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Social Psychology – Minority Influence

Answers the Question

Can a numerical minority influence the attitudes of the majority?

How it Began

In many of the conformity studies described so far it was a minority group who were conforming to the majority. Moscovici (1976, 1980) argued along different lines. He claimed that Asch (1951) and others had put too much emphasis on the notion that the majority in a group has a large influence on the minority. In his opinion, it is also possible for a minority to influence the majority. In fact Asch agreed with Moscovici. He too felt that minority influence did occur, and that it was potentially a more valuable issue to study – to focus on why some people might follow minority opinion and resist group pressure.

Moscovici argues that majority influence tends to be based on public compliance. It is likely to be a case of normative social influence. In this respect, power of numbers is important – the majority have the power to reward and punish with approval and disapproval. And because of this there is pressure on minorities to conform.

Minority Influence

Since majorities are often unconcerned about what minorities think about them, minority influence is rarely based on normative social influence. Instead, it is usually based on informational social influence – providing the majority with new ideas, new information which leads them to re-examine their views. In this respect, minority influence involves private acceptance (i.e. internalization)- converting the majority by convincing them that the minority’s views are right.

Key Terminology

Minority influence – a form of social influence that is attributed to exposure to a consistent minority position in a group.

Behavioural Style – a correlated set of individual behavioural and physiological characteristics that is consistent over time and across situations.

Style of Thinking – the way individuals think, perceive and remember information

Flexibility – contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behaviour in the service of chosen values

Identification – a psychological process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property, or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides

In Brief

Minority influence is generally felt only after a period of time, and tends to produce private acceptance of the views expressed by the minority.

An important real-life example of a minority influencing a majority was the suffragette movement in the early years of the 20th century. A relatively small group of suffragettes argued strongly for the initially unpopular view that women should be allowed to vote. The hard work of the suffragettes, combined with the justice of their case, finally led the majority to accept their point of view.

Moscovic made a distinction between compliance and conversion. Compliance is common in conformity studies (e.g. Asch) whereby the participants publicly conform to the group norms but privately reject them. Conversion involves how a minority can influence the majority. It involves convincing the majority that the minority views are correct. This can be achieved a number of different ways (e.g. consistency, flexibility). Conversion is different to compliance as it usually involves both public and private acceptance of a new view or behavior (i.e. internalization).

Four main factors have been identified as important for a minority to have an influence over a majority.  These are behavioural style, style of thinking, flexibility, and identification.

Behavioural Style

This comprises 4 components:

  1. Consistency: The minority must be consistent in their opinion
  2. Confidence in the correctness of ideas and views they are presenting
  3. Appearing to be unbiased
  4. Resisting social pressure and abuse

Moscovici (1969) stated that the most important aspect of behaviuoral style is the consistency with which people hold their position. Being consistent and unchanging in a view is more likely to influence the majority than if a minority is inconsistent and chops and changes their mind.

Moscovici (1969) investigated behavioural styles (consistent / inconsistent) on minority influence in his blue-green studies. He showed that a consistent minority was more successful than an inconsistent minority in changing the views of the majority.

Consistency may be important because:

  • Confronted with a consistent opposition, members of the majority will sit up, take notice, and rethink their position.
  • Consistency gives the impression that the minority are convinced they are right and are committed to their viewpoint.
  • Also, when the majority is confronted with someone with self-confidence and dedication to take a popular stand and refuses to back own, they may assume that he or she has a point.
  • A consistent minority disrupts established norms and creates uncertainty, doubt and conflict. This can lead to the majority taking the minority view seriously. The majority will therefore be more likely to question their own views.

In order to change the majorities view the minority has to propose a clear position and has to defend and advocate its position consistently.

Style of Thinking

  • Identify three or four minority groups (e.g. asylum seekers, British National Party etc.)
  • How do you think and respond to each of these minority groups and the views they put forward?
  • Do you dismiss their views outright or think about what they have to say and discuss their views with other people?

If you dismiss the views of other people without giving them much thought, you would have engaged in superficial thought / processing.  By contrast, if you had thought deeply about the views being put forward, you would have engaged in systematic thinking / processing (Petty et al., 1994).  Research has shown that if a minority can get the majority to think about an issue and think about arguments for and against, then the minority stands a good chance of influencing the majority (Smith et al., 1996).

If the minority can get the majority to discuss and debate the arguments that the minority are putting forward, influence is likely to be stronger (Nemeth, 1995).

Flexibility and Compromise

A number of researchers have questioned whether consistency alone is sufficient for a minority to influence a majority. They argue that the key is how the majority interprets consistency. If the consistent minority are seen as inflexible, rigid, uncompromising and dogmatic, they will be unlikely to change the views of the majority. However, if they appear flexible and compromising, they are likely to be seen as less extreme, as more moderate, cooperative and reasonable. As a result, they will have a better chance of changing majority views (Mugny & Papastamou, 1980).

Some researchers have gone further and suggested that it is not just the appearance of flexibility and compromise which is important but actual flexibility and compromise.

This possibility was investigated by Nemeth (1986). The experiment was based on a mock jury in which groups of three participants and one confederate had to decide on the amount of compensation to be given to the victim of a ski-lift accident. When the consistent minority (the confederate) argued for a very low amount and refused to change his position, he had no effect on the majority. However, when he compromised and moved some way towards the majority position, the majority also compromised and changed their view.

This experiment questions the importance of consistency. The minority position changed, it was not consistent, and it was this change that apparently resulted in minority influence.

Identification

People tend to identity with people they see similar to themselves. For example, men tend to identify with men, Asians with Asians, teenagers with teenagers etc. Research indicates that if the majority identifies with the minority, then they are more likely to take the views of the minority seriously and change their own views in line with those of the minority.

For example, one study showed that a gay minority arguing for gay rights had less influence on a straight majority than a straight minority arguing for gay rights (Maass et al., 1982). The non-gay majority identified with the non-gay minority. They tended to see the gay minority as different from themselves, as self-interested and concerned with promoting their own particular cause.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

Social influence is key to managerial effectIveness and an integral part of working in teams and organizations. Members of organizations rely on one another to validate their views of the world, they seek and maintain norms and values about what they deem appropriate or not, and they influence one another to serve theIr personal or group interests.

As an OD practitioner very often you begin in a position of minority dissent which means you will be publicly advocating and,pursing beliefs, attitudes, Ideas, procedures, and policies that go against organizational norms or the “spirit of the times” and challenge the position or perspective assumed by the majority.

Levine and Kaarbo argued that in political decision-making groups four types of minorities may be distinguished.

  1. Progressive minorities advance a new perspective and seek to convince the majority of its value.
  2. Conservative minorities attempt to block the majorities’ tendency to adopt a new, progressive perspective.
  3. Modernist minorities try to block the majorities’ tendency to return to previously held attitudes and policies,
  4. Reactionary minorities try to persuade the majority to return to previously help opinions and perspectives.

Each of these four minority groups can be found in organizational life, and can either help, or hinder an OD intervention, and as an OD practitioner a lot of of your time will be spent as a Progressive or Modernist Minority, whilst trying to overcome the objections of the Conservative and Reactionary minorities who will try and sabotage your efforts.

If the norms of groups with which you are working are no longer effective, start a minority group. If possible, ensure the progressive or modernist minority group controls a critical resource or other form of effective influence which can be used to prevent rejection or punishment.  Minority influence is more likely to occur if the point of view of the minority is consistent, flexible, and appealing to the majority. Having a consistent and unwavering opinion will increase the appeal to the majority, leading to a higher chance of adaption to the minority view. However, any wavering opinions from the minority group could lead the majority to dismiss the minority’s claims and opinions.  An effective approach is to accumulate ‘brownie points’ by first supporting the majority, and then branching out. With applied skill, you can take a number of others with you.

A study by Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret Neale (2005) shows that having the support from the majority leader could be the critical factor is getting the minority opinion to be heard and be accepted. The support of the leader gives the majority more confidence in the merit of the minority opinion, leading to an overall respect for the minority. The strength of the “key people” (Van Avermaet, 1996) comes from the reputation built from their consistency of behaviours and ideas. Involving key people will benefit the minority view because people are more open to hear from others who they trust and respect. In minority influence, a few influential leaders can influence the opposing majority to the minority’s way of thinking. In the end, having a more supportive and active minority group could lead to innovative and better decision making

You can also remain in the main group and quietly support minority groups who can be used to do things you could not otherwise perform. Where you are in the main group and have an influential minority, seek ways of either accommodating or circumventing conservative and reactionary minorities. You can also seek to divide and conquer, sowing seeds of discontent within the minority group.

Source – http://www.simplypsychology.org/minority-influence.html


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