Positive Social Influence: Social Proof and Group Therapy

I’ve already discussed how social influence can potentially have a negative backlash due to the employment of concepts that may have negative consequences for relationships. However, there is an area through which social influence can have a very good benefit: group therapy. In group therapy, the group members have the potential to influence each other to invest in the therapy, to participate in the group activities that are meant to help them, and to receive benefits from the therapy.

The social influence principle that presumably could be driving benefits in group therapy is social proof. Social proof essentially is the idea “monkey see, monkey do,” holding that we cue our behavior off of others, especially when we see others’ behavior as correct. We see others’ behavior as correct when we are unsure of ourselves and the situation is ambiguous. The classic empirical support of this concept came from Asch in 1955, where he demonstrated that subjects would conform to clearly wrong answers to a task given by other members of group as long as the other members were unanimous in their wrong answers. In this situation, the subject is unsure of his own (right) opinion because everyone else is disagreeing with him.

So how would social proof lead to positive group therapy? Theoretically, in group therapy, the group members could take cues from each other about how to behave in group. From a structural standpoint, if the therapist can establish support of the group therapy process in most of the members, then the group would be self-regulating in that with the majority of people “buying into” the group therapy process, they would be able to keep the rest of the group “bought-in” to the group therapy through social proof. So if the therapist can make sure they can engage most of the group in the process, those who might be on the fence whether they want to commit to also being engaged in the therapy process would be influenced to do so through social proof.

So how does the existing evidence back this up? Decidedly mixed, with results depending on what purpose the group is serving, who the group is serving, and other factors. Thomas Dishion, among others, have found that negative social influence called peer contagion exists. In this peer contagion, the negative behaviors of adolescents spread from adolescent to adolescent by this process called deviancy training, where adolescents learn from other adolescents’ deviant behaviors and take them on. Specifically in group therapy, this has negative effects, as deviancy training occurs in group therapies of adolescents, especially those who have externalizing behavior problems.

So does this sink the ship of social proof, at least for group therapies? I wouldn’t discount the potential positive influence of social proof just yet. Studies have found that adolescents rely on parents and peers as influences to abstain from antisocial behavior. Also, deviancy training has been found to not occur with internalizing problems, as peers can’t  observe internalizing problems by definition, therefore they cannot learn from them to engage in more internalizing problems. Additionally, I have been involved in some research investigating a group therapy for PTSD in adolescents, looking for any specific benefits that the group nature of the therapy confers. We have found some preliminary evidence supporting the idea that peers can influence each other to benefit more from therapy, leading us investigating whether those who are more susceptible to peer influence benefit from therapy more than those who are not. So perhaps social proof may be limited on its impact of group therapy, but it may be instrumental in showing that there are more reasons to utilize group therapy beyond saving money.

Image Credit: http://www.pussreboots.pair.com/photos/fairview/bookcrossing/20080117_monkeysee_monkeydo.jpg

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