Core Social Motive Two - Understanding (Part Two) - Social Learning and Social Impact Theories

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Core Social Motive Two - Understanding (Part Two) - Social Learning and Social Impact Theories

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Published by Laurence Nicholson in Change · 12 February 2024
The Core Social Psychology Motives in Change Management
Core Social Motive Two - Understanding

By Laurence Nicholson

Part Two - ‘Social Learning Theory’ and ‘Social Impact Theory’

(Listen to the Podcast version HERE)

Welcome back to this series on the Core Social Psychology Motives, and to the second part of this discussion around the second core social motive: Understanding.

Let’s remind ourselves what is meant by ‘understanding’ in the sphere of social psychology, and Have, Rijsman, Have and Westhof’s (2019) definition as ‘the need for shared meaning and prediction’ I mentioned in part one.

In this episode I will take a look at the second set of concepts and theories relating to Understanding; social learning theory and social impact theory.

So, what is social learning theory?

In many ways, it is the extension of psychodynamic perspectives which posit that we learn from direct experiences and the corresponding consequences, a dimension of the nurture principle, by including indirect, or vicarious, learning from the observation of others and their experiences of consequences.

It has its roots in the work of Albert Bandura from the 1960’s, where he exposed children to adults displaying either aggressive, in group 1, or passive, in group 2, behaviours towards a doll, and noticed they developed behaviours similar to that of the adult group they witnessed. This led to his exploration of the roles played by vicarious, as well as symbolic and self-regulatory processes, in differential reinforcement as part of social learning.

It is known that as well as being susceptible to reinforcement conditioning like all animals, humans have the additional ability of higher cognitive functioning, and apply thought to potential consequences through the observation of their own and others’ behaviours and corresponding outcomes; essentially providing a ‘database of scenario experiences’ from which to predict a likely result from certain behaviours, and adjust their reactions accordingly. We gather information from personally experienced and observed consequences to behaviours, and adjust based on what we predict might happen.

This is extremely useful in identifying potentially positive outcomes, and constructing a motivational framework around that, to encourage those behaviours associated with those outcomes that is not limited to direct reward or punishment, but also to displayed examples of others benefiting from it.

This higher cognitive functioning of our brains means we are not simply passive recipients of information from which we base our behaviours. Indeed, social learning is about reciprocal determinism; cognition, context and behaviour mutually influence one another (Grusec, 1992). We learn much through cognitive modelling. In fact, Bandura said in 1971 (Bandura, 1971, p. 5):

“It is difficult to imagine a socialisation process in which the language, mores, vocational activities, familial customs, and the educational, religious and political practices of a culture are taught to each new member by selective reinforcement of fortuitous behaviours, without the benefit of models who exemplify the cultural patterns in their own behaviour. Most of the behaviours that people display are learned, either deliberately, or inadvertently, through the influence of example.”

Whilst it is by no means suggested that all behaviour is learned, the view is that much of it is a result of a respondent, operant and observational learning process.

It should be clear from this that within an organisational setting, and most importantly within a change programme, the fact that people tend to copy the behaviour of others in order to obtain the same benefits, advancement and privileges, especially their leadership and significant role models, the creation and promotion of a motivational framework founded on exemplars of required behaviours by those individuals, is critical to success.

Right. Now let’s take a look at social impact theory.

Latané (1981) describes a social impact as ‘any influence on the feelings, thoughts or behaviours of an individual resulting from the social context of that individual’. Where the influence is caused by the presence of others, that presence is not limited to real, direct or experienced effects, but can be perceived, implied and even imagined.

Like many socio-environmental impacts, social impacts are determined according to a set of factors, especially when trying to determine how a set of individuals impact a single individual, and I go into more detail regarding these and the Law of Social Impact where I = f(SIN) and the 3 individual laws of the variables of S, I and N in my training, but Latané (1981) and Brown (1986) summarised them as follows:

  • Strength - a measure of age, status, experience, expertise and the quality of the relationship with the individual.
  • Number of individuals
  • Immediacy - not limited to only literal proximity but also any presence, or lack thereof, of psychological importance of the group (barriers/filters).

Such elements are open to wide interpretation, and thus have some shortcomings, and so become very complex to apply, resulting in having to include concepts of persuasiveness and 'supportiveness' to determine likelihoods of behaviours.

Some determination of how easy it is, or how much pressure is needed, to induce a change of opinion (persuade), as well as how able the group is to assist individuals in resisting the influence of others, is required in the application of the theory. When used together, change can be achieved. Using these determinations, the likelihood of an individual to change and be influenced is a direct function of the factors mentioned above from a strength of persuasiveness dimension, and an inverse function of the same factors from a strength of supportiveness dimension.

Simply put, if an individual is easily persuaded and/or the strength of persuasion is strong, their likelihood to change is higher, as it is also if the strength of resistance through supportiveness is weak, assuming the remaining factors are equal in each case.

Obviously, organisations, like social systems and cultures, are always changing, reacting to a variety of social influences, but having some ways to help understand how the relationship and interaction between leaders and followers develops, and the origins of such underlying concepts as group dynamics and ‘lead from the top’, will help leaders of change to preempt resistance. This latter point is critical in achieving successful change, and Paul Lawrence (Harvard Business School professor) stated in his paper “How to Deal with Resistance to Change” (1954):

“…failing to understand workers’ resistance can sabotage the whole effort.” (p. 187)


Well, that’s it for this time. In the next part, we take a look at the next sub-elements of the core motive of ‘Understanding’; ‘Cooperation / Competition (Social Interdependence Theory)’ and ‘Social Exchange Theory’.

As always, leave me comments, good bad or indifferent, by email or against the article (on the ‘blog’ page if you are listening to the podcast).

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