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Social Influence: Ethical Considerations

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 16-24 Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Social Influence:  Ethical Considerations

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Director of Research and Education

American Family Foundation


Growing concerns about the use of coercive and other manipulative psychological techniques underline the need to improve understanding of the ethics of social influence.  This paper proposes six ethical guidelines for influencers and presents three diagrams that illuminate the relationship of social influence and ethics.  Diagram one is an "influence continuum," which is composed of a range of choice-respecting and compliance-gaining techniques.  Diagram two presents two hypothetical profiles of "climates of influence."  Diagram three joins the influence continuum to an "intent continuum" reflecting a range of intents from 100% influencee-centered to 100% influencer-centered.  Four quadrants result: inspirational, self-development, caretaker, and exploitative.  Influencers operating in the caretaker and exploitative quadrants, i.e., those who rely on compliance-gaining techniques, are more likely to violate ethical principles.  Specific ethical considerations for psychologists and other mental health professionals are also discussed.

This paper is entitled, "Social Influence:  Ethical Considerations," for two reasons.  First, ethical considerations arise at levels of influence far milder than the persuasive, coercive, or extraordinary levels of influence that usually generate concern.  Second, understanding the ethical implications of persuasive, coercive, and other extraordinary influence requires some understanding of ordinary influence to appreciate what makes the former extra ordinary.

Part one of this paper suggests that a fundamental ethical dimension attaches to social influence.  Part two discusses specific ethical considerations for psychologists and other mental health professionals.

                The Ethical Dimension of Social Influence

Ethical Guidelines Pertaining to Social Influence

Because social influence requires two or more persons, ethical considerations inevitably arise.  Influencing others implies changing them.  But respecting others' identity and freedom implies affirming them as they are.  If  influencees seek the same changes in themselves as influencers seek, little conflict will arise (e.g., a therapeutic contract).  When, however, influencers' change goals run counter to the identity, freedom, or goals of influencees, the former necessarily confront the question of how to justify and achieve their goals without showing disrespect to the latter.

Influencers are more likely to answer this question satisfactorily if they adhere to the following ethical guidelines, which, I believe, are implicit in the ethical principles of psychologists and other mental health professionals

  1. Influencers should not attempt to alter a person's psychological identity without sufficient reason and the informed consent of influencees.
  1. Influencers should not diminish or impede a person's freedom, freedom being "determined by the number of options available to people and the right to exercise them" (Bandura, 1974, p. 815).
  1. Influencers should give paramount consideration to the personal change goals of influencees.
  1. Influencers should respect the rationality of influencees and avoid emotional manipulations.
  1. Influencers should exercise special caution when influencees are highly stressed, as such a state of mind can diminish influencees' rationality, independence, and self-awareness.
  1. Influencers who believe that circumstances demand that they violate these guidelines should be accountable to others who can help safeguard the rights and dignity of influencees.

The Continuum of Influence:  A Proposal

Figure 1 delineates a continuum of influence that reflects increasing intent to control influencees as one moves down the continuum.  At the top of the continuum lie nondirective techniques, such as reflection and clarification.  At the other extreme are physical restraint and punishment.  The specific techniques in the figure have been grouped into four methods of influence:  educative, advisory, persuasive, and controlling.  Education, advice, and some forms of persuasion are classified under the choice-respecting mode of influence, which seeks to effectively communicate one's message, while most of persuasion and all of control are classified under the compliance-gaining mode, which seeks to elicit a desired response from influencees.

According to this schema, a particular social influence interaction could be categorized with varying levels of precision, e.g., compliance-gaining mode, persuasive method, foot-in-the-door technique.  In addition, a particular environment, if observational protocols were developed, could be classified according to the frequency with which various types of influence occur.  Figure 2 illustrates two hypothetical profiles, or "climates of influence," one for a normal therapy group, one   for a cultic therapy group.

Figure 3 joins the influence continuum with an intent continuum reflecting the extremes of 100% influencer-centered goals and 100% influencee-centered goals (pertinent to rule three above).  These two continua form four quandrants, which may be considered influencer attitudes.  Influencers operating in quadrant one (inspirational attitude) seek self-sacrificing action from influencees, but respect their freedom, identity, goals, and rationality (example:  missionary or Peace Corps recruiter).  Influencers operating in quadrant two (self-development attitude) use choice-respecting methods to help influencees achieve their goals (example:  psychotherapy).  Influencers operating in quadrant three (caretaker attitude) use compliance-gaining methods to advance influencees' welfare (example: behavior modification with autistic children), while those in quadrant four (exploitative attitude) employ compliance-gaining methods for their own benefit (example:  psychotherapy cult leader).

Influencers operating in quadrants one and two will rarely cross into ethically questionable territory, an example of an exception being a self-proclaimed missionary without ties to any kind of "peer review" group.  Influencers operating in quadrant three are ethical only when circumstances call for a caretaker relationship with influencees (e.g., with young children) and when there is some accountability to others.

Influencers operating in quadrant four are rarely considered ethical, an example of an exception being an undercover DEA agent.  Some forms of exploitative influence are tolerated, e.g., shady but legal sales tactics.  Others are unethical and illegal, e.g., consumer fraud.  Others are legal but widely denounced, e.g., the recruitment and control tactics of some cults.

Figure three also sheds light on how some initially well-intentioned influencers can slide into exploitative attitudes toward influencees.  Psychotherapists, for example, can begin experimenting with compliance-gaining methods in therapy.  A sense of efficacy and apparently beneficial results for clients may strengthen the therapists' inclination to experiment and weaken their ethical inhibitions.  As beneficial results turn into harmful results the therapists may rationalize their failures and ethical lapses, further alienating themselves from the ethical mainstream.  Some may become so distorted in their thinking or corrupted by their growing power over others that they begin to use clients to serve their own needs:  they enter the exploitative quandrant.

Temerlin and Temerlin (1986) briefly describe 27 techniques used by therapists who allow the boundaries of the therapist-client relationship to erode to such a point that cultic relationships ensue.  These techniques are grouped into four areas:  1) techniques which increase dependence; 2) techniques which increase isolation (and indirectly dependence); 3) techniques which reduce critical thinking capacity; and 4) techniques which discourage termination of therapy.  The dynamics with regard to cultic groups in religion, politics, business, and other areas are essentially the same.

Specific Ethical Considerations for Psychotherapists

Several factors tend to weaken psychotherapists' appreciation of the ethical implications of social influence.  First, constructively influencing even very cooperative and motivated clients using traditional therapeutic techniques is often so difficult and demanding that therapists who stumble across new and effective techniques may become uncritically enthusiastic and overlook ethical considerations.  Second, the intense economic competition in the psychological services industry - especially for novice practitioners -- can lead to an ignoring or downplaying of ethical considerations.  Third (this factor applies to researchers as well), psychotherapists' ethical training may not be as effective as it should be.  Tymchuk and his colleagues, for example, found that 58% of psychologists reported that "they were not well enough informed about ethical issues in psychology" (Tymchuk, Drapkin, Major-Kingsley, Ackerman, Coffman, & Baum, 1982, p. 419).  Fourth, the upsurge of clinical experimentation that began in the 1960s has resulted in an explosion of new techniques and therapies; Corsini (1973), for example, lists 192 types of therapy.   Lastly, perhaps because we lack persuasive empirical studies on the relative merits of various therapeutic approaches, ethical guidelines of professional associations, e.g., the American Psychological Association's Ethical principles for psychologists (1981) or its General guidelines for providers of psychological services (1987), do not adequately address the ethics of intervention, of therapeutic influence.  APA's Ethical principles for psychologists, which discusses responsibility, competence, moral and legal standards, public statements, confidentiality, welfare of the consumer, professional relationships, assessment techniques, research with human participants, and the care and use of animals, does contain a few caveats about dual relationships and exploiting professional relationships.  But it does not enlighten us about the ethics-eroding psychological techniques that are most conspicuous in, but not limited to, psychotherapy cults.

Fortunately, other guidelines exist.  The American Psychologist (1973, p. 933) lists "Guidelines for Psychologists Conducting Growth Groups."  An APA task force provided a detailed report entitled, Ethical Issues in Behavior Modification (Stolz et al., 1978).  And numerous fine books have been written.  But more needs to be done.

First, we should develop innovative methodologies for studying manipulative social influence as it manifests outside the psychological laboratory.  My colleague, John Clark, has called the explosive growth of cultic groups an "impermissible experiment"  because of the rapid and radical behavioral changes he and other clinicians have attributed to powerful group influences.  The influence techniques used by these groups to advance their own ends cannot be adequately studied in the laboratory without violating professional canons of ethics.  We must, therefore, study them in the field.  To do so successfully, we must develop participant-observation methodologies that are more sensitive to psychological subtleties than are the methods of sociologists and anthropologists.

Psychologists should also pay more attention to exploring how individuals can resist manipulative influences.  Andersen and Zimbardo (1984) have applied findings from social psychology to this question.  But further study is called for, and practical curricula should be developed to teach young people how to maintain a critical autonomy in a world bent on influencing them to do things that are not always in their own best interests.

Lastly, the American Psychological Association and other professional groups should thoroughly explore the ethical implications of the potent and ethically dubious psychological techniques employed with increasing frequency by mental health professionals and, more importantly, by untrained nonprofessionals.  Although this is a controversial subject in which competent and ethical professionals may, at least for now, disagree strongly, we neglect our duty to the public if we avoid studying, discussing, and even disputing the topic.  We do not need consensus in order to improve understanding.  But we do need a commitment not to shove the subject under the rug.


American Psychological Association.  (1981).  Ethical principles for psychologists.  Washington (D.C.):  American Psychological Association.

American Psychological Association.  (1987).  General guidelines for providers of psychological services. Washington (D.C.):  American Psychological Association.

Andersen, S., & Zimbardo, P.  (1984).  On resisting social influence.  Cultic Studies Journal, 1, 196-219.

Corsini, R.  (1973).  Current psychotherapies.  Itasca (IL):  S. E. Peacock.

Temerlin, J., & Temerlin, M.  (1986).  Some hazards of the therapeutic relationship.  Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 234-242.

Tymchuk, A.J., Drapkin, R., Major-Kingsley, S., Ackerman, A.B., Coffman, E.W., & Baum, M.S. (1982).  Professional Psychology, 13, 412-421.


Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.�, Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, is Director of Research and Education for the American Family Foundation.  This paper was originally presented as part of a symposium on coercive psychological influence at the American Psychological Association's Annual Meeting, August 1989.