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Computers in Human Behavior

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Deindividuation effects on normative and informational social influence within computer-mediated-communication

Serena Coppolino Perfumia,b,∗, Franco Bagnolic, Corrado Caudekd, Andrea Guazzinie

a Department of Sociology, Stockholm University, S-106 91, Stockholm, Sweden bDepartment of Educational Sciences and Psychology, University of Florence, 50135, Florence, Italy c Department of Physics and Astronomy and Center for the Study of Complex Dynamics (CSDC), University of Florence, 50019 Sesto Fiorentino, also INFN sec, Florence, Italy dDepartment of Neuroscience, Psychology, Drug Research and Children’s Health (NEUROFARBA) – sect. Psychology, University of Florence, 50135, Florence, Italy e Department of Educational Sciences and Psychology and Center for the Study of Complex Dynamics (CSDC), University of Florence, 50135, Florence, Italy


Keywords: Social influence Conformity Computer-mediated-communication Anonymity Deindividuation


Research on social influence shows that different patterns take place when this phenomenon happens within computer-mediated-communication (CMC), if compared to face-to-face interaction. Informational social influ- ence can still easily take place also by means of CMC, however normative influence seems to be more affected by the environmental characteristics. Different authors have theorized that deindividuation nullifies the effects of normative influence, but the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects theorizes that users will conform even when deindividuated, but only if social identity is made salient.

The two typologies of social influence have never been studied in comparison, therefore in our work, we decided to create an online experiment to observe how the same variables affect them, and in particular how deindividuation works in both cases. The 181 experimental subjects that took part, performed 3 tasks: one aiming to elicit normative influence, and two semantic tasks created to test informational influence. Entropy has been used as a mathematical assessment of information availability.

Our results show that normative influence becomes almost ineffective within CMC (1.4% of conformity) when subjects are deindividuated.

Informational influence is generally more effective than normative influence within CMC (15–29% of con- formity), but similarly to normative influence, it is inhibited by deindividuation.

1. Introduction

With the diffusion of social networking platforms, the social and information seeking-related human behaviors have been affected by the “new” environment. Information seeking increasingly takes place on social media platforms, relying on what a users’ contacts and followed pages share (Zubiaga, Liakata, Procter, Hoi, & Tolmie, 2016).

Because of this filtering and selection, the users’ knowledge-building process could be severely biased and polarized.

For example, a study shows that 72% of participants (college stu- dents) trusted links sent by friends, even if they contained phishing attempts (Jagatic, Johnson, Jakobsson, & Menczer, 2007).

The recent debate on fake news, highlighted the potential link be- tween the increase in their spread, and the structure of social networks as well as their embedded algorithms, which turned these environments into “echo chambers”, in which users are selectively exposed to

information, and tend to filter the information in order to reinforce their positions (confirmation bias), rather than to find alternatives (Del Vicario et al., 2016).

These factors highlight the importance of studying the effects of social influence within computer-mediated-communication, in order to understand which environmental factors can enhance its effects.

Social norms exist also in online environments, but the users’ per- ception of them can be different according to the platform, to anon- ymity and the social ties among contacts. Therefore, compliance to social norms can emerge in different ways, than those observable in face-to-face interaction.

Also, information-seeking behavior can be affected by online en- vironments: on one side we observe its interrelation with social norms, especially when it takes place on social media platforms, and users gather information on the basis of what they read on their personal newsfeed. However, we also observe how users can rely on opinions Received 29 March 2018; Received in revised form 9 October 2018; Accepted 7 November 2018

∗ Corresponding author. Department of Sociology, Stockholm University, S-106 91, Stockholm, Sweden. E-mail address: (S. Coppolino Perfumi).

Computers in Human Behavior 92 (2019) 230–237

Available online 13 November 2018 0747-5632/ © 2018 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


expressed by unknown actors, as it happens on platforms like TripAdvisor.

The present study, using online experiments, aims to separate norms-oriented social influence from information-oriented social in- fluence, in order to observe which elements and environmental factors have an effect on both typologies and which are peculiar for each.

1.1. Theoretical framework

A major understanding on the functioning of social influence came about thanks to the pioneering works of Sherif (1937) and then Asch (1951, 1955, 1956). The authors studied how the physical presence of other people can lead experimental subjects to conform their judgment to the one of the others. They used two different types of tasks: while in Asch conformity experiments, guessing the correct answer could be straightforward (Asch, 1955, 1956; Asch & Guetzkow, 1951), Sherif used the autokinetic effect, so a more ambiguous task, to test the effects of social influence (Sherif, 1937). From these experiments, two typol- ogies of social influence have been identified, called “normative” when people conform in order to satisfy a need to belong and comply to social norms, as observed in Asch’s experiments, and “informational” when the subjects lack on information in order to perform a task, as observed in the autokinetic experiment (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). According to this theorization proposed by Deutsch and Gerard (1955), we can say that we are able to observe normative social influence in Asch’s con- formity experiments, because the task is relatively easy and the sub- jects, when interviewed after taking part to the experiment stated that they were able to spot the correct answer, but conform in order not to break the social norms and be group outsiders. Instead, given that the task presented in the autokinetic experiment is more ambiguous, as it is based on a visual illusion, in this case we can say that subjects conform because they are unsure on how to proceed.

While, as observed in these classical studies, to elicit conformity in face-to-face situations, the physical presence of other people and being exposed to their judgment can be enough, things go differently when people interact online, especially for normative social influence.

Indeed, it is still unclear which elements can have the power to lead people to conform during computer-mediated-communication.

Deindividuation, namely the diminished perception of one’s per- sonal traits (Zimbardo, 1969), has been identified as a potential key element in the discourse on normative influence.

The original deindividuation model was proposed by Zimbardo in 1969, and the author identified a series of variables that according to him can lead to a deindividuation state. The variables considered by Zimbardo are for example anonymity, arousal, sensory overload, novel or unstructured situations, involvement in the act, and the use of al- tering substances (Zimbardo, 1969). Several other authors suggest that if people interact while being in a deindividuation state, normative social influence can disappear (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Latané, 1981; Lott & Lott, 1965; Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). This happens because there is not the possibility to identify the interlocutors, due to a lack of actual or perceived proximity, and consequently, deindividua- tion should lighten the pressure to act according to social norms (Latané, 1981).

Furthermore, a study which tested antinormative behavior by counterposing deindividuation to the presence of an explicit aggressive social norm, showed that subjects were actually more aggressive when deindividuated, rather than when exposed to the explicit norm, so in this case, deindividuation resulted to be more powerful in leading to antinormative behavior (Mann, Newton, & Innes, 1982).

A significant advancement in explaining the functioning of norma- tive social influence in online environments is represented by the contribution provided by the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE Model), that takes the concept of deindividuation and expands it, explaining its link and implications on social influence in online environments (Spears, Postmes, Lea, & Wolbert, 2002).

The authors theorize that deindividuation is indeed likely to occur in online environments, but it can become a powerful tool to trigger conformity: given that while deindividuated, subjects have a dimin- ished perception of their personal traits, if the group the subjects are interacting with is made salient, then the subjects will be more likely to conform (Spears, Postmes, & Lea, 2018).

This happens because combining a lack of relevance of one’s per- sonality with an enhancement of the…