Minority Influence (in Psychology)

If you're looking for information on minority influence and how it works, you need to know what happened on August 18, 1920.

This was the day that the 19th amendment was ratified and women were given the right to vote. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down the ban on same-sex marriages. These are some of the most notable moments in American history. These moments opened up the American Dream to more people.  

Of course, these changes did not happen overnight. Years of discrimination preceded these changes. Many people were jailed or even killed for exercising their right to protest these issues and bring equality to all people. At some points in American history, a world with same-sex marriage or women’s suffrage seemed impossible. 

How did this happen? How did a minority opinion, like the one that people of all races deserve equal rights, win out over the majority? These are the questions that Romanian-French psychologist Serge Moscovici asked himself in the 1960s and the 1970s. His theory of Minority Influence showed the world how a small group of people could change the minds of the masses. This video is all about minority influence and how it compares to previous theories on majority influence. 

Compliance

Before I talk about minority influence, I think it’s important to talk about the theories that preceded Moscovici’s work. Soloman Asch was a Polish-American psychologist who conducted studies on conformity. He showed how people were more likely to comply with the majority’s opinion in order to “fit in.” Even if reality contradicted the majority opinion, people conformed. It was more important to go with the group and not rock the boat. 

This idea goes back to evolutionary psychology. When people lived in smaller villages or tribes, they would have to rely on the group for food, shelter, and protection. People were safe so long as they belonged to a group that would keep them safe. Any erratic behavior or going against the grain threatened the person’s safety. We still feel the discomfort of being excluded from a group and the dangers of being isolated. 

The process of going along with the majority opinion is known as compliance. The influence that the majority puts on others is known as normative influence. 

Conversion

This video obviously doesn’t end with Asch’s theories on compliance. We all know that while normative influence is powerful, it is not the only social influence out there. If we were only swayed by the majority, we would have never been able to pass laws allowing same-sex marriage or give racial minorities the right to vote. Minority groups like Nazis would have also never come to power. 

So Moscovici began to conduct experiments of his own. He challenged Asch’s theories on conformity. Asch agreed that minority influence needed to be explored. 

What Moscovici found is that while compliance sways people to believe in the majority opinion, another process can also occur. This process is called conversion. A minority can get people to convert to their views. But this process doesn’t happen overnight. Often, people silently convert to the minority opinion for a period of time before being vocal and proud of their views. 

A minority movement must have a specific set of characteristics in order to be successful. Without these characteristics, the movement is likely to fail and normative influence is likely to reign over the minority influence. 

Characteristics of Minority Influence 

In order for a minority group to influence the majority, Moscovici found that they must have the following qualities or characteristics:

  • Consistent behavioral style
  • Opportunities for systematic thinking
  • Flexibility
  • Identification 

Let’s break them down.

Behavioral Style: Consistency and Confidence

When a minority opinion enters a discussion, it can be a bit confusing at first. What is the minority’s message? What are their goals? Why are they fighting for change? 

When the answers to these questions are consistent, conversion is more likely to take place. In fact, Moscovici believed that consistently was the most important characteristic of a minority movement. Without consistency, it’s easy to write off the movement as disorganized. It’s easy to poke holes in the minority’s arguments. Our brains don’t like confusion, and we are not likely to be converted by something that confuses us. 

Consistency is the most important part of a movement’s behavioral style. In order for minority influence to take place, the movement should also be confident, appear to be unbiased, and resist the current movement and its pressure on society. 

Systematic Thinking and Processing 

It’s easy to go along with the majority opinion. If everyone around you believes that something is true, you’re not likely to question it. You may not dig deep into the ins and outs of the opinion because no one is questioning you about your views. 

This is called “superficial thinking.” 

One of the reasons that minority influence takes hold is because it goes beyond superficial thinking. When a minority opinion is introduced, people are more likely to mull it over. They may debate the merits of the opinion and how it stacks up to the majority opinion. With a consistent message, it’s easier for people to engage in systematic thinking. 

This type of understanding can help people become more confident in their views. People are more likely to engage in discussions and debate if they have gone through the process of systematic thinking.

Flexibility 

Consistency is not the same as rigidity. In order to influence people, the minority opinion may need to be flexible in what they accept and what others will accept. After all, change happens with small steps. At the time that gay marriage was legalized throughout the United States, over a dozen states had already legalized it. People were still “coming around” to the idea of same-sex marriage, but all of those smaller conversions were still considered a win. Radical change does not happen overnight. If minority movements are willing to be flexible and accept small wins, they are more likely to see their big win in the future. 

Identification 

As we see more people that we identify with siding with the minority, we begin to open up our minds to that opinion. If a random person on the street, who didn’t look like you or didn’t appear to be from your city, came up to you with the idea that chewing gum should be illegal, you would probably write them off as a strange person. If your parents said the same thing, you might at least hear them out. 

Let’s go back to that idea of evolutionary psychology. Humans have always had an “Us Vs. Them” mindset. They support and protect the members of their own group (Us) while pushing away from people in the other group (Them.) Even if we don’t know someone “in our own group,” we are still likely to support or protect them because they are part of the Us group. 

We identify with others in many ways. We identify with people of the same sex, gender, social class, or hometown. When those people come to us with an opinion or an idea, we are more likely to hear them out. 

Let’s Wrap This Up.

These four characteristics make it easier for a minority movement to influence others. If you have a wild idea, or find yourself wanting to go against the grain, it might be helpful to see how these characteristics can help you change the world.

How to reference this article:

Theodore. (2020, March). Minority Influence (in Psychology). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/minority-influence-psychology/.

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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