Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

Power of the Internet

Analysis by
Liz Carmona, Sascha Hansen
William Kramer, & Dawn Olson


buckets972977480119.gif (16520 bytes)
The Buckets, by Scott Stantis, 1/19/98

    Our group found several social psychological principles within this Buckets cartoon including persuasion, escalation of commitment, authority, cognitive dissonance, and hindsight bias. In a discussion, we discovered that these principles not only relate to the Internet when using games, horoscope sites, chat rooms, and sites for the sports fanatic, but also are easily found in other everyday activities, shopping in particular.

    The persuasion technique used in this cartoon is called the foot-in-the-door method. Cialdini defines this tactic of persuasion as starting with a little request in order to gain eventual compliance with related larger requests (Cialdini, 1993: p. 72). The Internet uses this tactic by starting with a small request, (clicking on a link), and then getting the user so involved that they spend hours on the Internet; webbing, gaming, or even purchasing items. This method works because once a user has seen a website, they may keep searching for a better one that is new and improved. Also, each time a link is found, more links on that topic become available at the touch of a finger. The numerous links available are easy to access and keep the user involved. The Internet guides people through web pages much like being guided through a grocery or clothing store which guides people through the merchandise. The goal is to persuade users or customers to remain active at a site or store which increases the chances of earning money. They are able to do so because of the human error of escalation of commitment, "an increased commitment to a previous decision in spite of negative information" (Robbins, 1997: p.33). Outlet malls provide a good illustration of how this error occurs. Outlet malls usually require significant traveling time. Companies realize that once an individual has taken the time to travel, he or she will be more apt to purchase something to justify the amount of time already committed. The same idea exists within the Buckets cartoon. The time commitment the character made in this cartoon demonstrates how persuaded he was by the Internet. Because so much time and effort had already been invested, it was easy to escalate his commitment and keep browsing.

    Cognitive dissonance is another social psychological principle that is illustrated in the Buckets cartoon. Cognitive dissonance is the uneasy feeling one experiences when his/her related cognitions are inconsistent (Weiten 660). This feeling motivates attitude change in order to alleviate the uncomfortable feeling. The man in the cartoon rationalized that crochet had become important to him in order to justify why he spent the whole night on the computer. Then, in the morning, he realized that maybe virtual crochet was not as important as he first thought. He had now succumbed to the error of hindsight bias, the ability to see one's errors and preferred courses of action after the fact. People may also feel cognitive dissonance when shopping, and an unneeded product is purchased. A shopper may feel guilty about spending so much on a lavish item that they just purchased and then decide to return the item, (changing behavior), or over-justify why they might need it (changing attitude).

    Another reason the man in the cartoon was so influenced by the Internet could have been because he viewed the computer as an authority. Cialdini includes authority in his list of weapons of influence. He claims that "legitimately constituted authorities are extremely influential persons (Tesser, 1995: p. 272). For most people, following authority makes so much sense that they often do it blindly. Simply due to the fact that something is published on the Internet, it is often considered to be a true authority, even when often, it is not. There are no editors for the Internet and anyone who wants a site can have one. People can be manipulated when they assume that these places or sites are legitimate and accurate. In order to avoid this "weapon," users of the Internet must intelligently browse, critically think, and be consciously aware of the sites' attributes. Web sites can be evaluated as good or bad sites by looking at their html address, authorship, publishing body, the date and currency of the information, and available references. Milgram studied the power of authority in his classic "memory" study where subjects were instructed to shock another person even if it appeared fatal (Cialdini 209). The experimenter giving the instructions was viewed as an authority, as was the site of the experiment, Stanford University. The subjects seemed unable to defy the wishes of the boss of the study. If the Internet is viewed as an authority, users may blindly follow link after link, eventually logging hours on the computer. The Buckets cartoon is loaded with concepts that many of us deal with daily on the Internet. There is some irony in being able to find so many social psychological implications in such a non-social activity (webbing). Whether the weapons of influence get the best of you, (foot-in-the-door and authority), or you fall into the human error of escalation of commitment and then experience cognitive dissonance or hindsight bias, your time spent on the computer could easily be due to persuasive techniques.

References

    Cialdini, Robert, B. (1993). The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Quill William Morrow.

    Robbins, Stephen B. (1997). Essentials of Organizational Behavior. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

    Tesser, Abraham. (1995). Advanced Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

    Weiten, Wayne. (1995). Psychology: Themes and Variations. New York: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.


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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Thursday, April 18, 2002 at 15:17:10 . This document has been accessed 390 +  1  times since 1 Jan 1998. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman