The influence of other people

“In what ways can the presence of other people affect an individual’s cognition and perception?”

When I began this essay, I was determined to try a new approach that didn’t involve reading everything under the sun (remember the 55 pages of notes I ended up with last time? Shudder…). I did achieve that, but, regardless, there was still a TONNE of interesting stuff I couldn’t fit into the measly 1500 word limit. My resulting essay, stripped of much of the carefully crafted narrative I’d developed, felt a little like a shopping list. However, I enjoyed doing the research, and the shopping list still contained some juicy studies I felt excited to mention, albeit briefly. I’d be interested in delving deeper into some of the many ways that the presence of other people can influence us. A future blog post perhaps…?

Essay Summary

(If you fancy jumping straight into the real thing, just keep scrolling…)

  • The presence of other people affects the way we perceive and think about the world around us. This essay focuses on 4 key aspects of perception and cognition that are affected by the presence of others.
  • 1) The presence of other people affects what we look at. In particular, what they’re looking at influences us. I’m sure you’ve experienced the ‘feeling’ of someone’s eyes looking at you, making you instinctively look in their direction. This effect is seemingly automatic. Other effects seem to occur less automatically, to help us meet certain goals. For example, many studies using computerised tasks have shown how people take into account what other people are looking at to a greater or lesser extent depending on their social status, or the task being performed.

    The seemingly automatic capture of your attention towards the face of someone looking at you is one of the so-called ‘watching eyes effects’ (Conty, George, & Hietanen, 2016)
  • 2) Believing that others are sharing our experience can change how we perceive that experience ourselves. For example, sweet chocolate can taste sweeter and bitter chocolate more bitter when we believe other people are also tasting the chocolate. Weird, huh? There are different hypotheses as to how this happens. Some suggest we take the (sometimes imagined) perceptions of others into account automatically, others suggest we do it intentionally to meet social or information-seeking goals.
  • 3) Our judgements and decisions are affected by the presence of others. For example, you may have come across the famous Asch line experiments, in which many people gave incorrect answers to very simple questions about the relative lengths of lines, when they saw others answering incorrectly. The essay outlines why this might occur.
  • 4) We perform differently on tasks when we believe others are present. For example, we tend to perform worse on difficult tasks and better on easy tasks when others are present. This effect occurs even when the other people are wearing blindfolds and earphones(!!), suggesting it might occur automatically.
  • There are many factors which seem to determine how and how much the presence of others affects our perception and cognition. These ‘moderating factors’ include whether the other people are believed to be from the same, or a different, social group to us. Different people are also affected to different extents, for example individuals with low self esteem are more affected by the presence of others when performing a difficult task than those with high self esteem. There are also cultural differences – the Asch line experiments have been carried out across several countries, and different countries report different rates of conformity.
  • Pinpointing exactly how the presence of others affects our perception and cognition is extremely difficult, because traditional behavioural studies haven’t always controlled for the huge number of moderating factors involved in any one situation. A more precise, multi-disciplinary approach is beginning to emerge, which is gradually helping us to understand this complex area in more detail.

The influence of other people on how we think, feel and behave is a large and fascinating area. Other people can influence us in alarming ways! You might be interested in these:

  • Derren Brown’s ‘The Push’ – Derren investigates the power of social compliance, from lying about veggie sausage rolls to pushing someone off a roof… Not only nail-biting watching, but demonstrates how easily, and severely, our judgements can be influenced by other people.
  • A clip of Asch’s experiments on conformity, outlining the various findings. It also has some excellent vintage hairstyles…
  • A clip from the BBC’s Naked Scientists, discussing how other people’s emotions can influence our mood, via the medium of Facebook posts. Research suggests that reading our friend’s posts online can affect us to the same extent as if we were meeting them face-to-face.

If you’re up for the full essay, read on…

In what ways can the presence of other people affect an individual’s cognition and perception?



In order to fully appreciate the effects of others’ presence, we must embrace a suitably broad definition of ‘presence’, for example from Allport’s definition of social psychology, which allows presence to be “actual, imagined or implied” (Allport, 1954). Decades of studies demonstrate that such presence of others can influence an individual’s behaviour (Hewstone & Martin, 2015). However, the underlying effects on an individual’s perception and cognition – how they recognise and interpret sensory information, and how they select, store and use these interpretations – have, until recently, been relatively overlooked. This essay will review key known effects on perception and cognition, and argue that the presence of others introduces social context, which exerts influence through information-seeking and socio-motivational goals and automatic processes. Moderating factors will also be discussed.

What individuals attend to

The presence of others can affect basic attentional mechanisms. For example, individuals exhibit attentional bias towards faces and body parts (Ro, Friggel, & Lavie, 2007), thought to accompany automatic visual processing of these stimuli by dedicated neural systems (Farah, 1996). The social context of what another person is looking at can similarly influence attention. When they are looking directly at the observer, this captures the observer’s attention towards their face (Senju & Hasegawa, 2005; Conty, George, & Hietanen, 2016), thought to be an innate process occurring before conscious gaze perception (Yokoyama, Noguchi, & Kita, 2013). When another’s gaze is directed elsewhere, this cues attention to the location of their gaze, again occurring seemingly automatically (Frischen, Bayliss, & Tipper, 2007).

Screenshot 2018-06-05 14.35.30

Recent studies suggest that, when additional social context is introduced, goal-mediated processes may also be involved in gaze cueing of attention. For example, one study manipulated the perceived social status of the other person, and whether the observer believed they were performing the same or a different visual task. Observers’ attention was more affected by others’ gaze when the other person was perceived to be of high social status than low, only when they were believed to be performing the same task (Gobel, Tufft, & Richardson, 2017). This dependency on task relevancy suggests the attention cueing effect of another’s gaze is not always wholly automatic.

Perceptions of experiences

The belief that another person is sharing an individual’s experience has been shown to affect what individuals attend to (Richardson et al., 2012), but also how an individual perceives their experiences. An individual’s evaluation of something they experience, such as the sweetness of chocolate they taste (Boothby, Clark, & Bargh, 2014), can become more extreme when they believe that anonymous others are also experiencing it, despite not knowing others’ evaluations (Shteynberg, Bramlett, Fles, & Cameron, 2016). Information from shared experiences can also be more deeply encoded (Steinmetz & Pfattheicher, 2017). For example, in joint tasks, individuals show enhanced encoding of information relevant to their partner’s task but irrelevant to their own, above information not relevant to either (Elekes, Bródy, Halász, & Király, 2016).

Two proposed mechanisms attempt to explain these findings. The shared reality account (Hardin & Higgins, 1996) suggests individuals align their perceptions with their inferred perceptions of others, to facilitate socio-motivational goals through shared understanding of experiences, and information-seeking goals by prioritising socially validated knowledge over individual knowledge (Steinmetz & Pfattheicher, 2017). In contrast, the cognitive RICOR account (Smith & Mackie, 2016) asserts that inferred perceptions of others are automatically represented cognitively, influencing one’s own perceptions with only minor motivational influences (Steinmetz & Pfattheicher, 2017). Studies manipulating saliency of goals could reveal whether goal-mediated mechanisms exist, but cannot rule out automatic representation.

Like the belief that an experience is shared, an individual’s belief they are being observed can affect their perception of experiences. Memory enhancements are again observed (Smith, Hood, & Hector, 2006), but also contrasting effects on self-perception: perceptions of one’s own actions, such as amount of food eaten, can become more extreme when observed by others (Steinmetz, Xu, Fishbach, & Zhang, 2016), but perceptions of one’s own physiological state can become more accurate (Baltazar et al., 2014). Perhaps these contrasting self-perception accuracy effects result from one’s physiological state being considered invisible to others, such that inferred perceptions of others are not integrated into one’s own perceptions.


In Asch’s experiments, participants were asked which of three lines (A, B or C) was the same length as the reference line on the left. The correct answer in this example is C.

One area of early research into social influence surrounded how individuals’ judgements could be affected by those of others (Sherif, 1937). For example, in Asch’s (1956) famous conformity studies, participants were asked to make judgements about unambiguous stimuli, while surrounded by confederates who answered incorrectly. A proportion of participants conformed to the incorrect majority. Qualitative data suggested others’ answers affected their judgements in two ways: either they believed the majority must be correct, and changed their judgement accordingly, or they believed their own judgement was correct, but changed their reported judgement in order to conform to other’s expectations (Hewstone & Martin, 2015). This supports a role for information-seeking and socio-motivational goals in conformity (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). Consequences of these influences on judgment include group polarisation, in which group judgements are made more extreme than the average of individual’s initial judgements (Sunstein, 2009).

Screenshot 2018-06-05 15.45.10
From Bazazi, von Zimmermann, Bahrami, & Richardson, 2018

While Asch’s experiments, and many behavioural studies that followed, do not elucidate the cognitive mechanisms involved in the effects of others’ opinions on individual judgements, manipulation of the social context reveals moderating factors, for example the size of the majority (Asch, 1951), the presence of another conformity-breaking individual and the privacy of individual’s answers (Asch, 1956). A recent study demonstrated that whether individuals believe they will be rewarded or punished as individuals (as in Asch’s experiments) or as a group moderates effects on judgement, with group rewards producing more diverse individual judgements and more accurate group averages (Bazazi, von Zimmermann, Bahrami, & Richardson, 2018).

Task performance

Early studies demonstrated that when others are present, an individual’s performance on well-learned tasks improves, while performance on difficult or poorly-learned tasks worsens (Bond & Titus, 1983). There are several proposed explanations for these so-called social facilitation and inhibition effects, including that performance is affected by the expectation of evaluation from the other person, which would be negative for difficult tasks and positive for well-learned tasks (Cottrell, 1968). Though evidence suggests anticipated evaluation of others plays a role (Robinson-Staveley & Cooper, 1990), these effects occur when observers are blindfolded and wearing earphones (Schmitt, Gilovich, Goore, & Joseph, 1986), suggesting a more automatic process may also be involved. It’s possible this automatic process relates to another proposed explanation for these effects – that the mere presence of another person creates an aroused state, which increases the probability of dominant, well-learned behaviour over non-dominant, poorly-learned behaviour (Zajonc, 1965). Recent studies have shown performance in joint tasks can also be affected. For example, one group showed that performance was reduced when participants and their partner needed to respond to different aspects of the same stimulus at the same time (Sebanz, Knoblich, & Prinz, 2005). The authors concluded that participants formed a cognitive representation of their partner’s task which interfered with their own.

Moderating factors

Screenshot 2018-06-05 16.53.26
Boothby, Smith, Clark & Bargh (2016) showed that participants who were acquainted enjoyed chocolate more when their tasting experience was shared versus unshared. Participants who weren’t acquainted didn’t show any differences in enjoyment.

The presence of other people introduces social context, which can affect an individual’s perception and cognition. Elements of the social context discussed thus far, such as the focus of another’s gaze, awareness of being observed, shared experiences, or others’ judgements, moderate these effects. Another key moderating element is the group identity of the other person(s). For example, the aforementioned effects of memory enhancements (Echterhoff, Higgins, & Groll, 2005) and more extreme evaluations (Boothby, Smith, Clark, & Bargh, 2016), resulting from sharing experiences with others, are increased when others are believed to be from an ingroup rather than an outgroup.

Individual differences can also moderate the effects of others’ presence. For example, a meta-analysis of social facilitation studies suggests a key role for individual differences in neuroticism, extraversion and self-esteem in moderating the effects of others’ presence on task performance (Uziel, 2007), and that these play a greater moderating role than task complexity. A role for individual differences suggests cognitive accounts of the effects of others presence that propose only minor motivational influences (Smith & Mackie, 2016) may be insufficient: if cognitive representations of others inferred perceptions are indeed formed automatically, the extent to which they are applied is dependent on motivation (Eitam & Higgins, 2010). Cultural differences also moderate the effects of others’ presence. For example, a meta-analysis of studies using the Asch paradigm across 17 countries showed lower conformity rates in individualistic cultures than collectivistic cultures (Bond & Smith, 1996). More research is needed to understand the complex role of individual and cultural differences in moderating the effects of others’ presence.


The presence of other people affects an individual’s perception and cognition in a variety of ways, from what they attend to, to how they perceive their experiences, to their judgements and task performance. Effects involve both automatic and goal-mediated processes. Attempts to understand the mechanisms involved are made additionally complex by the huge variety of social contextual elements, and individual and cultural differences, which moderate these effects. A more multidisciplinary social and cognitive psychological approach to this field, with careful manipulation of such factors, offers promise for future research.



One thought on “The influence of other people

  1. Oh wow! Like when you get someone to watch your favourite film and then spend the whole time wondering what their perceptions is, feeling like the film suddenly isn’t as good! Another fascinating, accessible piece of research. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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