Influencing Group Behavior: Advice for Communicators – Part II

February 06, 2024
By iQ Staff
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Dr. Phil Feldman

Phil Feldman, PhD, is a seasoned research professor in information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He provides a window into the psychological and social factors that shape beliefs and actions within groups in his recent book Stampede Theory. He joined iQ 360 to share advice for communicators in a two-part blog. Click here for Part 1 of the interview.

 

Why do people believe what they believe?

People develop what they believe based on their experiences, exposure to different groups and information, and the need to conform to the beliefs and orientations of their group. Individual trust is based on personal experiences and the influence of others they trust when faced with new situations.

Group trust, on the other hand, is based on membership and the need to avoid expulsion from the group. People tend to conform to the beliefs and orientations of their group, which can lead to changes in behavior or attitudes. This is often an unconscious process that is difficult to measure, and the strength of social influence depends on proximity and how strongly individuals identify with their group.

Cults provide an example of how group trust and membership can shape beliefs. Cult members prioritize their shared internal reality over objective evidence, maintaining a dynamic belief system that keeps followers engaged with the group. This demonstrates the power of group membership in shaping and reinforcing beliefs, even when they contradict external influences or objective facts.

In short, people believe what they believe based on a combination of individual experiences, trust in others, and the influence of group membership. Both individual trust and group trust play a role in shaping beliefs, with individuals often conforming to the beliefs of their group to maintain membership and avoid expulsion.

People are moving in different directions at different speeds and without communicating or knowing who is around them.

 

How can communication change behavior?

Communication technology has significantly impacted human behavior in the nomadic (individual explorers), flocking (social groups) and stampede (highly aligned groups like armies and cults) stages. It has revolutionized how we interact with one another, enabled us to connect with people all over the world and sped up the collective adoption or abandonment of behaviors and trends. While there are many benefits to these changes in behavior, it is crucial to recognize the potential for communication technology to amplify negativity and extreme responses.

Basic sensing allows individuals to align with nearby peers, forming dynamic clusters.

 

The stampede stage is the extreme end of the spectrum where human behavior can result in dangerous situations due to rapid collective responses. Communication technology, especially social media, can exacerbate such situations through misinformation or the rapid spread of panic.

For example, during emergencies or catastrophic events, social media feeds may become overwhelmed with unverified information, leading to panic, confusion and the rise of false narratives. On the other hand, during political controversies or protests, social media and instant communication platforms can significantly speed up the flow of information, mobilizing communities and amplifying movements.

When communications technology is introduced — allowing people to communicate instantaneously with everyone else — the area of influence is infinite. The group becomes tightly aligned, eliminating disparate speeds and directions.

 

Based on your research, what practical advice can you share with communicators? Specifically, what do they need to know in order to change someone’s mind?

 

1. Embrace Diversity in Your Approach

Human beings can influence others in unexpected ways, so it’s essential to adopt a diverse approach when trying to change someone’s mind. Instead of relying solely on a single approach, consider using an ensemble of methods, ranging from stories to games. Remember that people respond most poorly to items that are out of alignment with their personal beliefs – their brains literally have difficulty recognizing more than the most superficial aspects of opposing viewpoints.

 

2. Use Compelling Narratives and Personal Stories

People are more likely to be influenced by stories that resonate with them on a personal level. To change someone’s mind, present information in a compelling narrative format, using personal stories to bridge moral and political divides.

 

3. Create High-Quality, Trustworthy Rabbit Holes

Consider presenting information at progressive levels of detail, starting with an informative hook that captures the audience’s attention. Allow users to explore these links as much or as little as they want with the goal of building high-quality, trustworthy rabbit holes. This approach can provide information that users can explore at their own pace.

 

4. Promote Accurate Information Instead of Just Suppressing False Information

Focusing solely on suppressing (e.g. fact checking) false information may not be enough to combat misinformation. In the case of a communications vacuum, false narratives will take hold and thrive. Therefore, communicators should also proactively share and promote accurate information and encourage diversity in media. By presenting a variety of perspectives from reliable sources, communicators can help to create a more informed and open-minded audience. An interesting hybrid approach is Sander van der Linden’s “prebunking” technique, which also seems to be effective.

 

To learn more from Dr. Phil Feldman, check out his book, Stampede Theory.