The article was last updated by Sofia Alvarez on February 4, 2024.

Social control in psychology is a fascinating concept that explores how society regulates and influences individuals’ behavior. From informal social norms to formal laws and regulations, there are various types of social control that shape our actions and decisions.

In this article, we will delve into the different types, agents, and methods of social control, as well as provide examples such as peer pressure, laws, and propaganda. Join us on this exploration of how society maintains order and conformity.

Key Takeaways:

  • Social control refers to the societal mechanisms that regulate and shape individual behavior in order to maintain social order and conformity.
  • The types of social control include informal, which relies on social norms, and formal, which is enforced through laws and regulations.
  • The agents of social control, such as family, education system, religion, and government, play a crucial role in shaping and enforcing social norms and values.
  • What Is Social Control in Psychology?

    Social control in psychology refers to the mechanisms and strategies employed by a society to regulate and manage the behavior of individuals within its social framework.

    One of the key aspects of social control is the establishment and reinforcement of societal norms that dictate how individuals should behave in a given society. These norms serve as guidelines for acceptable behavior and help to maintain social order and cohesion. When individuals deviate from these norms, sanctions may be imposed to deter undesirable behavior and encourage conformity. These sanctions can take various forms, ranging from informal social disapproval to formal legal consequences.

    Social control mechanisms play a crucial role in shaping individual and group behavior by influencing decision-making processes and behavioral patterns. By establishing boundaries and expectations, society creates a structure within which individuals navigate their interactions and choices.

    What Are the Types of Social Control?

    Social control encompasses two primary types: formal means and informal means, each serving distinct roles in maintaining order, regulating values, and administering punishment within a society.

    Informal Social Control

    Informal social control operates through societal norms, shared values, and individual behaviors, exerting influence on individuals within a community without reliance on official regulations.

    In everyday life, these unwritten codes of conduct shape how people interact, make decisions, and contribute to the overall harmony of a society. Compliance with these informal controls is often driven by a desire for social acceptance and approval from peers, rather than fear of punishment. By internalizing these unspoken rules, individuals regulate their own actions and align them with what is considered acceptable by the larger group. Through mechanisms such as gossip, peer pressure, and social ostracism, informal social control maintains order and promotes cohesion within communities.

    Formal Social Control

    Formal social control involves the establishment of laws, regulations, and control mechanisms by authorities to enforce compliance, administer punishment, and regulate societal behavior, a concept extensively studied by sociologists and theorists.

    One of the key aspects of formal social control is the legal framework that underpins these mechanisms. Laws serve as the foundation upon which societies define acceptable behavior and establish consequences for violations. These legal frameworks outline the rights and responsibilities of individuals within a society, aiming to maintain order and protect the well-being of its members.

    What Are the Agents of Social Control?

    Various entities serve as agents of social control, including the family, education system, religion, and government, each playing a crucial role in shaping societal norms, values, and behaviors.


    The family acts as an early agent of social control, guiding socialization processes, instilling values, and providing rewards for desired behaviors within the familial unit.

    Through socialization, family members learn societal norms, beliefs, and customs, shaping their understanding of acceptable conduct. These practices underscore the significance of familial bonds in shaping individual identities. The transmission of cultural values from one generation to another fosters a sense of continuity and belonging within the family structure. Reinforcement mechanisms, such as praise or sanctions, further solidify adherence to societal expectations and norms. These dynamics actively contribute to the creation of a respectful, well-adjusted member of society.

    Education System

    The education system serves as a significant agent of social control, shaping socialization processes, reinforcing norms, and influencing behavior through formalized educational structures.

    One key aspect of the role of the education system in socialization is its ability to instill shared values, attitudes, and beliefs within individuals. From an early age, students are exposed to a curriculum that reflects societal norms and values, thus guiding their understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

    Educational institutions provide a platform for the enforcement of social norms by establishing rules, codes of conduct, and disciplinary measures. By adhering to these regulations, students learn to internalize societal expectations and conform to established norms.


    Religion acts as a potent agent of social control, influencing values, behaviors, and societal norms through the dissemination of religious teachings, beliefs, and moral guidelines.

    By providing a framework for ethical conduct and governing interpersonal relationships, religious institutions play a crucial role in fostering harmony and cohesion within communities. Through rituals, ceremonies, and religious practices, individuals are instilled with a sense of spiritual discipline and moral responsibility, shaping their actions and decisions. The concept of sin, redemption, and divine judgment prevalent in many religious doctrines serve as deterrents for deviant behaviors and promote adherence to societal norms.


    The government serves as a primary agent of social control through the establishment and enforcement of laws, regulations, and governance structures that maintain social order and regulate behaviors within a society.

    By setting legal frameworks, governments outline the boundaries of acceptable conduct and deter individuals from engaging in activities deemed harmful or deviant by society.

    Regulatory mechanisms

    • licensing
    • inspections
    • compliance standards

    provide tools for monitoring and controlling various aspects of public and private life. Authorities deploy diverse strategies, ranging from law enforcement agencies to judicial systems, to uphold order and justice, ensuring that individuals adhere to established norms and values for communal harmony.

    What Are the Methods of Social Control?

    Various methods of social control encompass ideological, direct, indirect, and covert control strategies that influence behaviors, shape beliefs, and regulate societal norms through diverse mechanisms.

    Ideological Control

    Ideological control influences social behavior by shaping values, beliefs, and attitudes through narrative construction, propaganda dissemination, and ideological frameworks that guide societal norms.

    The manipulation of information and dissemination of propaganda play a pivotal role in promoting specific ideologies and controlling public opinion.

    Ideological frameworks are constructed to shape individuals’ worldviews, influencing their perception of reality and guiding their behavior in alignment with a certain belief system. This method of influence extends beyond mere persuasion; it seeks to mold the very core of individuals’ values and beliefs, impacting not only their personal choices but also their interactions within broader communities.

    Ultimately, the power of ideological control lies in its ability to dictate societal norms and reinforce dominant narratives.”

    Direct Control

    Direct control involves the explicit application of laws, regulations, and punitive measures to enforce compliance, deter deviant behavior, and maintain order within a society.

    Within legal systems, direct control serves as a cornerstone for maintaining social cohesion and regulating individual conduct. It acts as a deterrent mechanism by establishing clear boundaries and consequences for violating established norms.

    This method relies on the imposition of sanctions, ranging from fines to imprisonment, to uphold societal values and standards. Through direct control, authorities wield the power to punish transgressors, thereby discouraging behaviors that are deemed harmful or disruptive to the functioning of the community.

    Indirect Control

    Indirect control operates through incentives, rewards, and positive reinforcements to encourage desired behaviors, discourage deviance, and reinforce social norms within a community.

    By implementing incentive structures within a society, individuals are more likely to conform to expected rules and regulations. These structures can come in various forms such as financial bonuses, recognition, or tangible rewards. Reward systems serve as powerful tools in shaping human behavior, as they provide tangible benefits for desired actions, thereby increasing the likelihood of their repetition. Positive reinforcements, including praise and positive feedback, play a pivotal role in solidifying desired behaviors and fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance within a group or society.

    Covert Control

    Covert control entails hidden manipulation, surveillance, and secretive practices used to influence behaviors, manage information flows, and regulate conduct without overt visibility or explicit enforcement.

    One covert control tactic commonly employed is psychological manipulation, where individuals are subtly influenced to act in specific ways without being consciously aware of the influencing factors. This technique often involves leveraging emotions, beliefs, or cognitive biases to shape behaviors.

    Surveillance methods in covert control can range from electronic monitoring to physical observation, ensuring constant oversight while maintaining the illusion of privacy. Secretive mechanisms such as disinformation campaigns or institutional secrecy contribute to controlling the narrative and influencing public opinion without direct attribution.

    What Are Some Examples of Social Control?

    Social control manifests in various examples, such as peer pressure, legal statutes, adherence to social norms, sanctions, and the dissemination of propaganda, illustrating the diverse mechanisms used to regulate behaviors and maintain order within societies.

    Peer Pressure

    Peer pressure represents a significant example of social control, where individuals are influenced by the behaviors and expectations of their peers, leading to conformity and adherence to group norms.

    This form of influence can exert a powerful effect on an individual’s decision-making process and choices, as the desire to fit in and be accepted by one’s social circle plays a pivotal role in shaping behavior. Peer pressure can manifest in various forms, from subtle suggestions to overt coercion, ultimately impacting how individuals perceive themselves and others within their social environment. In the context of group dynamics, it can create a sense of unity and cohesion but also raise concerns about the erosion of personal autonomy and authentic self-expression.

    Laws and Regulations

    Laws and regulations serve as formalized social control mechanisms, outlining acceptable behaviors, specifying consequences for non-compliance, and establishing a framework for societal order and governance.

    Enforcement mechanisms, such as law enforcement agencies, judicial systems, and regulatory bodies, play vital roles in upholding these legal frameworks. Through monitoring, investigations, and legal proceedings, these entities ensure compliance with established laws and regulations.

    Public compliance with these rules is essential for a smoothly functioning society, as it fosters predictability, consistency, and overall social stability. The fear of repercussions and legal consequences acts as a deterrent, influencing individuals’ behavior patterns and societal norms.

    Social Norms

    Social norms represent unwritten rules governing behavior within a society, shaping expectations, guiding interactions, and promoting conformity to established values and behavioral standards.

    These norms provide a framework for individuals to navigate social situations with common understanding and predictability. They function as informal social control mechanisms, influencing individuals’ decisions and actions based on the anticipated reactions of others. Through socialization, these norms are internalized, becoming part of an individual’s moral compass and guiding their choices.

    Failure to adhere to societal expectations may lead to social sanctions or ostracization, highlighting the importance of normative adherence for maintaining social order and cohesion.

    Social Sanctions

    Social sanctions involve the application of consequences, rewards, or punishments to reinforce adherence to societal norms, discourage deviant behavior, and regulate conduct within a community.

    These sanctions serve as powerful tools in shaping human behavior by establishing boundaries for acceptable actions and deterring violations of established social rules. Through positive reinforcement mechanisms, individuals are encouraged to conform to societal expectations and norms, fostering cohesion and order within the group. Conversely, negative consequences act as deterrents, discouraging individuals from engaging in behaviors deemed harmful or disruptive to the collective welfare.


    Propaganda serves as a tool of social control, employing strategic messaging, misinformation, and persuasive techniques to influence beliefs, shape opinions, and guide behaviors within a population.

    Through carefully crafted messages and narratives, propaganda can manipulate perceptions, distort reality, and even rewrite history to serve the interests of those disseminating it. By controlling the flow of information and selectively presenting facts, propagandists can sway public sentiment towards a desired ideology or agenda.

    • One of the key aspects of propaganda is the use of emotional appeals and loaded language to evoke specific responses and trigger desired emotional reactions in the target audience.
    • Propaganda often exploits cognitive biases and social norms to reinforce particular beliefs and attitudes, creating a sense of group identity and cohesion among supporters.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is social control in psychology?

    Social control in psychology refers to the various ways in which society influences individuals to behave in accordance with its norms and values. It involves the use of both formal and informal mechanisms to maintain social order and conformity.

    What are some examples of social control in psychology?

    Examples of social control in psychology include laws and regulations, social norms and expectations, and punishment for deviant behavior. Other examples include socialization, peer pressure, and the use of rewards and sanctions.

    How does social control differ from self-control?

    While social control refers to the external forces that influence behavior, self-control is the internal ability to regulate one’s own behavior and emotions. Social control is often seen as a necessary part of maintaining a functioning society, while self-control is seen as a personal responsibility.

    Why is understanding social control important in psychology?

    Understanding social control is important in psychology because it helps us to understand how individuals are influenced by their social environment. It also helps us to understand patterns of conformity and deviance, as well as the impact of social norms and expectations on behavior.

    How does social control affect individuals?

    Social control can have both positive and negative effects on individuals. On one hand, it can promote conformity and maintain social order, which can lead to a sense of security and belonging. However, it can also limit individual freedom and expression, and can lead to feelings of pressure and conformity.

    Can social control be harmful?

    Yes, social control can be harmful if it is used to oppress or discriminate against certain groups of people. It can also lead to feelings of social isolation and alienation for individuals who do not conform to societal norms. Additionally, excessive social control can impede personal growth and development.

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