.

The attitudes and behavior of others can also influence our learning processes by leading us to revisit objects and events that we had previously avoided because of poor past experiences (7). Suppose Bob likes a restaurant while Alice does not. By herself Alice might not visit the restaurant again, and her attitude would remain negative. But Alice might join Bob if he wants to go to the restaurant. By visiting the restaurant again, Alice gets a chance to change her opinion. Alice's attitude will depend on Bob's, but only because he influenced the probability of her revisiting the restaurant.

Finally, the number of your friends who engage in some activity can also influence your estimate of the value of this activity. If you have many friends who start firms, for example, your estimate of the chances of success will be based on a large sample size. A large sample size may lead you to have a higher estimate of the success rate than you would if the sample size were small. Experiments show that a large sample size leads to a more optimistic view when the outcome distribution is skewed (8). If only 10% succeed, you may only observe failures in a small sample, and will then underestimate the success rate.

These mechanisms produce behavior that looks like conformity: You are more likely to evaluate an activity positively if others do so. But in these examples your attitude is not directly influenced by hearing about the attitudes of others. Your attitude is only indirectly influenced by others because their behavior exposes you to additional samples of the activity.

Such indirect mechanisms of social influence are important, because even individuals who try to be impartial and make the best decision given the available information may fail to recognize that the available information is influenced by others (9). For example, a manager who tries to avoid discrimination may nevertheless come to believe that individuals who belong to the same social networks as the manager does are superior to those the manager seldom interacts with and has less information about. To learn more about these mechanisms, we need to broaden studies of social influence and belief formation to include the phases of learning and information collection that precede decision-making and judgment (10).

References and Notes

1. S. E. Asch, Sci. Am. 193, 31 (November, 1955).
2. M. Deutsch, H. Gerard, J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 51, 629 (1955).
3. P. J. Richerson, R. Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005).
4. R. B. Cialdini, N. J. Goldstein, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 55, 591 (2004).
5. Y. Trope, A. Liberman, in Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles, E. T. Higgins, A. W. Kruglanski, Eds. (Guilford, New York, 1996), pp. 239-270.
6. N. V. Moshkin, R. Shachar, Market. Sci. 21, 435 (2002).
7. J. Denrell, G. Le Mens, Psychol. Rev. 114, 398 (2007).
8. R. Hertwig et al., Psychol. Sci. 15, 534 (2004).
9. J. Denrell, Psychol. Rev. 112, 951 (2005).
10. For recent research on the effect of sampling on judgment, see K. Fiedler, P. Juslin, Eds., Information Sampling and Adaptive Cognition (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2006).

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