Social influence is a strong natural force. As social beings we seek to fit in and belong amongst our peers in day-to-day life. This instinctual desire can often lead to different forms of social influence, including conformity, whereby we find ourselves matching the behaviours of group norms. How can we seek to avoid the powerful social influence within online research communities?
Why are we socially influenced?
Many research studies have shown that we conform when in a group/social setting. Asch (1956) concluded that people conform for two main reasons: firstly, because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence), and secondly, because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence). There are of course factors which influence conformity, including how many people are involved, how difficult something is and the views of the group (if there is someone who strongly disagrees, it’s likely to decrease conformity).
As social beings we seek to fit in and belong amongst our peers. This instinctual desire can often lead to forms of social influence, including conformity. So how do we avoid this to gain valuable data?
Factors which can influence conformity
It’s true: the bigger the group size, the more people conform (Asch, 1956). However, this only applies up to a certain point, as it’s thought that 3–5 additional people will have little effect according to Hogg & Vaughan (1995). Even still, conformity can be as high as 32% when there is a group majority of 3.
Online communities often have thousands of members, within which are usually divided into smaller groups within forum discussions, focus groups, etc.
Conformity amongst community members can be influenced by the group size they find themselves in. For example, a member may feel more comfortable expressing their own unbiased opinions in a forum discussion involving 50+ members, rather than a smaller focus group of 5 members. It’s important to consider group size within your community activities as a key factor in conformity.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know
It may seem obvious, but the extent to which you know someone and your feelings towards them can influence how likely you are to conform to their opinion.
How is this relevant to online communities? Well, online communities bring strangers together from across all walks of life and cultures, dispersed from around the world — the vast majority of the time, members don’t know each other when they first join an online community, a perfect opportunity to eliminate the bias of preformed conceptions, judgements, friendships and relationships whether positive or negative (unless in coincidence, or if they have been able to invite their friend to join and take part). It’s exciting that friendships form over time in online communities, but still I don’t think this is a huge contributing factor to conformity within them. This is a good thing rather than bad!
The opinion behind the screen
When confronted face-to-face, people are more likely to conform to social influence. We have a natural in-built instinct to empathise and feel more pressured to conform if something if it is presented right in front of us, rather than from behind the comfort of a screen. Burger et al. (2001) found that simply being exposed to a person even for a brief period without any interaction substantially increased compliance with that person’s request. So, online communities are the way forward!
Being in the comfort of your own home puts you at ease straight away. Being confronted face to face with strangers can be daunting for many people. This fear factor could increase conformity, a desire to feel included with the opinion of the group of strangers and feel more ‘liked’ which makes online communities great for encouraging the voice behind the keyboard.
Here are just some examples of conformity that I have come across in my own experience of online communities:
- A member clicks onto an online discussion, to find that other members have already given their opinions and answers. Whether conscious or not, these opinions being visible can influence the opinion/answer that the end up posting as an end result. But is it always a bad thing that their ideas have been provoked? It may actually help them to provide more ideas and detail!
- During some online activities, like live focus groups, the pressure of having to respond instantly can lead some members to copy other opinions instead of forming their own. I.e., they may simply comment ‘I agree with ____’ and whilst sometimes ‘I agree’ may be valid and plausible, it’s always important to capture opinions first hand and written out in full, to capture all the detail and tone behind it.
How to avoid social influence and conformity in online communities
Settings in the right setting
Online tools are often designed to offer different levels of visibility between members answers, giving you the ability to control who sees what. You have the power!
For instance, you can opt for members’ answers to be visible to the whole group from the beginning, which would be useful in most situations where you wish for openness and members being able to read through the discussion first, to observe and then compose their own answer. If this makes you think ‘copying’ and ‘bias’ you can opt for members’ answers to only be visible to other members once they have commented themselves. This format is commonly used and offers honest, unbiased opinions whilst still promoting interaction between members.
Moderation in moderation
Moderation is often the key to keeping a community lively, by showing your interest in members’ opinions to find out more and prompt for detail. A person’s initial thought and gut instinct is usually the one which is less prone to social influence. It’s important to recognise that as a moderator, you may be encouraging conformity without even realising it! It’s a well-known fact that we are more likely to conform to authority figures (Researched by the likes of Milgram in the 1960’s/1970’s, more recently Eichmann in the 1990’s) and in an online community, the moderators are those authority figures. Remember to Moderate carefully and don’t restrict or direct the opinions of members.
One to one
Going back to the settings, you can even opt to turn a discussion into private one to one discussion with the click on a button. In some situations, this may be better than a group format.
Sometimes prompting individuals privately so they don’t have the conscious desire to conform if other members see their responses is a great thing to do. It means that they can take part in the main discussion whilst having a one on one discussion with the moderator at the same time. This is supported by research by Burger et al. (2001) when participants were allowed to answer in private (so the rest of the group does not know their response) conformity decreases. This is because there are fewer group pressures and normative influence is not as powerful, as there is no fear of rejection from the group.)
For some research needs, surveys and polls may be better suited if you really do not want the element of conformity to hinder your results. Members answer on their own accord without the element of social influence (or to a lesser degree at least) without being able to change/edit their answers based on other people’s as well.
Having said this, group discussions promote free, spontaneous interactions and encourage members to come together. Consider the aims/brief and evaluate this carefully.
In summary, online communities are a great way to capture the detailed opinions of consumers when in an individual and group setting. Online communities promote a sense of belonging, and with this desire to feel a part of a community comes social influence and conformity as a side effect — whether or not you choose to see this as a positive or negative influence.
Where I think we cannot completely eradicate social influence in online communities, because we are sensitised with likes of other social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — the recommendation’s I have given in this blog will for sure help to minimise it cropping up with good practice and effective moderation.
The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.