Informational Social Influence (Definition + Examples)

How do you know what to do or what decisions to make? This is a big question, but it’s one worth considering. We often make decisions without even thinking about the people, information, or other factors that play into those decisions. Most of the time, this is okay, but following the crowd or relying on the influence of others doesn’t always help us make the best decisions. Informational social influence, or social proof, can lead us astray.

On this page, you will learn more about informational social influence and how it contributes to our everyday decisions and behavior. 

What Is Informational Social Influence? 

Informational social influence occurs when people look to others for information on how to behave. This is also known as social proof. We also use social proof to affirm our decisions. Although we may be influenced differently by different people, informational social influence often aligns with our “gut.”

Who Discovered Informational Social Influence? 

Although studies on informational social influence go back to Sherif’s work in the 1930s, “social proof” was first introduced as a term by Robert Cialdini in 1984. His book, Influence: Science and Practice, is a significant book in modern psychology.

Cialdini is most known for his work on persuasion. Social proof, or consensus, is considered one of his six principles of persuasion and influence. 

How Does Informational Social Influence Work?

There are three factors that play into the effectiveness of informational social influence: confusion, chaos, and self-categorization. 

Confusion

Some situations are more confusing than others. Let’s say you’re looking to go out to eat in your hometown. You probably know what restaurants are in the area. If you are deciding between chain restaurants, you may even know what foods are on the menu and the quality of your meal. You don’t need to go online and look up reviews of the local Applebee’s or IHOP. But what if you’re in a foreign country? Every restaurant is completely new to you. The cuisine is unfamiliar. How do you know a good restaurant from a not-so-good restaurant?

This is where information social influence comes in. Maybe you look up reviews or you just walk down the street and see what is busy. 

Chaos

In a moment of chaos, you need to make a split decision. There is no time to look up reviews or do proper research. This is when informational social influence comes into play. Let’s say you’re at a concert when you hear a large explosion. You see people running away from the stage, so you follow. Maybe this doesn’t feel like a conscious decision, but it’s one made using social proof.

Importance of Self-Categorization

In a moment of chaos like the one just mentioned, who do you look to? If the only people you can see are concertgoers, you may rely on their judgment. But what if you see a firefighter telling you to go in a certain direction? People are likely to turn to “experts” or those who have more authority than them. When you make a decision about buying a house, you are likely to take the advice of a realtor who knows the area. At a concert, you follow the instructions of the staff or even the person performing. On the other hand, you may not take the advice or be influenced by someone who you believe has less authority than you. 

How we categorize ourselves and others is a central idea within many social psychology theories. 

More Examples of Informational Social Influence 

  • You’re in a new city and not sure where to go to dinner. When you look for dinner places on your phone, you find an option that is rated 4.5 stars by 1,000 people and an option that is rated 2.5 stars by 1,000 people. This information tells you that the first option is probably pretty good.
  • It’s your first time at a farmer’s market and you’re not sure whether you can bring your dog. As you look around, you see a few people walking their dogs. You decide that it’s probably okay to bring your dog, too. 
  • At school, the power goes out. Immediately, the professor tells you to wait out the situation because this happens often. You listen and stay calm. 

Informational vs. Normative Social Influence 

What happens if the information you are given doesn’t align with your judgment? Maybe one restaurant looks very delicious, but everyone around you is raving about a different restaurant. You think “C” is the right answer to the test, but everyone else is saying “B” is right. Do you change your mind? 

This is what Solomon Asch wanted to find out when he put together one of the most influential experiments in psychology: the Asch Line Study. The study asked participants to conduct a simple exercise. They were shown one line, and a set of three lines of different lengths. Researchers then asked a series of people, including the participant, to identify which two lines were the same length. One answer was obvious, but the other people in the room, all actors, chose the wrong answer. 

What did the participants do? Did they answer what they thought was right, despite everyone else saying something different? About two out of three participants did. But over a third of participants chose the wrong answer to fit in with the crowd. 

Sometimes, we make decisions just to fit in or be accepted by other people. This is called normative social influence. It’s slightly different from informational social influence. Normative social influence doesn’t rely on what is logical or right – just what everyone else thinks. 

Can’t We Combine These? (Referent Social Influence)

What about the decisions we make when we combine the influence of others with the desire to be correct and logical? Psychologists have identified this type of influence and called it referent social influence, or referent informational influence.

No one form of social influence is “better” than the other. We may make decisions due to any of these influences depending on the stakes at hand, the people we are around, or the information accessible to us. Think about some recent decisions that you made. Did you make them so that you could fit in with the crowd or because that’s simply what the crowd was doing at the time? Did a combination of both influence you? When we step back and think about how we make decisions, we might surprise ourselves!

How to Use Informational Social Influence On Others

Knowing what you know about being influenced, you can also adjust your speeches, language, and messages to influence others. It’s not recommended that you create chaos or put people in an emergency so they listen to you, but these quick tips could help you get your intended message across to others and influence their decisions. 

Establish yourself as an authority figure. People are more likely to listen to you if they believe you have some sort of expertise in your field or if you’re an authority figure. You don’t need to get a degree to give off this impression. Be confident when speaking. Dress sharply and professionally. Share the experiences that make you an expert, or at least knowledgeable in the subject that you’re sharing. 

Create confusion. It could be fun to create confusion or ambiguity while giving a presentation. This can grab a listener’s attention and intrigue them. Just be aware of whether the confusion you’re creating will actually misinform listeners. You only want to briefly use confusion as a hook.
Back up your message with more social proof. Are there reviews or testimonials that back up what you have to say? Share them! Maybe you want to tell people you’re a great plumber. Reading or sharing reviews from community members who enjoyed your services will further convince people that you are who you say you are. Let the social proof of others do all the work!

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.