Social Influence

I’ve been reading Paluck & Shepherd’s 2012 paper about social influence and salient referents, i.e. salient people within a social network. In it, they describe a very interesting study they conducted in a high school. They were able to document the social network of the whole school, which in and of itself is pretty awesome.

Based on the network, they picked out what they called “salient referents.” For them, “salient referents” were individuals who were highly connected in the network in important ways. In the case of the high school, the “salient referents” were two types of students: widely connected students (basically the type of student who knows and is known by many other students in the school) and clique leaders (students who are the leaders of densely connected subgroups within the student body). From the group of students that met these criteria, they randomly selected half to be “treatment” and half to be “control.” Then they asked the “treatment” students to participate in a sort of intervention (a few declined to participate but most agreed).

It turns out the school had been having a lot of trouble with bullying, so Paluck and Shepherd asked the chosen students to model anti-bullying behavior and participate in an anti-bullying assembly. At the assembly they publicly spoke about their experiences with bullying, either as someone who was bullied, someone who did the bullying, or as a silent bystander. They also wrote and acted out a skit about the consequences of bullying.

Paluck and Shepherd had surveyed all the students at the very beginning of the study period about their attitudes towards bullying, their perceptions about bullying, and their experiences with it. They also surveyed the teachers about disciplinary action and which students they thought created problems in the school. Then, they surveyed everyone again after the intervention and at the end of the school year.

They found that the “treatment” students seem to have changed the other students perceptions of the descriptive norms at the school. After the “intervention”, students who were connected in some way to the treatment students were more likely to report that bullying was bad, that they didn’t participate, and that they intervened on behalf of others.

Let’s put this in more concrete terms. This would be like asking the blonde clique leader in Mean Girls, the head of the football team, and the popular student body president to model anti-bullying behavior. The idea is that if these well connected and popular people, who presumably have lots of connections to other students and are what we might call “influencers” (i.e. people that others look up to and want to be like, or in the case of social media marketing, the people whose stuff you want to buy), then their actions will signal to the rest of the student body that the “what we do here” norm at the school is NOT bullying. Of course, its a whole different story if the clique leader and the captain of the football team are the main bullies to begin with …

This got me thinking about how “salient referents” could be leveraged in other kinds of organizations to change descriptive norms (or perceptions of descriptive norms) in order to positively affect organizational culture. For example, lets say a company has a “climate problem”, which is in effect a kind of grown-up bullying problem. Could that company identify “salient referents” within the organization and enlist them to model behavior that demonstrates descriptive norms around being equitable and inclusive to fix the “climate problem”? Of course there is the issue of identifying the “salient referents” and deciding the most effective way for them to exert social influence through modeling good behavior. But, it definitely seems like something worth exploring.