Ideas with Impact
UNB Faculty of Management

Why we do what we do: new study sheds light on our susceptibility to social influence

Author: Jenna Evans

Posted on Feb 27, 2019

Category: Faculty

Social influence is a growing field of interest among scholars. A recent study by Dr. Patrick Bruning and his colleagues, Dr. Brad Alge and Dr. Hsin-Chen Lin, provides insight to how our decisions and actions may be influenced by our social networks. Bruning is a professor of organization studies with the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of New Brunswick Fredericton and Lin is a professor of marketing, also with the Faculty. Their study was recently published in an article, ‘The embedding forces of network commitment: An examination of the psychological processes linking advice centrality and susceptibility to social influence,’ in the journal Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes.

Bruning and Lin’s research considers how people become committed, or psychologically bonded, to their personal network of contacts both as a group of contacts and on a contact-by-contact basis. Their findings suggest that people can be more or less committed to their networks (and specific network connections) according to 1) the degree to which the connections help define a person’s status – affective commitment; 2) the degree to which the connections involve an exchange of favors and information that make the person feel obligated to return the favors to the network and individuals within it – normative commitment; and 3) the degree to which the connections represent non-substitutable sources of information and value that a person cannot get elsewhere – instrumental commitment.

The researchers had two interesting discoveries. First, individuals with a higher status and importance are more vulnerable to social influence. “Simply put, they become vulnerable as they embrace and enjoy their status and importance,” said Bruning. Second, “People can also become susceptible to social influence from the individuals in their network because they feel that they either owe or depend on these contacts.”

Bruning says his interest in this field of research began by accident when he was a student at Purdue University working with Dr. Brad Alge, performing team decision making experiments. “I started thinking about how groupthink, or the degree to which group members tend to think in a way that is less individual- and more group-focused, leads to groups making better or worse decisions” he said.

The earlier research conducted at Purdue University shifted from organizational commitment to network commitment. Instead of only focusing on the commitment to an organization, the study was able to better explain the commitment individuals hold towards the people in the organization as a whole.

“In this regard, the current study carried the spirit of the original study, but we now considered network commitment within individual people instead of groupthink processes within groups. Based on this interest, our research team began studying network commitment and social influence in different forms in a series of studies specifically designed for this purpose,” Bruning explains.

The research could have meaningful implications for general society, as well as specific social domains such as education and business. “At a societal level this research helps to provide a logic and explanation of how and why people can be more or less prone to being influenced by their personal networks of contacts,” says Bruning. “Within education, these principals can apply to how students might navigate the webs of social influences that they come in contact with via their social networks. In business the concept could become more of a double-edged sword in the sense that network commitment can both represent an individual vulnerability for people within the business, while at the same time it can become a psychological tool for businesses that could be used both within and outside the firm.”

Bruning and Lin’s research provides valuable insight to help us understand and explain the risk of being vulnerable to social influence in a personal network. It also provides a solid, in-depth foundation for other research and studies.

For more information, contact Liz Lemon-Mitchell.

Learn more about our business programs.