The five core social motives: to influence

Social Motive explores what it means to influence in marketing communications

In Social Motive‘s series on the five core social motives, we explore just what it is that drives us to feel, think and act.

According to social psychologist Dr Susan Fiske, the basis behind our decisions in social situations can be distilled into five core motives: trust, understanding, growing, influencing, and belonging.

Understanding these five core social motives is essential to any situation where we interact with other people; in essence, the five core social motives make up the very fabric of our lives.


To Influence

Why is it that some relationships develop fast, when others seem to take forever? What initiates them, and how do we make them last?

Last weekend I caught up with my friend Anna, whom I hadn’t seen in about a month. Anna brought a friend I hadn’t met before. Already when we were making our way to one of the quiet corners of the café, I noticed Anna and her friend seemed very close – it was something with how they moved and how they expressed themselves – which was something that surprised me. I thought I knew all of Anna’s best friends. Maybe this was a childhood friend now living overseas, I thought. Anyway, we got our coffees and sticky puddings and started to recap what we had been up to since we last met.

‘I haven’t seen you since that rooftop launch party,’ I said.

‘Really?’ Anna said. ‘That’s where I first met Dana.’ She pointed to her new friend. It turned out that my initial reaction, them being best friends, was more or less correct. They had met at the party, realised they lived in the same suburb and the following day started to take regular evening walks. A lot can happen in three weeks, like strangers becoming inseparable best friends.

How unexpected, how almost magical, I thought. But pondering it more closely, I realised relationships aren’t supernatural or irrational. At least not solely. In fact, relationships can be analysed and understood. Given the right conditions, friendship is even likely to occur. It might sound too scientific; some might argue that you can’t thoroughly understand and quantify human minds the way you can analyse matter or forces of nature. Certainly a valid argument, but not the whole truth.

Take, for example, the concept of geographic proximity. What is undoubtedly needed to become friends is some sort of physical (or digital) connection. Basically, you need to meet. It is exceptionally hard to befriend someone you have never met, or met once but never met again. Some of your best friends are probably people you involuntarily had to share a physical space with, like, say, in primary school. You spent time together, and in the process of doing so, you became friends. I would dare to guess that there are people out there that you have much more in common with than your current circle of friends, but if you never meet these new people, it surely will be tricky to befriend them.

‘But meeting a person is not enough to become friends,’ you say. There are people from high school that I definitely don’t hang out with today. True. To increase the chances of forming a relationship, you also need to interact. Sometimes this is part of what is called influencing each other. ‘Influencing’ might sound harsh, as if there is some sort of shenanigan or trickery in play. However, any actions we label ‘influencing’ is really you extending your senses to find your place in this small portion of the universe, to try to shake that feeling of being lost in a vast world. You reach out to your surroundings – thereby influencing them – and are met by someone else who is doing the same thing. I influence you, at the same rate as you are influencing me. What this does is create a sense of familiarity, a mutual feeling that you are both in control of the situation. Studies show that people who feel that they have control of their lives live happier, healthier and even longer lives. Quite the benefits, I would say.

When letting your customer influence your business, you are offering them this sense of control. And in doing so, you are paving the way for a long-lasting relationship. Encouraging this crucial activity can be complex, but shouldn’t be a difficult task.

Building this relationship can be improving the ways customers can contact you. It can be showing how much you appreciate user comments. It can be letting them know that you are listening. To shake hands, you both need to reach out. And if you keep holding on to that hand – interacting while maintaining proximity – a friendship is destined to start to grow. The beauty of it is that we want to befriend each other, simply because we are human beings. And as such we have a need to to reach out to our surroundings and develop relationships. It is a need that is connected with the survival of the human race, which means that this was the case ten thousand years ago, as it is still the case today.


When I had finished my soy latte I hugged Anna and shook Dana’s hand. On the tram home, I received a text from Anna, saying that Dana forgot to invite me to next weekend’s potluck; that she would love to see me there. ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘Count me in.’ I have already made plans to bring my home-made hummus. She might like it. If this keeps going, who knows, I might suddenly find myself having made a new friend.

Read up about the social motive ‘to trust.’


Written by Andreas Å Andersson