Social Influence and the Power of the Pyramid

By Markovsky, Barry; Thye, Shane R. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Social Influence and the Power of the Pyramid


Markovsky, Barry, Thye, Shane R., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


MORE THAN 90% OF ADULT AMERICANS report holding at least one paranormal belief, and the rates for some specific beliefs have risen steeply in recent years. (1-5) Skeptics often bemoan such numbers, knowing as they do that the overwhelming majority of paranormal claims either are perfectly consistent with "normal" explanations unknown to the claimant, or else they unravel completely in those rare cases that are investigated systematically. Skeptics may be over estimating the effect logic and evidence have on popular notions, and underestimating the effect that people have on each other's beliefs.

Our interests encompass both social influence in general, and paranormal beliefs specifically. In this study we combine those interests to fill a gap in the research on how people influence one another's beliefs in the paranormal. While the study that we conducted focuses on "pyramid power," this particular pseudo-phenomenon is incidental to the more general issues involved.

Key Questions

Studies of the nature and sources of paranormal beliefs have taken two general directions. The micro approach leans toward the psychological, emphasizing sensory, perceptual, cognitive, and experiential processes. (6-12) In contrast, the macro approach identifies cultural, demographic, religious, and other variables that, in the aggregate, are associated with paranormal beliefs, typically as expressed in surveys. (13-17) Surprisingly, there is practically no research on paranormal beliefs that fits between the micro and macro. This meso level would include the interpersonal spread of paranormal beliefs, a potentially fertile ground when one considers the kinds of settings it may include: families, friendship circles, classrooms, work groups, voluntary associations, and so on.

We focused our investigation on four key questions:

(1) Are paranormal beliefs acquired from another person merely through exposure the other's belief? If so, this would suggest that paranormal beliefs spread through much larger social groups, whether or not anyone actively promotes those beliefs.

(2) Are paranormal beliefs acquired from other people as readily as non-paranormal beliefs? We suspected that people may be reluctant to accept paranormal claims, compared to nonparanormal ones, thus hindering their spread through larger groups.

(3) Are claims more influential if they come from higher status people? Higher status people generally are more persuasive, even in situations where their status is irrelevant. Will the same be true for paranormal claims, even without any overt attempt to persuade?

(4) Do people influence others beyond the effect of the information they communicate? In other words, would a paranormal claim that emanates from a flesh-and-blood person have more weight than, say, one heard second-hand from an anonymous source?

A crucial point in the dissemination of paranormal beliefs is the moment when individuals are confronted with an alleged paranormal claim and are motivated to judge its validity. We contend that the outcome of this judgment depends not only on individual qualities such as critical thinking ability, but also on social factors.

Social Influence

Social influence refers to changes in feelings, beliefs, values or behaviors that result from the actions of others. Examples of influenced behaviors may include: following orders at work (obedience to authority), dressing like one's peers (conformity to a group), and convincing a friend to change her vote in an upcoming election (persuasion). You also may be influenced to develop a positive attitude toward the Boston Red Sox, to form the belief--beyond all rationality--that they will win the World Series, and to feel the letdown of yet another disappointing season when they fail. Almost any person or group, real or imagined, is a potential source of social influence: parents, sports teams, dictators, corporations, cartoon characters, nations, cult leaders, to list but a few. …

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