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Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior

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Diverging paths

Author:  Jonah Berger

Summary provided by Tyler Capps

Bite the Bullets:

  • Most people can see that others are affected by social influence but believe they aren’t affected by such influences (pg. 5). Accept that you are human and can be influenced so you can increase your awareness and limit undesirable influence in your life.
  • “Whether trying to win a contract, get someone to do something, or just have people like us, subtly mimicking their language and mannerisms is an easy place to start” (pg. 57).
  • Be aware that “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd” (pg. 61). E.g. a restaurant with more Yelp reviews will gain more customers but this does not guarantee that their quality is better than a similar restaurant with less reviews.
  • Choosing which tasks to perform in public versus in private can greatly impact performance (e.g. performing simpler, hardwired tasks (e.g. exercising) in public can improve results, while performing more complex tasks which require practice (e.g. calculus/building furniture) in private yields better results.

Savor the Summary:

Invisible Influence is a book that is easy to digest and will have you asking yourself: “do I do that?” Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at UPenn’s Wharton School who has researched social influence for more than 15 years, takes readers through a series of common experiences and details how they were likely influenced by hidden forces.

Berger starts by attacking what could get in the way of you absorbing the rest of the material by letting you (yes you the reader) know that you’ve been influenced by the concepts he mentions throughout the remainder of the book. “Whether buying clothes, voting on political issues, or driving courteously, people recognized that social influence had an impact. Except when it came to them. People could see social influence affecting others’ behavior, but not their own” (pg. 5).

Aptly placed at the beginning of the book, Berger tries to subtly persuade the reader that they are subject to influence as well. And personally, I was persuaded. This quote forced me to think, “Is it really reasonable that others can be persuaded by marketing and not me? Why would companies/organizations spend so much on marketing if it truly had no effect?”

Fun fact, the U.S. is projected to average an annual marketing spend of 200 BILLION dollars between 2015 and 2019. Do you think this much money would get spent each year if only a handful of people were influenced by the advertisements? In any case, I found it reasonable to accept that we are all influenced by both these visible and hidden forces to varying degrees and proceeded to read on.

After Berger breaks down the reader’s defenses and prepares them to absorb new information, he immediately offers a powerful tool to add to one’s influencing tool belt. Detailing the results of a negotiation exercise, he mentions that “People who mimicked their [negotiation] partner were five times as likely to find a successful outcome. While almost no one who didn’t mimic found an acceptable agreement, people who subtly imitated their counterpart reached a deal two-thirds of the time” (40).

You have likely witnessed this effect many times before without knowing exactly what was happening. While having dinner with friends, you may have reached for your glass to take a drink and noticed almost immediately afterward your friends unconsciously do the same. While almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye, this is one of many unconscious signals that demonstrates affinity between people, and can be used to the advantage of those aware of the effect. For example, those who employ mimicry in an artful manner can gain the favor of their interviewer during an interview, help them sell more product in a retail environment, and as previously mentioned, improve the outcome of a negotiation (41). Mimicry is a powerful tool when used appropriately. It is good to note that being obvious or overusing it will have the opposite of the desired effect as the person being mimicked may find it awkward or, if they are aware of your intention, conniving. As with most interpersonal skills, balance is key in choosing when and when not to employ mimicry.

Imagine that you have never read this blog before, but you saw that it has been reviewed by only 24 people with an average rating of four stars. Now imagine that there was an extremely similar blog that also had an average rating of four stars, but was reviewed by 376 people. Which would you go to first? Regardless of how you answer, odds are you would choose the site with more reviews. Similarly, people often go to THE pizza place everyone talks about when planning their trip to New York City, or watch the more popular videos on YouTube even when there are equally as good (or better) pizza and videos out there. Chances are that you’ve heard of this before by the names of groupthink, mob mentality, and the like but Berger details layers of the concept that may be less familiar.

One of the main layers of logic supporting this concept is that “providing information about others’ choices [has] a big impact” on the choice the new individual is currently making (pg. 47). Have you ever been in a classroom or meeting where the presenter asked for a “show of hands” if you supported their most recent statement? Now think of a time when you disagreed with the presenter but the majority of others raised their hands. Most likely you either raised your hand with them or didn’t raise it when being asked who votes in the opposite direction. A great example Berger shares is the research sociologist Matthew Salganick performed regarding how people would react to very obscure songs if presented in random order with no additional information vs. in order of how many people had downloaded the song. As you might expect at this point, being presented with what other listeners downloaded (or liked) resulted in the subsequent users downloading the same songs more frequently than those not presented with a download count (pg. 47).

An additional layer to this research of how crowds draw crowds is the order in which options are presented. In order to better control his experiment, Salganick created eight different study groups in which all groups started with zero downloads and the groups of subjects in one group were indistinguishable from the others in terms of genre preference. What resulted was each group showing a completely different list of what songs were most popular, which was largely driven by who started downloading first. For example, if the first person to download songs preferred country and downloaded songs within that genre, it was more likely that the downloads of others would at least start with one of the country songs first downloaded even if that wasn’t their favorite genre (pg. 52). As you can imagine, who downloaded first was completely random in each group but the effect was the same. The songs that were voted up first ended up getting more attention than the rest and rose to the top as the most popular in the group.

Another type of influence Berger details is known as “social facilitation” (189). Put more simply, social facilitation is the case where an individual’s performance depends on if they are working alongside others or being observed. In my opinion, this is most “visible” type of influence Berger describes and is also the one that I have found easiest to implement in my life.

The first type of social facilitation that Berger describes is known as the “coaction effect,” or what I like to call the “buddy bump.” This is the case where working alongside others performing the same task can improve output or results, but there is a kicker. This only works if the task is relatively simple and does not require much mental effort. For example, I take example of this effect by running sprints with my friend. I’ve found that when I do sprints with my friend not only do I run faster than I would alone, but I also run more sprints. Obviously there is the competitive aspect of this activity that improved my results, but there is an additional layer of the innate desire of wanting to perform better when being observed.

This is the second type of social facilitation known as the “audience effect” (189). In the previous example where I was sprinting alongside my friend, we were both performing the same activity simultaneously. But similar results can be achieved simply by knowing others are watching. Keeping with the theme of exercise, I’ve also found that when I work out in the gym where others are potentially watching, I tend to lift more weight or perform more repetitions. I’m almost certain no one is watching me but the thought that someone could be is enough to make me try harder. Again, I’d like to caution that working alongside someone or with an audience is most likely to produce better results when the tasks performed are simple and don’t require much thought. For example, if the task is complex and not yet committed to memory such as taking a driver’s test, having a passenger in addition to the instructor made it more likely for the individual to fail (190).

For anyone trying to limit the impact of unwanted influences in their life or wanting to take advantage of the powers of subtle persuasion, Invisible Influence brings to light the once “hidden forces that shape behavior.” Whether you are trying to get someone to like you, drum up customers/followers, or be more productive with your time, Jonah Berger shares how subtle persuasion can help you achieve these goals and more.

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