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Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior

Jonah Berger

To live life is to make decisions, yet who actually makes the choices? Everyone makes their own, is the obvious response. And yet this is not quite right. In 'Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior,' Jonah Berger traces the myriad ways that social queues guide us, often without our knowledge. Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business, is the author of the 2013 bestseller 'Contagious: Why Things Catch On.' His new book is a logical extension of that project, zeroing in on the individual decisions that, in the aggregate, make our society what it is. He answered questions from Mind Matters Editor Gareth Cook.

How did you become interested in this topic?

A friend of mine is a lawyer in DC and he had just bought a new BMW. He was complaining that DC lawyers all buy BMWs to show they've made it. When I pointed out that he had just bought one, and so was the just like the rest of them, he argued that he was different and hadn't been influenced. When I asked why, he said that while they bought grey BMWs, he had bought a blue one. What was so interesting is that he had been influenced, yet he was completely unaware. And he wasn't just imitating others, he was being different at the same time. When do people act similarly to others and when do they act differently? And how does all this happen without us realizing it? I found all these contradictions intriguing and wanted to find out more.

You take readers to a restaurant, and explore the question of why people feel drawn to not copy other people's orders. Why is this?

Imagine you're ordering dinner at a restaurant with a group of friends. You're planning on ordering the salmon, but before you get the chance, someone picks the same thing. Would you still order the salmon?

In situations like these, most of us tend to switch our order and pick something else. Even though research finds that it makes us less satisfied with what we end up eating. So why do we switch?

Turns out that influence doesn't just lead to imitation. Social influence is like a magnet. Sometimes it attracts and leads us to do the same thing as others, but other times it repels and causes us to do something different. When ordering in group settings, our desire to be different leads us to pick something else, even though it makes us less happy. We don't just want to be the same as others, there's an opposing desire to be unique or distinctive, to stand out from the pack.

How would you expect social influence to work when someone decides which presidential candidate to support?

We think we pick our candidates based on our personal preferences. Our attitudes, likes and dislikes. But it turns out that party matters more than policy. If people think a given political idea is supported by their party, they love it. But take that same policy, tell people the other side supports it, and suddenly their opinions completely switch. Now they hate it.

This is exactly what's happened with conservatives and clean energy (e.g., solar and wind). Clean energy is less expensive, improves national security (because we rely less on Arab nations for oil), and allows individuals to generate their own power. All things that conservatives should love. But if you look at why conservative support has lagged, many people point to the fact that clean energy is associated with liberals. If Al Gore supports it, it must not be for me.

Our political views, and behavior more broadly, isn't just based on costs and benefits or even our personal preferences. They also depend on the identity or signal associated with a given behavior. If people we want to look like are doing something, we do it. But if people we want to avoid looking like are doing something, then we stay away.

How are people influenced by the simple fact that they know they are being watched by someone, that they 'have an audience'? You might think that others only influence us if we know them, or if we at least interact with them at some level. Running with a friend, for example, or talking to someone about running might change how fast or slow we run. But it turns out that the mere fact that someone else is around can change how we behave. Imagine running on the treadmill by yourself versus having someone else in the room at the same time. Even if that other person is just reading a magazine, the mere fact that they are there will impact our motivation, and leading us to run faster or longer.

Interestingly, though, in some cases others' presence leads us to perform worse. If you've ever parallel parked with someone else in the car, you've probably noticed it made you a worse parallel parker. Even if the other person says nothing, the fact that they are there makes us perform worse. So why do others make us better runners but worse parallel parkers?

Turns out that whether other help or hurt often depends on the nature of the thing we're doing. For easy things, or things we're already good at like running, having others around makes us perform better. But for things that are difficult, or that we're not good at, like parallel parking, others make us perform worse.

Based on what you have learned about influence, what kind of advice might you offer employers or parents?

Employers can use the science of influence to motivate employees and make better group decisions. Peers are a powerful tool. If leveraged correctly they can encourage people to work harder and perform better. We found that being slightly behind at halftime, for example, made NBA teams more likely to win. Applied to an office context, telling a team they are slightly behind the competition on a big pitch, or an employee they are slightly behind a co-worker, should lead people to put in more hours and improve the output.

But peers can also lead us astray. Comparing low performing employees to peak performers may cause them to be demotivated and give up because they don't think they can close the gap. If we understand how influence works, we can structure decisions to avoid these pitfalls.

For parents, it's important to remember that influence isn't always a bad thing. We think of peers as causing kids to drink, smoke, and get into other trouble, but they can just as easily serve as motivators that help kids do better. Peers are influential in getting kids to eat more vegetables, watch less TV, and perform better in school. Influence itself is neither good nor bad. If we understand how to use it, we can take advantage of its power.

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