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How Does Society Influence People?

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Society influences people by shaping their belief systems, controlling their behavior and determining their values. It sends these messages to individuals through the media, school curricula, community leaders, family and churches.

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How Does Society Influence People?
Credit: Jonas Weckschmied CC-BY 2.0

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Family Matters
One way that society influences people is through laws and rules that determine how they should behave. For example, parents establish rules for their families that show the children proper behavior. They may insist that children wait their turn before speaking instead of interrupting other or that children must sit or lie on the furniture instead of jumping and climbing on it. When the children fail to follow the rules, they face consequences. In this way, the children learn how to adjust their behavior to fit in with their families and with others.

The Rule of Law
Similarly, governments create laws that direct behavior. State and federal governments establish speed limits for roads that tell people how fast they can drive. They create penalties for actions like stealing from other people or causing harm to others. Some laws come directly from social expectations, such as driving only when sober. In this way, the government influences the way people behave. If they want to avoid the consequences, which range from fines to prison time, they must conform to the behavior specified within the written law.

Social Norms
In addition to written rules, societies have unwritten rules called social norms that also influence people. For example, waiting in line for one's turn instead of skipping ahead of those already waiting is a behavior that American society expects from people. Other common norms are covering one's mouth during a sneeze, wearing clothes in public and giving gifts at birthdays and holidays. Norms help establish order within a society so conforming to them provides predictability among people and situations, which reduces stress and keeps the community running smoothly.

Media and the Mind
Society also exercises great influence over people through the media. In fact, the effects of television on the behaviors and beliefs of people are well documented. One striking example is visible in the work of anthropologist Anne Becker. During a study she oversaw in Fiji from 1995-98, Becker saw firsthand how the images viewed on television change the belief system of the people who watch it. By the end of the study, slightly more than eleven percent of the adolescent girls on the island started purging after eating in an attempt to make their bodies look more like those they saw on the television.

The Power of Education
School curricula both reflect and influence society. Elected officials with a sense of obligation to their political parties or the people who voted them into office may change school curriculum to reflect the belief system of those groups. The curricula changes eventually make it to the classroom where teachers and students engage in lessons that reflect the changes. Students then go on to internalize the new beliefs. For example, until 1982, science teachers in Arkansas had to teach the theories of creation and evolution together. The Arkansas law reflected the belief system of a group of people, affected what teachers were allowed to do in the classroom and guided students toward developing specific belief systems about the origin of the universe.

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