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Minority influence is a form of social influence, which takes place when a majority is being influenced to accept the beliefs or behaviour of a minority. Unlike other forms of influence this usually involves a personal shift in private opinion. This personal shift in opinion is called conversion.
This type of influence is most likely to take place if the minority is consistent, flexible, and appealing to the majority. Minority influence is a central component of identity politics.
Studies on minority influence
Nearly all-early research on minority influence concentrated on the way in which the majority influenced the minority. This was due to the assumption of many psychologists that it would be very hard for the minority to have any influence on the majority. Moscovici was different, as he believed that it was possible for a minority influence to overcome majority influence. Therefore he conducted his own study on minority influence in 1969. The study was important because it was one of the first studies to show that a minority is able to change the opinions of the majority. It also showed the great importance of consistency within the minority – if influence on the majority is to be achieved. The research of Moscovici and his colleges opened the door to more research on the subject.
Factors that affect minority influence
Size of minority
Moscovici and Nemeth (1974) both argue that a minority of one is more influential than a minority of more than one, as one person is more likely to be consistent over long periods of time and will not divide the majority’s attention. On the other hand two people are more likely to be more influential than one as they are less likely to be seen as strange or eccentric. More recent research has supported the latter due to the belief that a minority with two or more, if consistent, has more credibility and is therefore more likely to influence the majority.
Size of majority
The social impact model (Latané and Wolf. 1981) predicts that as the size of the majority grows the influence of the minority decreases, both in public and in private. Clark and Maass (1990) looked at the interaction between minority influence and majorities of varying sizes. The minority for the study was set at 2 confederates who would be consistent as in Moscovici’s study. The majority in Moscovici’s study was 4 to a minority of 2. This time the majority was increased to 8 and 12 to the same size minority. The results showed that if in Moscovici’s study the majority had gone above 4 there wouldn’t have been any evidence of minority influence.
Serge Moscovici and Nemeth (1974) argued that minority influence is effective as it is consistent over time and there is agreement among the members of the minority. If this consistency were lost then the minority would lose its credibility. This can become the case if a member of the minority deserts and joins the majority, as this damages the consistency and unity of the minority. After this has taken place members of the majority are less likely to shift their position to that of the minority.
Some studies have shown that a person’s position may affect the level of minority influence they exert. For example someone positioned close to another is more likely to influence the opinion and/or behaviour of that person. Furthermore those positioned at the head of a table will have more influence than another in a less ‘important’ position.
Moscovici suggested that consistency was the key characteristic of successful minority influence, while Nemeth pointed out that unreasonable consistency has a negative effect on influence. Unreasonable confidence and lack of flexibility have also been pointed out as another factor that has been picked out as a constraint on minority influence.
Explanations of why people yield to minority influence
Maass & Clark (1984) arranged for a group of heterosexual participants to hear a debate on gay rights. The results showed that the majority heterosexual group debating were easier for the heterosexual participants to relate to. Therefore the minority homosexual group had less of an influence. Influence is more likely to occur if the minority (or majority) is part of our ‘in-group’ as we are more likely to be influenced by those who are like us. This research contradicts with Moscovici’s view that deviant minorities (or out-groups) are essential for minority influence to occur. In-group minorities are more likely to be successful, as they are seen as part of the group and therefore their ideas are seen as more acceptable. Out-groups on the other hand are more likely to be discriminated against, as they are not seen as part of the group and therefore they are likely to be seen as strange.
In a group after a number of members have shifted opinion to agree with the minority, that minority becomes a majority. This was named the snowball effect by Van Avermaet (1996), as it is the gradual build up of support that gains momentum. However, minority is a change in personal opinion, while majority influence is only a change of opinion in public – so how can this still be minority influence? This may be due to social cryptoamnesia. It has been observed that major attitude changes take place when the zeitgeist has changed. In history minorities have changed the attitude of society, and the attitude of society changes the personal opinion of the majority in that society. Perez et al. (1995) called this social cryptoamnesia and is due to the innovation of a minority.
Minority and majority influence combined
There is evidence that suggests that it is possible for minority influence and majority influence to work together. A study by Clark (1998/9) uses a jury setting from the film 12 Angry Men to investigate social influence. Some of the participants were asked to just read the arguments from one of the characters (who acted as the minority), while the other group were also told how he changed the opinion of the rest of the jury. Social influence was present in both groups, but was stronger in the group that was exposed to both the arguments (minority influence) and the knowledge that the jury conformed (majority influence).