Social impact theory
Social impact theory is a model that conceives of influence from other people as being the result of social forces (pressures from other people) acting on individuals, much as physical forces can affect an object. It predicts that conformity will increase with increasing strength, immediacy and the number of influence in a group.
Strength refers to the intensity of each social force, and is reflected by one’s social status, power and credibility. Therefore, the greater the power difference between the sources and the target, the more influence they have on the target, which eventually leads to a greater likelihood to conform. Immediacy refers to the physical or psychological closeness of each social force to the target. The theory suggested that if the target perceives the physical and psychological distance of the sources of influence to be close to him or her, the greater the probability that he or she will conform to the social influences. Number refers to the quantity of social forces present, thus more sources trying to influence a target (e.g. ten friends) will produce a better result, compared to fewer sources of influences (e.g. one friend).
To further illustrate the theory, I have chosen the example of one of the most important decision made by the founder of the Han dynasty, Emperor Han Gao Zu or Liu Bang, to eliminate and dethrone his fiercest and most powerful rival, Xiang Yu, who gave himself the title: Hegemon-King of Western Chu. This was actually one of the TV series I watched last term, therefore the event might be fictional, but nevertheless, it serves as a wonderful depiction of the social impact theory. Therefore, I will try my best to retrospectively describe the event to the best of my knowledge, so as to give you all a clear picture of what is going on.
During that time, Xiang Yu was holding most of the political and military power, while Liu Bang, both his friend and rival, was the ruler of a few states in imperial China. After several years of war, they finally agreed to divide China equally among themselves, thus proclaiming the reunion of friendship and the end of the war. Both Xiang Yu and Liu Bang were satisfied with the land they occupied.
Although Xiang Yu was a superior commander of the military, his impetuous nature and poor diplomacy eventually brought about his downfall, as most people actually favors the more benevolent Liu Bang to be their King. Seeing this as an opportunity to seize the power to reunify China, his wife Lu Zhi and advisor Han Xing, persuaded Liu Bang to launch a surprise attack on Xiang Yu’s army.
Despite their persuasion, Liu Bang refused to plot against Xiang Yu out of friendship. However, in order to get him to agree with their plans to dethrone Xiang Yu, his family including his wife, children and parents, his friends and other generals kneeled outside his living quarter to persuade him to make a wise decision in attacking Xiang Yu. After about one day, Liu Bang finally conformed to the social pressure asserted by his family and friends, and commanded Han Xing to lead his forces to attack Xiang Yu.
Using the social impact theory to explain Liu Bang’s actions, we can see the large amount of social pressure he is experiencing while making his decision. His wife, Lu Zhi and his children, as well as his aging parents are examples of social forces that have close psychological proximity with him, thus increasing the immediacy of social influence on him. Moreover, since China was traditionally influenced by Confucian philosophy, which emphasized respect and filial piety to parents, Liu Bang’s parents enhances the strength of the social forces as they are embodiments of social status and power that exerts immeasurable social influence on him. Apart from these, the fact that all of them are kneeling outside his room reflected the close physical proximity, which would also partly account for his change in decision. Finally, the presence of numerous figures outside Liu Bang’s living quarter largely increases the number of sources of influences that results in his conformity towards their plans. This is a particularly interesting example of the social impact theory, which shows that even power holders are susceptible to social influences and conformity.