Differences in Normative and Informational Social Influence

ABSTRACT - In an investigation of the distinctive characteristics of normative and informational social influence, a survey probed purchase decision, individual difference, and consumer-referent relationship characteristics associated with recent purchase episodes involving advice from others. Levels of involvement and complexity were shown to be greater in informational influence situations than in normative. Conspicuousness, contact and advice solicitation frequency, and consumer-referent homophily with respect to the value attached to warm relationships were greater when normative influence was involved.


Kenneth R. Lord, Myung-Soo Lee, and Peggy Choong (2001) ,"Differences in Normative and Informational Social Influence", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 280-285.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 280-285


Kenneth R. Lord, Mercer University

Myung-Soo Lee, City University of New York

Peggy Choong, Niagara University


In an investigation of the distinctive characteristics of normative and informational social influence, a survey probed purchase decision, individual difference, and consumer-referent relationship characteristics associated with recent purchase episodes involving advice from others. Levels of involvement and complexity were shown to be greater in informational influence situations than in normative. Conspicuousness, contact and advice solicitation frequency, and consumer-referent homophily with respect to the value attached to warm relationships were greater when normative influence was involved.


Despite a recognition that social influence in the marketplace may be either normative (motivated by social norms/rewards) or informational (based on perceived referent expertise), little attention has been paid to differences between the two. The intent of this research effort is to explain and empirically demonstrate the distinctive characteristics of normative and informational social influence with respect to decision, individual difference, and consumer-referent relationship variables.


"One of the most pervasive determinants of an individual’s behavior is the influence of those around him," observed Burnkrant and Cousineau (1975) in their pioneering work on social influence in consumer behavior (p. 206). "It seems necessary," they suggest, "if we are to gain insight into the determinants of buyer product evaluation, to come to grips with the role or roles played by the evaluation of relevant others in affecting the individual’s product evaluation."

Following early conceptual work by Deutsch and Gerard (1955) and Kelman (1961), researchers in this area have identified three forms of social influence C informational, normative and value expressive. Informational influence refers to the provision of credible evidence of reality (Burnkrant and Cousineau 1975). It is important when consumers feel the need to make informed choices. They perceive the opinions or usage of products by those who are seen as credible as proof of a product’s quality or characteristics. Normative social influence relates to conformity with the expectations of other persons or groups to achieve rewards or avoid punishment (Homans 1961). The greatest normative influence is usually exerted within primary reference groups such as the immediate family (Cooley 1962). Recognizing the prevalence of normative social influence in many decision situations, Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) incorporated "subjective norm" into their "Theory of Reasoned Action," developing and validating a measurement approach for this normative construct as an integral component of their behavioral intention model. Value-expressive influence is characterized by a need for psychological association with a group through the acceptance of its norms, values and behavior. The individual likes or admires the reference group and attempts to mimic it.

Although normative and value-expressive influence are conceptually different, they have been found to be quite similar and have proven difficult to distinguish empirically (Burnkrant and Cousineau 1975; Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel 1989). This is perhaps because they are likely to coexist in the same sources; e.g., family members and friends both establish a value system (value expressive) and mediate rewards/punishments for compliance/noncompliance with its norms and values (normative). Like the studies cited above, and more recently Mascarenhas and Higby (1993), the present research treats social influence dichotomously, comparing informational with a combined normative/value-expressive construct.

The prior two decades have seen sporadic research efforts aimed at further clarifying the nature of social influence in a consumer decision context. Some have explored referent or product effects on social influence without regard to influence type (informational or normative). Brown and Reingen (1987) demonstrated that strong primary ties (e.g., close friends) are more likely than weak secondary ties (e.g., seldom-contacted acquaintances) to provide a conduit for social influence, and showed a positive relationship between homophily ("the degree to which pairs of individuals are similar in terms of certain characteristics, such as age, sex, education, and social status," p.354) and social tie activation. In a modified replication of Bearden and Etzel’s (1982) study of reference-group influence, Childers and Rao (1992) observed that "the degree to which the product is a luxury appears to be the driving force behind the manifestation of peer influence" (p. 205), while intergenerational familial influence (in the United States) was stronger for necessities than for luxuries; their work did not distinguish between informational and normative influence.

A few studies have sought to clarify normative influence mechanisms and outcomes. Brinberg and Plimpton (1986) found a relationship between consumption and conspicuousness and value-expressive influence. Bearden and Rose (1990) provided evidence that "attention to social comparison information" (TSCI) C a measure of a general tendency to conform (Lennox and Wolfe 1984) C moderates the influence of normative consequences on behavioral intention. Testing a model of the role of social context in early adoption behavior, Fisher and Price (1992) showed that "perceived visibility of consumption" (conspicuousness) affects consumer predictions of social approval from referents.

The informational-normative distinction has been an explicit focus of a few studies in the last decade. LaTour and Manrai (1989) hypothesized and showed support for a synergistic interaction between normative and informational social influence attempts, such that combined normative-informational strategy yielded results superior to those observed for either approach employed in isolation. Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel (1989) developed and validated a scale for measuring consumer susceptibility to informational and normative interpersonal influence; they found that Lennox and Wolfe’s (1984) ATSCI scale and the "motivation to comply" construct (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980) exhibited correlations with susceptibility to normative influence which were relatively strong and significantly greater than correlation coefficients associated with informational influence. More recently, Mascarenhas and Higby (1993) found that informational influence exceeded normative in the area of teen apparel shopping, although teen boys were more susceptible to normative influence than were girls; further, family size was positively related to the level of social influence, while the amount of gift money received and age were negatively related.

While extant literature establishes the existence and some characteristics of normative and informational social influence, more research is needed. From a strategic perspective, the effective management of social influence requires an understanding of the type of social influence likely to prevail under different purchase decisions or situational conditions and the identification of individuals best positioned to exert such an influence. Research is thus needed to establish the distinctive antecedents of the two types of social influence and differences between them with respect to the nature of the relationship between influence wielders and recipients.


The motivational differences that define the distinction between normative and informational social influence provide an appropriate starting point for an inquiry into their antecedents and relationship characteristics. Fundamental to the distinct nature of the two influence types is the issue of whether the consumer’s overriding concern is with the achievement of desired product/service-relevant (informational) or relationship (normative) outcomes. Drawing upon those motivations and relevant prior research, hypotheses are proposed that employ type of influence as the independent variable, examining differences in several decision-characteristic, individual-difference and consumer/referent-relationship variables. (While the impracticality of a lonitudinal design precluded measurement of the constructs before the social-influence incidents they affected, these variables are assumed to be sufficiently stable to allow an inference that hypothesis-consistent results indicate their existence antecedent to that influence.)

Mascarenhas and Higby (1993) suggest that "susceptibility to interpersonal influences could be proportional to one’s involvement with the products/services that one plans to purchase" (p. 57). Involvement (or degree of personal relevance) has been shown to be positively related to external search and cognitive processing of decision-relevant stimuli, apparently motivated by an attempt to increase the effectiveness of alternative evaluation (cf. Beatty and Smith 1987; Celsi and Olson 1988). Such an objective is seemingly more consistent with informational social influence than with a normative focus on social rewards or conformity. Accordingly, it is hypothesized that:

H1: Purchase situations involving informational social influence will be characterized by higher levels of involvement in the product or service decision than those involving normative influence.

Effects similar to those predicted for involvement have been ascribed to product or decision complexity; e.g., the more evaluative criteria employed in alternative evaluation the more time spent in search (cf. Assael 1987). The decision uncertainty occasioned by complexity would potentially activate a motivation to seek input from those perceived as possessing expertise relevant to the salient attributes of the desired product or service. Complexity, like involvement, is thus expected to relate positively to informational, but not to normative, social influence.

H2: Purchase situations involving informational social influence will be characterized by higher levels of decision complexity than those involving normative influence.

A popular conceptualization of reference group influence views that form of social influence as being most pervasive for "public" as opposed to "private" goods (Bearden and Etzel 1982), but does not differentiate between informational and normative influence. What appears in large measure to discriminate between public and private goods is their level of conspicuousness, a factor which would appear to be more relevant to the motives identified earlier as being associated with normative than with informational influence. While the relevance of conspicuousness to normative considerations has already been demonstrated (Brinberg and Plimpton 1986, Fisher and Price 1992), an objective of this study is to establish whether it differs between informational and normative influence situations. In most purchase categories, the extent to which the purchase and/or usage of a product or service is seen by others does not relate directly to the functional benefits it delivers to the use, but may elicit judgments on the part of social observers. Conspicuousness, therefore, is expected to be associated more with normative than with informational social influence.

H3: Purchase situations involving normative social influence will be characterized by higher levels of product or service conspicuousness than those involving informational influence.

As noted earlier, Bearden and Rose (1990) established the validity of the Lennox and Wolfe (1984) Attention to Social Comparison Information (ATSCI) scale, designed to capture "consumers’ predisposition to act on the social cues available at the time a purchase or consumption decision is being made" (p. 461). These researchers did not concern themselves explicitly with the distinction between normative and informational social influence. However, the very nature of the scale items (concerned with behavior which "makes me fit in" or may elicit "disapproval") and the assumption that sensitivity to social comparison information is "motivated by such factors as a fear of negative social evaluation" point to normative as the type of social influence that would be driven primarily by this individual-difference factor. This leads to the following prediction:

H4: Consumers soliciting referent advice for normative reasons will be characterized by higher levels of attention to social comparison information than those reporting informational influence.

With respect to the question of the types of individuals whose advice is sought in normative and informational influence conditions, the issue of homophily becomes relevant. A homophilous tie is one in which the consumer and the referent possess shared characteristics with respect to values, lifestyles, demographics, etc. Alternatively, a heterophilous tie is one in which the two individuals manifest substantial differences on such relevant dimensions. The work of Brown and Reingen (1987), cited earlier, established that "of an individual’s potential personal sources of information, the more homophilous the tie, the more likely it is activated for the flow of referral" (p.354), but did not address the issue of potential differences between normative and informational influence. Social networks are known to be populated primarily by individuals characterized by homophilous ties, and it is within those networks that social norms and their corresponding rewards or punishments are manifest. Alternatively, there is no reason to expect any consistent or systematic social/demographic similarity among consumers and those referents sought out because of their superior knowledge, experience or expertise. Indeed, a consumer’s need to access purchase-relevant expertise that s/he does not personally possess would potentially lead to the solicitation of information and advice from persons not only different from the consumer her/himself, but different from referents contacted for other purchases (e.g., legal and landscaping expertise may reside in substantially different individuals). This reasoning leads to the follwing prediction:

H5: Homophilous ties are more characteristic of normative social influence, with heterophilous ties more prevalent in informational social influence situations.

In addition to the role of similarity between consumer and referent, the frequency of contact has been shown to relate to social influence. Brown and Reingen (1987) found that "strong ties," defined in part as those characterized by high contact frequency, are more likely than weak ties to serve as a conduit for the transfer of purchase-relevant information. Contrary to their expectations, however, they also discovered that weak ties were more likely to be actively sought out explicitly for such information. The normative-informational distinction may account for these contrasting findings. Frequent contact (strong tie) allows extensive opportunity for information transfer via casual conversation. However, whether the active solicitation of such information takes place among those with whom a consumer has frequent or infrequent contact may depend upon whether the objectives of such solicitation are normative or informational. A consumer seeking normative rewards will likely seek out the mediators of such rewards, commonly members of peer, reference, or other associational groups with whom s/he has regular contact. If the objective is to obtain the information most pertinent to the functional or performance aspects of a purchase decision, there is no reason to expect a systematic bias towards frequently contacted or strong-tie referents. The latter would seem to be the situation Brown and Reingen’s respondents faced as they decided upon a piano teacher. Consistent with the expected difference in the frequency of prior contact between normative and informational referents, one might expect influencers accessed for normative purposes to play a referent role in more purchase situations than informational sources. These expectations lead to the following hypothesis:

H6: Relative to referents solicited for informational purposes, normative referents will be characterized by:

a. Greater frequency of contact;

b. Greater regularity of providing purchase-relevant advice.

The six hypotheses are summarized in Table 1.




A survey approach was employedto investigate these issues. Forty students in an evening MBA program were asked to provide information about two recent purchase decisions involving social influence. The resulting data set contained 74 incidents of social influence (a few respondents reported only one purchase situation).

Respondents completed the ATSCI scale (Cronbach a reliability coefficient .90). Each respondent was then asked to identify two purchase decisions, occurring within the most recent three months, in which information or advice was sought from another person or persons. Respondents completed the following hypothesis-relevant measures separately for each of the two decisions: why the particular individual was approached for advice or information (open ended), frequency of contact with the referent prior to the decision (six-point scale ranging from once or twice a year to daily), the number of occasions on which the respondent had sought advice or information from the referent (six-point scale ranging from once to more than seven times), product/service conspicuousness (six-point scale: observed by the general public, observed by many people, observed by several people, observed by several people you know, observed by one or a few people you know, unobserved by others), decision complexity (number of attributes considered in making the decision, measured on a six-point scale from one to more than five), involvement in the decision (20-item Personal Involvement Inventory, Zaichkowsky 1985, a = .91; the mean of the twenty items serves as the decision involvement index for subsequent analysis). A battery of questions addressing the characteristics of the referent followed, including gender, age, education, marital status, ethnic background, income, occupation, political and religious affiliation, and value priorities (using the University of Michigan Survey Research Center’s nine-item List of Values scale; Kahle, Beatty and Homer 1986). Having completed the latter battery of questions for each referent, the respondent completed the same psychographic and demographic measures relative to himself or herself.


For purposes of hypothesis testing, the type of influence exerted served as a blocking variable (to capture normative and informational social influence), with means for the variables addressed by the hypotheses compared across groups. In coding the questions addressing respondent’s reasons for consulting a particular referent, it became obvious that multiple decisions included a combination of normative and informational objectives on the part of respondents. Hence the type of influence was treated as a three-level variable (normative, informational, both), based on the coding of two independent judges. The judges agreed in 88 percent of the cases, and differences were resolved by discussion. Coded in this fashion, the data contained 12 instances of normative social influence, 42 of informational, and 20 characterized by both influence types.



The first hypothesis related to consumers’ involvement in the product or service involved in the decision. As predicted, involvement differed significantly between the three categories (F2,71 = 3.16, p < .05, h2 = .08), with the mean involvement level higher in informational social influence contexts (5.76) than in normative (5.17). Situations involving both normative and informational social influence were characterized by a mean involvement level comparable to that of the informational group and significantly higher than the normative (5.65). The means, standard deviations and contrast results associated with this and the other hypothesis tests are reported in Table 2.

upport for hypothesis 2 is marginally significant (F2,71 = 270, p < .10, h2 = .07). Product complexity in informational social influence scenarios (and those involving both informational and normative) exceeded that observed in decisions involving exclusively normative influence (2.36, 2.50 and 1.50, respectively).

The conspicuousness hypothesis (3) obtained support (F2,71 = 6.31, p < .01, h2 = .15). Higher levels of that construct were associated with normative and combined influence situations (3.67 and 3.75, respectively) than with purchases involving only informational influence (2.13).

The ATSCI scale index (mean of the scale’s thirteen items) failed to yield the hypothesized significant differences between groups (F2,71 = 1.58, p > .10, h2 = .21). Thus hypothesis 4 finds no support in the data.

With respect to the hypothesis that consumer-referent relationships are characterized by homophily in normative influence situations and heterophily in informational (H5), little support emerged. Analyses of reported differences between the two parties with respect to the demographic and psychographic variables identified in the earlier description of the measurement instrument yielded only one significant difference in means or proportions between social influence categories (F2,71 = 3.06, p < .05, h2 = .08). One item in the LOV scale, the perceived importance of "warm relationships with others," was characterized by the highest level of respondent-referent dissimilarity when social influence was informational (mean difference of 1.10), with the difference in the normative category only directionally lower (.83) and that in the combined category significantly lower (.50). There is thus little evidence in this data set of differences in homophily/heterophily between normative and social influence.

Hypothesis 6 addressed the strength of the consumer-referent relationship from the perspective of frequency of contact (H56a) and incidence of prior advice solicitation (H6b). With respect to the former perspective, the test of differences between category means (F2,71 = 2.89, p < .10, h2 = .08) showed lower respondent-referent contact frequency in informational (3.14) than in normative or combined situations (4.08 and 3.80, respectively). A comparable pattern emerged, but at a higher level of significance, when prior advice solicitation served as the dependent variable (F = 4.06, p < .05, h2 = .10); again normative and combined (4.33 and 4.30, respectively) exceeded informational (3.29). The pattern of results emerging from these tests is thus consistent with H6.


The contribution of this research lies not in the demonstration that the variables measured and analyzed herein relate to social influence, but in isolating the type of social influence activity most likely associated with them. The implication is that projecting the likelihood of social influence per se is inadequate for a marketer attempting to inject his or her product/service into this communication realm. Effective management of the social influence process requires an understanding of consumers’ objectives in exposing themselves to such influences and the distinctive characteristics of such objectives as they relate to properties of the product/service decision and the relationship between consumer and referent.

The foregoing analysis suggests that higher levels of involvement and product/servic complexity are associated with purchase decisions involving informational influence than with those involving normative, while the opposite is true of the conspicuousness of the purchase and/or consumption of the product or service. Thus the objectives for seeking information from social referents (to enhance one’s decision-making ability through the acquisition of product-relevant information from a more knowledgeable source or to attain or reinforce normative rewards or avoid punishments) will be partially a function of the levels of involvement, complexity and conspicuousness. Marketers adopting such common strategies as the targeting of opinion leaders and promotions to reference groups may enhance the efficiency of such efforts by designing the communication elements of such a strategy around the informational or normative (or combined) motivations that prevail in their target markets. The observation that in many instances consumers jointly pursue both normative and informational objectives in exposing themselves to such sources is also a message that should not be lost on the marketer.

The examination of consumer-referent relationships extends and to some extent clarifies earlier research on strong and weak ties as they relate to social influence (Brown and Reingen 1987). Frequency of contact and prior advice solicitation were clearly greater in normative than in informational influence situations. This implies that normative rewards typically flow through "strong tie" relationships, while informational benefits may accrue from any known party possessing the required knowledge and expertise, regardless of tie strength.

Some limitations exist in the research reported herein. The inconclusiveness of the homophily test, and perhaps also of the ATSCI findings, may be partially attributable to the constrained demographic and psychographic variability that is inherent in the use of a student sample. To the extent that the evening MBA students participating in this study differed systematically in their choice of or opportunity for social contacts across a broader cross-section of society, results may be distorted. Since, however, the major effect of such a bias would presumably be to mask actual differences between social influence categories because of constrained variance, it seems unlikely that such a bias could provide a plausible alternative explanation for the significant results obtained in support of the other hypotheses. Another limitation of this survey is the dependence upon respondents’ ability and willingness accurately to report their objectives in soliciting information. A self-report bias may exist in favor of informational social influence, given a possible reluctance to admit normative motivations (hopefully minimized by the assurance of anonymity), that would result in the miscategorization of some purchase episodes. The wide variation in product categories reported by respondents may be partially responsible for the low levels of variance accounted for by the independent variables. The fact that such implicit heterogeneity of variance did not attenuate the significance of the differences between the three social influence categories, however, speaks to the reality of the observed differences. Tests of homophily and heterophily are constrained by the lack of objective observation or reporting of referent characteristics. Since the variable for which significant respondent-referent differences emerged dealt with subjective value perceptions, a determination of whether differences in heterophily/homophily are real or only perceived must await further research.

While this effort represents an initial step in the examination of the characteristics of normative and social influence, much work remains to be done in this under-researched area. As a starting point, it would be appropriate to replicate this study, using a larger and more representative sample. There is a need to test the unsupported homophily and ATSCI predictions under more powerful conditions before rejecting them out of hand, and to identify any other individual-difference characteristics that may play a role in normative and informational social influence. In addiion to individual differences, situational factors (e.g., the presence or absence of referents at the time of decision making and their relationship to the decision maker) may dramatically affect the extent and type of social influence that occurs B a possibility that could be examined experimentally. To avoid self-report bias, to enhance internal validity and to reduce heterogeneity of variance, a follow-up study could productively adopt an experimental approach, in which subjects role play decisions, product categories are held constant across subjects, and relevant independent variables (e.g., homophily) are experimentally manipulated. Another issue warranting investigation is the extent to which the two types of social influence differ in the propensity for a particular referent’s influence to be exerted for a single product or service, related products only, or across product categories (monomorphism versus polymorphism). Both marketers and consumers alike stand to benefit from a more complete understanding of social influence motivations, their facilitating conditions, and susceptibility to influence strategies.


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Kenneth R. Lord, Mercer University
Myung-Soo Lee, City University of New York
Peggy Choong, Niagara University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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