The Power of Normative Influence

There is a name for that social pull we each feel when it seems like everyone is going somewhere and you’re not. Sometimes we walk along with the crowd for a while even though we have no idea why or where we’re going.  The surprising thing is that most of the time it actually works out.



Herd of North American elk near the continental divide, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado July 2016.

This herding instinct is an aspect of what evolutionary biologists who argue for group section in evolution call “nesting safety”.  Flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarms of insects, herds of grassland mammals all have this in common with human being: they stick together. Over the millennia, members of all of these groups learned at the DNA level, that being part of a large group increases the chances of survival: When the predators are few, it is only the weakest or unluckiest few that do not survive.

Thus, even if information suggests a different path, one that turns away from the group, it can often seem better, even be better, to go with the group. It feels safer. It sometimes is safer to follow one’s instinct and go along with herd.

This is also why normative influence is an effective instrument of influence only when the fear of predation is present.  In the case of human organizing, an external threat in the ecosystem, or the threat of enforcement or exclusion by powerful actors is a needed to activate the attraction forces of normative influence. We follow when we are afraid we will be left out or banished.

Perceived safety allows us to recognize the value potential that comes from staying with the group: the instinct to follow the norm follows from the fear of being excluded, of being left as the weak one who is sacrificed. When fear activates this primal instinct, human instinct to belong can overwhelm information that would suggest a different path.

Normative influence operates at the instinctive level. It has its effect before we think about it.

New information that might suggest alternative pathways, other options, or additional possibilities can overcome this powerful primal attraction to stay with the group where one is safe. However, in the complex and interdependent organizations of today, this can only happen if our minds remain open to consider the possibilities, if we are willing to invest resources in exploring and discovering them, and if we build a community with a culture that has the strength and confidence to forge a new path, together. In the words of what is often framed as an old African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Jim Hazy

Founder and CEO, Leadership Science, LLC

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