4.3.2  Direct Influence on People’s Behaviour

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/432.htm)

The most powerful influences on a person’s notion of good behaviour come from observation of other people – as noted by Adam Smith:

“We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions, because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed, by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of.” [1]

In other words, people adjust their behaviour in order to please others in a community, or to avoid displeasing them.  The influence of other people is stronger if the relationship is closer[2] – as can be illustrated graphically:


Supportive behaviour might not be expected with strangers, but hostility would not be expected either.  Strangers are entitled to expect socially-acceptable behaviour from each other but it would be unrealistic to suppose that they exert any other influence.  Some criteria for socially-acceptable behaviour are suggested later in this chapter (4.4.2).

Moral support, in this context, is characterised by words like ‘security’, ‘affection’, ’trust’, ‘cooperation’.[3]  Membership of a community is of value, because of the support that it brings, and communities are able to exert a correspondingly powerful moral influence over their members;[4] they confer the benefit of moral support in exchange for an obligation to reciprocate and to conform to expected behavioural norms.  The penalties for non-compliance take the form of moral sanctions, which can be very effective: stigmatising bad behaviour puts pressure on people who are transgressing, and ostracising them can have a profound impact.

The pressure to conform, and the type of moral support received, is significantly different between family members (4.3.2.1), communities (4.3.2.2), and wider society (4.3.2.3).

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014



[1] Adam Smith’s interpretation of moral influence appeared in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, Chap. IV., para. 8.  It was available in May 2014 at http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS.html.

[2] Frans de Waal , in his article How bad biology killed the economy, pointed out that mice “from the same home box” exhibit empathy in a way that they do not feel with strangers, and he continues by saying:

“This is a typical bias that is also true of human empathy: the closer we are to a person, and the more similar we are to them, the more easily empathy is aroused.”

This article, which was referred to earlier (4.2.4.3), was published in the Winter 2009 edition of the RSA Journal; it was available in May 2014 at http://www.thersa.org/fellowship/journal/archive/winter-2009/features/how-bad-biology-killed-the-economy.  This article appeared at about the same time as publication of his book The Age of Empathy.

[3] Frans de Waal described supportive behaviour in the same article.

[4] Amitai Etzioni wrote about the supportive value of communities, and their role in governance:

“Many communities are confessional, ethnic or both. They tend to command a strong sense of loyalty and mutual responsibility – like families writ large.”

“Communities, importantly, also provide informal social controls that reinforce the moral commitments of their members and, in turn, help make for a largely voluntary social order. The most effective way to reinforce norms of behaviour is to build on the fact that people have a strong need for continuous approval from others, especially from those with whom they have affective bonds of attachment (members of their communities).”

This appeared in an article Strength in numbers, published in the RSA Journal in Autumn 2009. The article was available in May 2014 at http://www.thersa.org/fellowship/journal/archive/autumn-2009/features/strength-in-numbers.