Monday, March 24, 2008

Social impact theory

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.


dax said...

it may also be due to Liu Bang personality that make him for vulnerable to social pressure. In contrast to Liu Bang, Xiang Yu is seldom persuaded.

xuan said...

Liu Bang's wife played a very important role in his conformity as she was one of the main person in planning the murder of Xiang Yu. Moreover, Lu Zhi had always been much authoritative than Liu Bang. Thus, might lead to Liu Bang's conformity to her request.

Vincent said...

Personality is one of the main reasons as to why people do or do not conform. Numbers may play a part but personality is i think the most important factor as to whether one conforms or not. If Liu Bang has been more assertive and stronger, HE would not have conform.


Yes, personality plays a part of things; moreover,Liu Bang was excel at making stratages and building wilde social networks. He has a complex background, he was born in a poor family, made friends with loafers, talked big but didn't actually do anything, things didn't change until he married a local rich officer's daughter (reasons why he could marry the lady was another long story). One word, he was a "bad youth" Before he got marriage. His wife and wife's family changed him in everything.

Xiang Yu's background was very contrasting. Xiang yu was born in a rich family, got standard education, brave and honesty.

(seems a long story coming...., but ends here, talk about conformity)

Liu Bang's conformity was not only because of others' suggestions, but also he desired to control the centre city Xian Yang, then to be the King. Another reason, he was not a fully trustful man in some places. So in all and all situations, Liu Bang broke the agreement, to be the first "header" controlled Xian Yang city.

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James Brown said...

Thanks for sharing this amazing blog and the details about Impact Theory really awesome.
Good work.

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