Latane And Wolf Social Impact Theory Essay

Social impact theory was created by Bibb Latané in 1981 and consists of four basic rules which consider how individuals can be "sources or targets of social influence".[1] Social impact is the result of social forces including the strength of the source of impact, the immediacy of the event, and the number of sources exerting the impact.[2] The more targets of impact that exist, the less impact each individual target has.[3]

Original research[edit]

According to psychologist Bibb Latané, social impact is defined as any influence on individual feelings, thoughts or behavior that is created from the real, implied or imagined presence or actions of others. The application of social impact varies from diffusion of responsibility to social loafing, stage fright or persuasive communication. In 1981, Latané developed the social impact theory using three key variables:

  • Strength (S) is a net of all individual factors that make a person influential. It covers stable, trans-situational, intrapersonal factors — size, intellect, wealth — as well as dynamic, situation-specific relational components like belonging to the same group.
  • Immediacy (I) takes into account how recent the event occurred and whether or not there were other intervening factors
  • The number of sources (N) refers to the amount of sources of influence

With these variables, Latané developed three laws through formulas — social forces, psychosocial, and multiplication/division of impact.

Social forces[edit]

The social forces law states that i = f(S * I * N). Impact (i) is a function of the three variables multiplied and grows as each variable is increased. However, if a variable were to be 0 or significantly low, the overall impact would be affected.

Psychosocial law[edit]

The Psychosocial law states that the most significant difference in social impact will occur in the transition from 0 to 1 source and as the number of sources increases, this difference will become even eventually. The equation Latané uses for this law is That is, some power (t) of the number of people (N) multiplied by the scaling constant (s) determines social impact. Latané applied this theory to previous studies done on imitation and conformity as well as on embarrassment. Asch's study of conformity in college students contradicts the psychosocial law, showing that one or two sources of social impact make little difference. However, Gerard, Wilhelmy, and Conolley conducted a similar study on conformity sampling from high school students. High school students were deemed less likely to be resistant to conformity than college students, and thus may be more generalizable, in this regard, than Asch's study. Gerard, Wilhelmy, and Conolley's study supported the psychosocial law, showing that the first few confederates had the greatest impact on conformity. Latané applied his law to imitation as well, using Milgram's gawking experiment. In this experiment various numbers of confederates stood on a street corner in New York craning and gawking at the sky. The results showed that more confederates meant more gawkers, and the change became increasingly insignificant as more confederates were present. In a study Latané and Harkins conducted on stage fright and embarrassment, the results also followed the psychosocial law showing that more audience members meant greater anxiety and that the greatest difference existed between 0 and 1 audience members.

multiplication/divisions of impact[edit]

The third law of social impact states that the strength, immediacy, and number of targets play a role in social impact. That is, the more strength and immediacy and the greater number of targets in a social situation causes the social impact to be divided amongst all of the targets. The equation that represents this division is This law relates to diffusion of responsibility, in which individuals feel less accountable as the number of people present increases. In emergency situations, the impact of the emergency is reduced when more people are present.

The social impact theory is both a generalizable and a specific theory. It uses one set of equations, which are applicable to many social situations. For example, the psychosocial law can be used to predict instances of conformity, imitation and embarrassment. Yet, it is also specific because the predictions that it makes are specific and can be applied to and observed in the world. The theory is falsifiable as well. It makes predictions through the use of equations; however, the equations may not be able to accurately predict the outcome of social situations. Social impact theory is also useful. It can be used to understand which social situations result in the greatest impact and which situations present exceptions to the rules.

While Social Impact theory explores social situations and can help predict the outcomes of social situations, it also has some shortcomings and questions that are left unresolved. The rules guiding the theory depict people as recipients that passively accept social impact and do not take into account the social impact that people may actively seek out. The model is also static, and does not fully compensate for the dynamics involved in social interactions. The theory is relatively new and fails to address some pertinent issues. These issues include finding more accurate ways to measure social outcomes, understanding the "t" exponent in psychosocial law, taking susceptibility into account, understanding how short-term consequences can develop into chronic consequences, application to group interactions, understanding the model's nature (descriptive vs. explanatory, generalization vs. theory).

Applying Social Impact Theory[edit]

The social impact theory specifies the effects of social variables — strength, immediacy, and number of sources — but does not explain the nature of these influencing processes. There are various factors not considered by experimenters while implementing the theory. Concepts such as peripheral persuasion affect how communicators may be more credible to some individuals and untrustworthy to others. The variables are inconsistent from individual to individual, possibly associating strength with source credibility and attractiveness or immediacy with physical closeness. Therefore, in the application of the social impact theory, the idea of persuasiveness, the ability to induce someone with an opposing position to change, and supportiveness, the ability to help those who agree with someone's point of view to resist the influence of others, is introduced. Ultimately, an individual's likelihood of change and being influenced is a direct function of strength (persuasiveness), immediacy and the number of advocates and is a direct inverse function of strength (supportiveness), immediacy and number of advocates.

Subsequent development[edit]

The Dynamic Social Impact Theory was developed by Latané and his colleagues in 1996. This theory is considered an extension of the Social Impact Theory as it uses its basic principles, mainly that social influence is determined by the strength, immediacy, and number of sources present, to describe how majority and minority group members influence one another. As its name suggests, the Dynamic Social Impact Theory proposes that groups are complex systems that are constantly changing and are never static. Groups that are spatially distributed and interact repeatedly organize and reorganize themselves in four basic patterns: consolidation, clustering, correlation, and continuing diversity. These patterns allow for group dynamics to operate and ideas to be diffused throughout the group.[4]

1. Consolidation – as individuals interact with each other, over time, their actions, attitudes, and opinions become uniform. In this manner, opinions held by the majority of the group spread to the minority, which then decreases in size.

2. Clustering – individuals tend to interact with clusters of group members with similar opinions. Clusters are common when group members communicate more frequently with members in close proximity, and less frequently with members who are more distant. Minority group members are often shielded from majority influence due to clustering. Therefore, subgroups can emerge which may possess similar ideas to one another, but hold different beliefs than the majority population.

3. Correlation – over time, individual group members` opinions on a variety of issues converge and correlate with each other; this is true even of issues that are not discussed by the group.

4. Continuing Diversity – a degree of diversity can exist within a group if minority group members cluster together or minority members who communicate with majority members resist majority influence. However, if the majority is large or minority members are physically isolated from one another, this diversity drops.

Contemporary research[edit]

In 1985 Mullen analyzed two of the factors that Latané associated with Social Impact theory. Mullen conducted a meta-analysis that examined the validity of the source strength and the source immediacy. The studies that were analyzed were sorted by the method of measurement used with the self-reported in one category and the behavior measurements in the other category. Mullen's results showed that the source strength and immediacy were only supported in cases in which tension was self-reported, and not when behavior was measured. He thus concluded that Latané's source strength and immediacy were weak and lacked consistency. Critics of Mullen's study, however, argue that perhaps not enough studies were available or included, which may have skewed his results and given him an inaccurate conclusion.

A study conducted by Constantine Sedikides and Jeffrey M. Jackson took another look at the role of strength and within social impact theory. This study was conducted in a bird house at a zoo. In one scenario, an experimenter dressed as a bird keeper walked into the bird house and told visitors that leaning on the railing was prohibited. This was considered the high-strength scenario because of the authority that a zookeeper possesses within a zoo. The other scenario involved an experimenter dressed in ordinary clothes addressing the visitors with the same message. The results of the study showed that visitors responded better to the high-strength scenario, with fewer individuals leaning on the railing after the zookeeper had told them not to. The study also tested the effect that immediacy had on social impact. This was done by measuring the incidences of leaning on the rail both immediately after the message was delivered and at a later point in time. The results showed that immediacy played a role in determining social impact since there were fewer people leaning on the rails immediately after the message. The visitors in the bird house were studied as members of the group they came with to determine how number of targets would influence the targets' behavior. The group size ranged from 1 to 6 and the results showed that those in larger groups were less likely to comply with the experimenter's message than those in smaller groups. All of these findings support the parameters of Latané's Social Impact Theory.

Kipling D. Williams, and Karen B. Williams theorized that social impact would vary depending on the underlying motive of compliance. When compliance is simply a mechanism to induce the formation of a positive impression, stronger sources should produce a greater social impact. When it is an internal motive that induces compliance, the strength of the source shouldn't matter. Williams and Williams designed a study in which two persuasion methods were utilized, one that would evoke external motivation and one that would evoke internal motivation. Using these techniques, experimenters went from door to door using one of the techniques to attempt to collect money for a zoo. The foot-in-the-door technique was utilized to evoke the internal motive. In this technique, the experimenter would make an initial request that was relatively small, and gradually request larger and larger amounts. This is internally motivated because the target's self-perception is altered to feel more helpful after the original contribution. The door-in-the-face technique, on the other hand, involves the experimenter asking for a large amount first; and when the target declines, they ask for a much smaller amount as a concession. This technique draws on external motivation because the request for a concession makes one feel obliged to comply. The experiment was conducted with low-strength and high-strength experimenters. Those who were approached by higher-strength experimenters were more likely to contribute money. Using the different persuasion approaches did not produce statistically significant results; however, it did support Williams and Williams hypothesis that the strength of the experimenter would heighten the effects of the door-in-the-face technique, but have minimal effect on the foot-in-the-door technique

There have also been studies done to examine Latané's dynamic social impact theory. One study was conducted within three classrooms. Two of these classes were small and one of them was large. The experimenter would develop 10 moderate multiple choice questions, which were read aloud to the class one at a time. The students were then instructed to discuss each question as it was read aloud with their neighbors and come to a final answer at the end of the given time period. The results of this simple study were able to illustrate and support the effects of dynamic social impact theory. The answers were consolidated because many of those with a minority answer within their group would comply with the majority opinion, which reduced the diversity of the answers. There was also considerable clustering: those sitting near each other tended to have the same answers. Correlation was visible because answers that weren't originally apparently related, became connected for students within some of the groups. However, none of the answers were entirely eliminated, allowing for continuing diversity. Many of the groups had members that changed their answers from the wrong answer to the right answer; however, there were also students that changed their answer to the wrong one after the discussion.

Due to social media's influence, there has been movement towards e-commerce. Researchers have since looked into the relationship between social media influence and visit and purchase intentions within individuals.[5]

Most recently, Rodrigo Perez-Vega, Kathryn Waite, and Kevin O'Gorman [6] suggest that the theory is also relevant in the context of social media. Empirical research on this context has found support for the effects of numbers of sources (i.e. likes) in performance outcomes such as box office sales.[7] Furthermore, Babajide Osatuyi and Katia Passerini [8] operationalized strength, immediacy, and number using Social Network Analysis centrality measures, i.e., betweeness, closeness, and degree centralities to test two of the rules stipulated in Social Impact Theory. They compared the influence of using Twitter and discussion board in a learning management system (e.g., Moodle and Blackboard) on student performance, measured as final grade in a course. The results provide support for the first law, i.e., impact (grade) as a multiplicative resultant of strength, immediacy, and number of interactions among students. Additional interesting insights were observed in this study that educators ought to consider to maximize the integration of new social technologies into pedagogy.



  • Latané, B (1981). "The psychology of social impact". American Psychologist. 36: 343–356. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.36.4.343. 
  • Latané, B.; L' Herrou, T. (1996). "Spatial clustering in the conformity game:Dynamic social impact in electronic games". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 70: 1218–1230. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.70.6.1218. 
  • Sedikides, C.; Jackson, J.M. (1990). "Social impact theory: a field test of source strength, source immediacy, and number of targets". Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 11 (3): 273–281. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp1103_4. 
  • Williams, K.D.; Williams, K.B. (1989). "Impact of source strength on two compliance techniques". Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 10 (2): 149–159. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp1002_5. 
  • Kwahk, K.Y.; Ge, X. (2012). "The Effects of Social Media on E-Commerce: A Perspective of Social Impact Theory". System Science. doi:10.1109/HICSS.2012.564. 
  • Nowak, Andrzej, et al. "From Private Attitude to Public Opinion: A Dynamic Theory of Social Impact." Psychological Review, 17 Mar. 1989, doi: .
  • Latane, Bibb. "Dynamic Social Impact: The Creation of Culture by Communication ." Journal of Communication, 1996,

Further reading[edit]

  1. ^Karau, Steven; Williams, Kipling (October 1995). "Social Loafing: Research Findings, Implications, and Future Directions". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 4 (5): 135. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10772570. JSTOR 20182353. 
  2. ^Michael A. Hogg, Scott Tindale; Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Group Processes; John Wiley & Sons (2008); p.239; ISBN 047099844X,
  3. ^Karau, Steven; Williams, Kipling (October 1995). "Social Loafing: Research Findings, Implications, and Future Directions". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 4 (5): 135. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10772570. JSTOR 20182353. 
  4. ^Forsyth, D.R. (2009). Group dynamics: New York: Wadsworth. [Chapter 7]
  5. ^Kwahk, Ge (2012).
  6. ^Perez-Vega, R.; Waite, K.; O'Gorman, K. (2016). "Social impact theory: An examination of how immediacy operates as an influence upon social media interaction in Facebook fan pages". The Marketing Review. 16 (3): 299–321. doi:10.1362/146934716x14636478977791. 
  7. ^Ding, C.; Cheng, H. K.; Duan, Y.; Jin, Y. (2017). "The power of the "like" button: The impact of social media on box office". Decision Support Systems. 94: 77–84. doi:10.1016/j.dss.2016.11.002. 
  8. ^Osatuyi, B. and Passerini, K. (in press), Twittermania: Understanding how social media technologies impact engagement and academic performance of a new generation of learners, Communications of the AIS
This is a compulsory theory so everyone learns it and the Examiner will expect you to know it in detail. While the Exam could ask general questions about the theory's ideas or evaluation, it could also ask specific questions, like, How does Social Impact explain genocide? or, What explanations does Social Impact Theory give of rioting? or, How can Social Impact Theory be used to make students obey their teachers? Make sure you can explain the STRENGTHS of this theory as well as the weaknesses.

Divisions of Impact

Psychosocial Law


Social Force



LATANÉ (1981)

This theory was developed by Bibb Latané(pronounced lah-tah-nay), an American psychologist who carried out famous studies into bystander apathy.

The theory is an attempt to produce an underlying law that explains a whole set of studies from the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Milgram and Tajfel, into how people conform to the group they are in, follow leaders and imitate each other.

This theory is significant for students in other ways:
  • It underlies Milgram’s obedience study, which is a mandatory study for the Social Approach.
  • It expands on Social Identity Theory, which suggests that people instinctively fall into ingroups and react negatively towards outgroups.
  • It illustrates features of the Social Approach, since it shows how decisions that people think are personal to them are actually expressions of their group identity and social pressures
  • It ties in to your Key Question in Social Psychology, since it helps explain prejudice and how to reduce it


Latané argues that every person is potentially a “source” or a “target” of social influence – sometimes both at once. He thinks there are three rules or laws at work.

1. Social Force

This is a pressure that gets put on people to change their behaviour – if it succeeds, that is Social Impact. Social force is generated by persuasion, threat, humour, embarrassment and other influences. Social force is made up of Strength, Immediacy and Numbers:
  1. Strength:This is how much power you believe the person influencing you has. For example, if the person has rank in an organisation, their orders will have more Strength
  2. Immediacy:This is how recent the influence is and how close to you, from an order a minute ago from your boss standing right next to you (very immediate) to an email you received from your boss last week (not very immediate)
  3. Numbers:The more people putting pressure on you to do something, the more social force they will have
  • Notice how this applies to Milgram’s study and variations. Milgram also found obedience was lower when the authority figure was absent (variation #7) or was perceived to have less strength (variation #13)
  • Latané suggests a mathematic equation to work out the Social Impact (i) in any situation. This isi = f (SIN)where S, I and N are Strength, Immediacy and Numbers.

2. Psychosocial Law

This is the idea that the first source of influence has the most dramatic impact on people, but that the second, third, fourth, etc sources generate less and less Social Force. For example, being watched by one other person can make you feel awkward, but being watched by two doesn’t make you twice as awkward. Increasing the audience to a hundred or even a thousand doesn’t increase the sense of pressure by as much as you would think.
  • The same applies to authority figures. One teacher giving you an order generates a lot of Social Force but, if you resist, bringing in a second and a third teacher to repeat the order doesn’t double or triple the Social Force; bringing in the entire school staff won’t be all that effective.

3. Divisions of Impact

Social Force gets spread out between all the people it is directed at. If all the Force is directed at a single person, that puts a huge pressure on them to conform or obey. But if the Force is directed at two people, they only experience half as much pressure each. If there are ten of them, they only feel one tenth of the pressure.
  • This is known as diffusion of responsibility – the more of you there are, the less personal responsibility each of you will feel.
  • This applies to Milgram too because his other variations showed how obedience went down when the participant had a rebellious partner.
  • Latané has an equation for this too:i = f (1/SIN)

The findings of studies

Latané (1981)gives a number of examples of Social Impact. An interesting one involves the US Christian televangelist Billy Graham (see left). The hypothesis was that Billy Graham would make more converts in front of small audiences. Latané researched the numbers of people who responded to Graham's appeal for converts and found that when the audiences were small, people were more willing to sign cards allowing local vicars to contact them later. This demonstrates divisions of impact (also known as diffusion of responsibility).

Sedikides & Jackson (1990) carried out a field experiment in the bird house at a zoo. A confederate told groups of visitors not to lean on the railings near the bird cages. The visitors were then observed to see if they obeyed.

If the confederate was dressed in the uniform of a zookeeper, obedience was high, but if he was dressed casually, it was lower. This demonstrates varying Social Force, in particular S (Strength) because of the perceived authority of the confederate.

As time passed, more visitors started ignoring the instruction not to lean on the railing. This also shows Social Force, especially I (Immediacy), because as the instruction gets less immediate it has less impact.

Divisions of impact were also studied. Some visitors were alone but others were in groups of up to 6. The larger the group size, the more disobedience was observed.

Obedience in the real world

Different Kinds of Power

When it comes to obedience, a lot depends on whether you perceive the person giving the orders to be an authority figure or not.

French & Raven (1959) identified different types of authority:
(i) legitimate power(authority figures with high status),
(ii) reward power (those who have money or who can perform favours),
(iii) coercive power (people who can punish you),
(iv) expert power (people seen as knowledgeable), and
(v) referent power (people who belong to groups you respect).

This fits in well with Social Impact Theory because it explains the different reasons why a person’s orders may have Social Force. “Referent Power” also applies to Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory because it shows that orders coming from a member of our ingroup carry more Social Force than orders coming from an outgroup member. This is why a gang member might have more authority over a young boy than a teacher: the teacher has legitimate authority but the gang member might have reward power, coercive power and referent power because he can give the boy favours, he’ll hurt you if you cross him and the boy regards him as his ingroup.
Diffusion of Responsibility

Being part of a large group makes people feel anonymous and this reduces their feelings of responsibility. It might make them less likely to obey orders.

Latané & Darley (1968)carried out a famous experiment into this. Participants sat in booths discussing health issues over an intercom. One of the speakers was a confederate who would pretend to have a heart attack. If there was only one other participant, they went for help 85% of the time; this dropped to 62% if there were two other participants and 31% if there were 4+.

No one was giving orders in this study, but the rule “go and get help when someone collapses” is a sort of order that is present all the time in society. Following these sort of social rules is called prosocial behaviour and breaking the rules is antisocial behaviour. Social Impact Theory explains prosocial behaviour as well as obedience.



There’s a growing body of research supporting Social Impact Theory. In addition, the theory also makes sense of a lot of Classic studies from the ‘60s and ‘70s that used to seem unrelated – like Latané & Darley (1968) into diffusion of responsibility, Tajfel (1970) into intergroup discrimination and Milgram (1963)into obedience. In hindsight, all of these studies can be seen as looking at different aspects of Social Impact.

There have been more recent additions to Social Impact Theory. Latané et al. (1996)developed Dynamic Social Impact Theory to pay attention to how minorities and majorities influence each other, such as how people tend to change their views to match the group they are in but why they sometimes “stick to their guns”.


Social Impact pays a lot of attention to the characteristics of the person giving the orders but not much to the person receiving them. For example, there may be personality types that are particularly compliant (go along with anything) or rebellious. A person may be happy to go along with some sorts of orders but draw the line at others – such as orders that offend them morally or embarrass them socially.

A similar problem is that Social Impact Theory treats people as passive. It proposes that anybody will do anything if the right amount of Social Force is brought to bear on them. However, people sometimes obey orders while at the same time subverting them. An example might be Oskar Schindler who handed Jewish employees over to the Nazis during WWII while secretly helping many others to escape.


Milgram’s Agency Theory is very simplistic compared to Social Impact Theory. Milgram suggests we have evolved to go into an obedient mental state around anyone we recognise as an authority. There’s not much evidence for this in general. Social Impact Theory suggests many features of Agency Theory are true – that the strength (S) of the authority figure is an important predictor of how obedient someone will be – but there are other situational factors as well, like the numbers of people involved (N) and the immediacy (I) of the orders.

However, Agency Theory explains some things better than Social Impact Theory. For example, in Variation #10, obedience was lower in a run-down office compared to Yale University. Milgram explains this through the prestige of the setting adding to the authority figure’s status, but this is hard for Latané to give a mathematical value to. Similarly, Milgram has an explanation for the shaking and weeping his participants engaged in – moral strain. There’s no discussion of moral strain in Social Impact Theory, which views people as either obeying or disobeying and nothing in between.


The idea of a mathematical formula to calculate Social Impact is very useful. Latané believes that, if you know the number (N) of people involved and the immediacy (I) of the order and the strength (S) of the authority figure, you can calculate exactly how likely someone is to obey (i) using the formula i = f (SIN). This means you can predict whether laws will be followed, whether riots will break out and whether 9B will do their homework.

The theory suggests if you want to get people to obey, you need to direct Social Force at them when they are in small groups and ideally stop them getting together into large groups. This is why some repressive governments try to stop people using social media and gathering for public meetings. Because orders need to be immediate it is important to repeat them often and put them on signs, TV adverts and regular announcements.

How to write a 8-mark answer

Evaluate Social Impact Theory as an explanation of obedience. (8 marks)
  • A 8-mark “evaluate” question awards 4 marks for AO1 (Describe) and 4 marks for AO3 (Evaluate).

Social Impact Theory is credible because studies back it up. (AO1) Sedikides & Jackson who gave orders to visitors at a zoo. Large groups of visitors were more likely to disobey, which shows division of impact.

The mathematical formula has a clear application. You could use it to work out exactly how likely someone is to disobey in any situation. (AO1) The formula i = f (SIN) can be used so long as you know how many people (N) are involved.

Social Impact Theory is much more complex than Agency Theory.  (AO1) It includes the different sorts of authority suggested by French & Raven, such a referent authority.

However, Agency Theory includes some things that Social Impact Theory ignores, such as moral strain. (AO1) Milgram explains why his participants cried and fainted, but Social Impact Theory only looks at how likely people are to obey, not how they feel about it.

Social Impact is a theory that covers a lot more than just obedience. It also explains diffusion of responsibility. This makes it a bit of a vague theory. It’s not a theory of obedience in particular, unlike Agency Theory.
Apply Social Impact Theory.
  • A 4-mark “apply” question awards 4 marks for AO2 (Application) and gives you a piece of stimulus material. There's no need for a conclusion.
Derek wants to impress the bigger boys in his gang. He brings a knife to school to show to Troy and Vincent. His form teacher, Miss Earnest, spots the cigarettes in Derek’s pocket and tells him to hand them in. Troy and Vincent are in the classroom and Derek refuses. The other students wait to see what Miss Earnest will do next.

Using your knowledge of psychology, explain Derek’s behaviour and what Miss Earnest can do to make him follow her instruction. (4 marks)

Social Impact Theory would explain why Derek disobeys. It is because Miss Earnest has legitimate authority (according to French & Raven) but Troy and Vincent have referent authority (they are part of Derek’s ingroup) which cancels that out.

Miss Earnest needs to increase her strength (S). She could threaten to punish Derek (which is coercive authority) and to reward him if he obeys her (which is reward authority). She could explain to him about the dangers of knives (which might give her knowledge authority).


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