Social influence and the influence of the social in computer-mediated communication

In this chapter we explore the social psychological dimensions of computer-mediated communication (CMC). We shall not be directly concerned here with the processes by which people choose CMC in preference to other communications media (see e.g., Fulk & Boyd, 1991, for a recent review), although it will become obvious that our argument has implications for media choice models. Rather we are interested here in the social psychological factors operating once “inside” CMC and particularly the role played by social influence processes in relation to outcomes produced in this medium, such as group attitudes and decisions. Although CMC may also produce differences in the organization, style and content of communication (for example), it is these outcomes that in a real sense will “make a difference” in the many applied settings in which CMC is used.

context of cmc
Spears, R. & Lea, M. (1992). Social influence and the influence of the ‘social’ in computer-mediated communication. In M. Lea (Ed.) Contexts of Computer-Mediated Communication. (pp. 30–65). London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Given our interest in the processes of social influence operating within CMC, and the use of CMC to support collaborative group work, we shall focus particularly on group processes and decisions. A central tool in this regard, and by no means an uncontroversial yardstick for the measurement of social influence effects, is the “group polarization paradigm”, of which more later. Finally we do not have room to consider the process and outcomes associated with other forms of cooperative activity, such as group problem-solving, and the technologies that have been designed to support these activities (see Kraemer & Pinsonneault, 1990, for a recent review). Such issues take a backseat to a more basic theoretical analysis of CMC processes, although our arguments have a range of implications and applications. Our main aim, then, is to examine the social psychological processes underlying the products of group communication and decision-making using electronic mail; and computer conferencing, as compared to face-to-face communication.

In fact a cursory review of the literature might convince the reader quickly to assume that the social dimension is of very little relevance to CMC. Broadly speaking, the prevailing analyses—which we collectively term the “social cues perspective”—indicate that communicating via computers is bereft of social cues. This is quickly followed by the inference that CMC is devoid of social or normative context and (thus) forms a particularly inefficient medium for social influence. If all this were true there would presumably be little need for any detailed social psychological analysis of CMC at all. We consider this received wisdom to be profoundly flawed. Our chapter aims to challenge this orthodox view and to restore the social dimension to an analysis of CMC behaviour and effects. Indeed, we shall argue that paradoxically CMC may represent a more intrinsically “social” medium of communication than the apparently “richer” context of face-to-face interaction, and one that gives fuller reign to fundamentally social psychological factors.

We begin by reviewing research in the “social cues” tradition which forms and informs the orthodox view. Much of this work has been concerned with earlier telecommunications technologies, although there have been no shortage of attempts to apply this theory to the CMC context. We shall focus here on three influential approaches: the Social Presence Model (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976), the Cuelessness Model (Rutter, 1987) and the Reduced Social Cues approach (Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984). These models are discussed in increasing detail commensurate with their recency, sophistication and relevance to the CMC literature. Although not the only models in this field, we consider them to be broadly representative of the social cues approach generally, and they serve to illustrate thematic problems to which it gives rise. In this respect, our general critique can also be applied to similar approaches not elaborated here, such as the media richness model (Daft & Lengel, 1984; Daft, Lengel & Trevino, 1987; Daft & Macintosh, 1981). After critically evaluating these approaches, we present our own model based on social identity theory and de-individuation processes (the SIDE model). Empirical data supporting the model are reviewed, after which we briefly return to the earlier work and reconsider it within this new framework.

Models of communication and social influence ;within CMC:
The “social cues” perspective


The Social Presence Model

One of the most influential theoretical frameworks for analyzing mediated communication is the Social Presence Model developed by the Communication Studies Group at University College, London (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976). Funded by the British Post Office (now British Telecom), this research program was concerned with communication via telephone, audio and video links. However the influence of this approach has been more widely felt and it has been repeatedly applied in more recent analyses of CMC (Daft & Lengel, 1986; Johansen, 1977;; Rice 1984; Rice & Love, 1987).

According to Short, Williams and Christie (1976), the critical factor in the communication medium is its “social presence“. social presence was originally defined as an objective “quality of the medium itself” (p.66), although on the following page greater weight is given to social presence as “a subjective quality of the medium” (p.67). In this latter respect social presence corresponds to the psychological feelings or “mental set” associated with a given medium.

social presence is conceived as a single factor that comprises a number of dimensions relating to degree of interpersonal contact. It is closely related to the notions of “intimacy” (Argyle & Dean, 1965) and “immediacy” (Wiener & Mehrebian, 1968). In rating studies using semantic differentials, social presence is typically characterised by dimensions such as unsociable-sociable, insensitive-sensitive, cold-warm and impersonal-personal (Short et al., 1976), although it does not always appear as a unique factor. The personal-impersonal dimension also correlates significantly with items designed to tap social presence (Champness, 1973;). A series of these rating studies suggested that communications media could effectively be ranked according to social presence operationalized in this way (namely from business letters, telephone/ single speaker audio, multiple speaker audio, television, up to face-to-face communication). electronic mail then presumably occupies a relatively low position level in this ranking, somewhere between business letters and the telephone. Subsequent comparative media analyses including some which have encompassed electronic mail or teleconferencing have produced very mixed results. Some of these have supported the ranking implied by the social presence model while others have identified a number of conditions under which the relative positions that media occupy give way to more important considerations or else can be overturned (e.g., Daft & Lengel, 1986; Hiemstra, 1982; Lea, 1991 Reid, 1977; Rice, 1987 Rice & Love, 1987 Rice & Williams, 1984; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986; Sumner, 1988; Steinfield, 1986; see also Walther, 1992).

Given the importance of such dimensions as sociable-unsociable and personal-impersonal to the social presence model, it is not hard to see how media low in social presence have been seen as less “social” per se. Indeed this seems to be entailed in the very construct. We shall return to this point in detail later. Our immediate concern, however, is with the predictions this model makes for the social influence of others in CMC, or analogues thereof. A more-or-less explicit corollary of the social presence Model is that the greater the social presence the more likely that communicators will be able to bring all their powers of persuasion to bear and exert influence, whereas such powers should be progressively eroded as “presence” decreases. Short tested this hypothesis in a series of studies comparing a face-to-face condition (high social presence) with a closed circuit TV condition (intermediate), and an intercom condition (low) (Short, 1972a; 1972b; 1972c; 1973). For our purposes CMC might be considered at least as low in terms of social presence as the sound only or intercom condition.

Perhaps surprisingly, the result of these studies was that influence and attitude change followed a pattern directly contrary to that predicted by the model. When attitude change occurred, it was consistently more in the direction of the source in the sound only condition than for face-to-face, with the CCTV condition in between. Puzzled by these findings Short offered certain post hoc explanations, none of which however were particularly encouraging for the equanimity of the model or its predictive utility (see also Rutter, 1987). For our part, the problem arises from construing “presence”—to the extent that it plays any role in mediating such effects—in largely physical and informational terms. Suffice to say here that this failure to predict and satisfactorily explain this basic media difference in influence effects is a serious blow to the model’s viability.

Rutter (1987) has also questioned the phenomenological emphasis of the social presence model and criticized its lack of theoretical specification (e.g., the conflation of informational cues with “mental set”) as well as raising other theoretical and methodological problems (e.g., that social presence is usually determined circularly and post hoc). Despite these criticisms Rutter acknowledges that there is much overlap between the social presence Model and his own “Cuelessness Model”. Given that the latter model builds on the social presence approach and attempts to account for its shortcomings within a more sophisticated theoretical framework, we devote some attention to it here.

The Cuelessness Model

The concept of “cuelessness” and its accompanying model reflects the culmination of an impressive body of experimentally-based work by Rutter and his associates (see e.g., Rutter, 1984; 1987). Like the Communication Studies Group much of this research was funded by British Telecom, although it had a broader theoretical scope than earlier work, the aim being to integrate a wide variety of apparently contradictory and disparate findings (many generated by the research program itself). Again, much of this research was conducted at a time when CMC was a less prominent technology, so that many of the explicit or implied comparisons were between face-to-face communication, audio and closed circuit television (CCTV). Nevertheless, much of the research does reproduce certain conditions common to CMC so this work is of theoretical interest here.

Cuelessness clearly has conceptual similarities with information richness and social presence. In contrast to social presence however, cuelessness was originally defined as an information-based rather than a phenomenological concept, being simply the aggregate number of social cues available to subjects: ” …the fewer the social cues, the greater the cuelessness” (Rutter & Stephenson, 1979). Nevertheless, in purely operational terms cuelessness is virtually indistinguishable from these other concepts, with face-to-face interaction rating lowest and letters, bulletins and so forth rating high on cuelessness. In this framework then, CMC must be regarded as relatively cueless. The most “cueless” condition used in the experiments of Rutter and his colleagues was a voice-only condition, which arguably still provides more social cues than the remote text-based communication afforded by CMC.

The cuelessness concept and the model have undergone a number of refinements in order to accommodate awkward and contradictory results (charted in Rutter, 1987). Thus, although cuelessness was originally predicted to directly affect behaviour (Rutter, Stephenson & Dewey, 1981), its effect was subsequently argued to be indirect, mediated by “psychological distance” and dependent not simply on the number of available cues, but on the number of “usable” cues (Rutter, 1987). In this respect psychological distance seems to be very close conceptually to the more phenomenological notion of social presence. The effects of psychological distance are then further mediated by the ” content” of the communication which putatively results in particular communication styles and outcomes:

cuelessness leads to psychological distance, psychological distance leads to task-oriented and depersonalized content, and task-oriented depersonalized content leads in turn to a deliberate, unspontaneous style and particular types of outcome” (Rutter, 1987;, p. 74).

Although the cuelessness model has not been applied in its entirety to CMC research, nevertheless the key concepts of cuelessness and psychological distance have resurfaced in CMC research within the social presence tradition (e.g., DeScanctis, & Gallupe, 1987; Rice & Love, 1987).

Before considering problems with the cuelessness model it is important to examine some of the empirical work with which it has been associated. Given the range and heterogeneity of findings, our selection must at best be considered illustrative, and once again we focus on outcomes rather than other aspects of the model (see Rutter, 1987 ;for a review). A series of formative studies in this tradition involved simulations of industrial bargaining in which subjects (usually students) role-played negotiators for the union or management side in an industrial dispute (e.g., Morley & Stephenson, 1969, 1970; Stephenson, Ayling and Rutter, 1976;. See also Short et al., 1976). The consistent finding from this line of research was that the side which was given the stronger case, either union or management, tended to persist through to victory, but only in the intercom condition. In the face-to-face condition the most common result was for the sides to compromise. Morley and Stephenson originally interpreted these findings in terms of their concept of “formality“, arguing that face-to-face communication is less formal and increases the salience of the interpersonal dimension at the expense of “interparty” concerns. Thus communication conducted face-to-face may be more concerned with maintaining satisfactory personal relationships than that in more formal communication systems where interparty considerations become more salient, such that so that settlements in favour of the side with the stronger case tend to be associated with the formality of the system used (Morley and Stephenson, 1977). This distinction between the interpersonal and intergroup dimensions is an important feature of the work of Morley and Stephenson (e.g., Morley & Stephenson, 1977; Stephenson, 1984) and plays a central role in our own model to be articulated shortly.

Rutter (1987), however, re-interprets these findings in terms of the cuelessness Model: the psychological distance associated with cuelessness leads to a task-oriented and depersonalized content which results in outcomes which lack compromise. Differences between media seem to turn on a ‘task/person’ distinction echoing the division between task-oriented and socio-emotional functions introduced by Bales (1950) and subsequently applied to the CMC context (e.g., Hiltz & Turoff, 1978; Rice, 1984; Hiltz, Johnson & Turoff, 1986; Sumner, 1988) despite substantial problems (Lea, 1991; Walther, 1992). face-to-face communication is rich in interpersonal cues, more personalized and thus socially rich. By associating more cueless media with task-orientation on the other hand, the implication is that these are somehow less social so that here the intergroup dimension to the ‘social’ is marginalized. In sum the ‘social’ element in the cuelessness Model is defined in largely quantitative and ‘informational’ terms as the number of social cues, and is optimized in the interpersonal exchange of face-to-face communication. Short et al., (1976) also cite these bargaining studies, and like Rutter, use them to underscore the idea that face-to-face communication is more social (and sociable) than communication via media less rich in interpersonal cues. More recently Rice & Williams (1984) cite these studies in applying the social presence model to CMC.

Part of the impetus for the rejection of “formality” and reformulation in terms of cuelessness can be related to the contradictory findings that soon began to emerge in this field. Under certain circumstances it appeared that face-to-face conditions could lead to less compromise (e.g., Carnevale, Pruitt & Seilheimer, 1981; Pruitt, Kimmel, Britton, Carnevale, Magenau, Peragallo & Engram, 1978; Short, 1974)—for example when people had to argue their own position instead of on behalf of the group (Short, 1974). In a more recent attempt to reconcile the contradictory findings of Morley and Stephenson (1969, 1970) and Carnevale et al. (1981), Schruijer (1990) pointed to the competitive or co-operative nature of the pre-existing normative context, and argued that the salience of the interpersonal dimension in face-to-face communication would enhance these behavioural responses (cf. Zajonc, 1965). Her results were not clear-cut, but the evidence tended to go against her hypothesis, such that in the neutral and competitive conditions the party with the stronger case was more likely to win under telephone than face-to-face conditions (Schruijer, 1990). In fact these findings are more in line with the original approach of Morley and Stephenson, and our own model developed below.

The immediate point however is that the cuelessness dimension was incorporated into the model in an attempt to explain these contradictory findings. However, it is not at all clear that this refinement is any more successful in explaining why people sometimes exercise more influence (and show less compromise) in sound only conditions, and sometimes in more “personalized” face-to-face conditions (see Rutter, 1987). In sum the model does not sufficiently specify how social influence might operate in both these contexts, nor the quality or direction of outcomes that might be predicted. To be fair Rutter (1987) acknowledges some conceptual shortcomings in the cuelessness approach (e.g., the criteria for the usability of cues are not specified so the advantage of cuelessness as an objective and informational concept seems to be somewhat lost). Also the mechanisms mediating the relationship between cuelessness and its (albeit indirect) influence on process and outcomes are imprecise. For example although the effect of cuelessness is normally to increase psychological distance, Rutter notes that some media that are high in cuelessness can be very close psychologically in certain contexts, such as ‘telephone hotlines’. Here it is precisely the lack of social cues that seems to guarantee a degree of intimacy. In theoretical terms then the truly psychological concepts in the model like the ‘usability’ of cues and ‘psychological distance‘ seem to protect cuelessness and the associated informational model from empirical exceptions, as much as serving a priori to explain processes and outcomes.

Finally a remark concerning communication style is in order. One of the clear predictions of the cuelessness model is that cueless communication media will lead to task-oriented and depersonalized content which should result in an unspontaneous communication style. It is not entirely clear how ‘unspontaneous’ should be interpreted here, but in any event evidence from CMC suggests quite the opposite regarding this prediction. The phenomenon of paralanguage; produced by keyboard tricks, the lack of etiquette for salutations, the playfulness of much CMC and the variety of persona or “voices” that are adopted in computer conferences all suggest stylistic spontaneity in CMC that, if anything, is promoted because of the relatively cueless environment (Finholt & Sproull, 1990; Lea & Spears, 1992; Myers, 1987; Ord, 1989; Spitzer, 1986; Van Gelder, 1985; Walther, 1992; Wilkins, 1991).

In sum, although the cuelessness model has been successively refined to account for disparate findings it is not at all clear that cuelessness, at least in any such unidimensional informational sense can adequately accommodate them. In this respect we would argue that a retreat from an analysis of the distinctive features of the social and normative context towards a purely informational and quantitative analysis of social cues is a retrograde theoretical step which tends to exclude the broader structure and social meaning of situations and their influence on behaviour. The question of extrapolation to text-based electronic media only exacerbates these problems and a direct test of the model’s predictions in the CMC context still awaits. We now move on to consider an approach which has tackled the social psychological aspects of CMC directly.

The Reduced Social Cues approach

In this section we consider the research program of another very influential group: the Committee on Social Science Research in Computing at Carnegie-Mellon University (e.g., Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984; Kiesler, 1986; McGuire, Kiesler & Siegel, 1987; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler & McGuire, 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Their extensive work in this field covers a cluster of interrelated processes and explanations which we refer to collectively as the “Reduced Social Cues” approach (RSC).

From our point of view, this work has a number of clear advantages over the research previously discussed. First and foremost it has been directly concerned with CMC, so many of the problems of extrapolation from more general experimental studies designed to manipulate social cues simply do not arise. Second this work directly addresses social influence and decision making processes using established paradigms (notably the group polarization paradigm) so comparisons across research is much less ad hoc or hazardous. It also offers a sophisticated theoretical account of influence processes which is specifically tuned to effects and outcomes, making it easier to generate and evaluate predictions. At the same time, the theoretical underpinnings of this research share many similarities with the two models already discussed. Once again the absence of social cues occupies a central role in explaining the social psychological effects associated with CMC.

What are these effects? Kiesler and her associates present and review an impressive body of empirical work that suggests that behaviour within CMC tends to be relatively uninhibited (as reflected in the phenomenon of “flaming“) and that, relatedly, group decisions made in CMC tend to be more polarised, extreme, and risky than in face-to-face interaction (e.g., Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984; Kiesler, 1986; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler & McGuire, 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986).

It is perhaps important at this point to clarify and define ” group polarization” because this phenomenon and the processes underlying it will form a recurring issue in the remainder of the chapter. group polarization is simply the tendency for the mean attitudes or decisions of individuals to become more extreme in the direction of the already preferred pole of a given scale, as a result of discussion within the group. (This is usually combined with some convergence of positions towards each other, although this aspect of group polarization is far less commonly noted.) Ever since early work on the “risky shift” (Stoner, 1961) this phenomenon has been established as one of the most robust and well-researched findings within social psychology (see e.g., Isenberg, 1986; Lamm & Myers, 1978; Wetherell, 1987 ;for reviews). The research of Kiesler and her colleagues was particularly important in showing that this effect was often even stronger when group discussion took place via CMC (e.g., Kiesler et al., 1984; Siegel et al., 1986).

The basic thesis of the RSC approach is that certain features associated with CMC encourage psychological states which undermine the social and normative influences on individuals or groups, leading to more deregulated and extreme (“antinormative”) behaviour. A central factor underlying this approach is the absence of social and contextual cues, leading to the reduced impact of social norms and constraints. Thus Siegel et al. (1986) indicate that: “the absence of social context cues in computer mediation will reduce normative influence relative to informational influence” (p. 182).

The model of informational influence used to explain greater polarization in CMC is “persuasive arguments theory” (e.g., Burnstein & Vinokur, 1977; Vinokur & Burnstein, 1974). This theory posits that group polarization is a function of the number of (novel )persuasive arguments favouring the already preferred pole to which one is exposed during group discussion. It is argued that both the uninhibited behaviour and the more equal participation characteristic of CMC facilitate the exchange of more persuasive arguments favouring the preferred pole.

In fact this brief summary does not do justice to the full complexity of the RSC approach. As suggested above, the approach implicates a range of theories and concepts which also seem to have been developed and refined across time (cf. Kiesler et al., 1984; McGuire et al., 1987; Siegel et al., 1986). We have tried to summarise the essential aspects of this eclectic model and the relation between its elements in Figure 1. We should stress that this is not the reproduction of a model presented anywhere else in this diagrammatic form; it is our attempt to formalise and integrate the various elements from publications (notably Kiesler et al., 1984 ;and Siegel et al., 1986). The aim is to facilitate comprehension of the elements and their interrelations, and, no less importantly, to afford later comparisons and contrasts with our own approach.

To continue reading, download full text including references in pdf format.


  • A summary critique of the “social cues” approach
  • An alternative approach: The SIDE Model
  • A reappraisal of previous research findings
  • Conclusions
Spears, R. & Lea, M. (1992). Social influence and the influence of the ‘social’ in computer-mediated communication. In M. Lea (Ed.) Contexts of Computer-Mediated Communication. (pp. 30–65). London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

If you found this article useful, please share so others can find it.