aqa  The role of social influence processes in social change.

Social Change

Key Terms

  • Minority
  • Flexible/Consistent/Committed
  • Snowball Effect
  • Cryptoamnesia/Dissociation Model
  • Suffragettes

To what extent has research into social influence contributed to our understanding of social change?


“Social change is a general term for change in nature, social institutions, social behaviour or social relations of a society or community. It can take place quickly, for example the French Revolution, or slowly, as a gradual shift in attitudes, like the move to a total smoking ban in enclosed public places in Britain. Other examples include the development of women’s rights in Britain, which took over 100 years.

Much social change takes place beginning with the rebellious actions of a minority, who gradually increase their influence until they become the majority. An example of this is that only 20 years ago environmental campaigners were viewed as a small group of irrational extremists, yet now have huge support. There are psychological processes involved in this transformation, such as the snowball effect, where a few members of the majority move towards the minority position and the influence of the minority gathers momentum as more people gradually pay attention to the potential correctness of the minority view.  Another theory is that of the dissociation model, when minority ideas are absorbed into the majority viewpoint without those in the majority remembering where the ideas came from, so any negative associations about the source are lost and the majority does not need to identify overtly with the out-group.

Another important aspect of a minority bringing about social change is that of individual differences. In the early twentieth century a small group of women, the suffragettes, defied the majority and demanded the right of women to vote, We might suspect, on the basis of modern research, that the suffragettes had non compliant personalities and a high internal locus of control. These women would have most likely experienced reactance. They were told that they were not entitled to what they considered a basic right and so they responded much as we would if we were denied a freedom we considered important.

Studies like Milgram’s and Asch’s show that it becomes much easier to defy authority and the majority once others are already doing so. The existence of the suffragettes thus made it easier for other people to support women’s rights. Moscovici suggested that minorities are particularly effective at getting people to internalise rather than just comply with behaviours and views, provided they are consistent and committed. The suffragettes certainly showed a great deal of consistency and commitment and over the last century most people have indeed internalised the idea of sex equality.

When a minority successfully initiates social change, there comes a tipping point where the majority comes to support the change. At this point the processes of conformity come into play. Many of those who do not internalise the change nevertheless comply with it. For example, there are still people who do not agree with gender equality, but those individuals are subject to pressure to conform to it. They experience normative influence; anyone who now defies the norm of supporting sex equality is likely to be called a sexist and will suffer socially as a result. They may also experience informational influence; where the majority believe in sex equality, individuals who do not must constantly question why their views differ (this is known as cognitive dissonance).

Finally, obedience to orders becomes a factor in social change once the tipping point bas been reached and change has become sufficiently accepted to be supported by the law. Employers order employees to follow the new norm. In some cases, the police and courts also issue direct orders to comply with new behavioural norms. A recent example is the banning of smoking in public places in England in July 2007. According to the department of Health, during the first month following the ban, 97% of pubs and clubs complied and 312 had to be issued direct orders to comply.”


Extension Resources

Here are some