Think You’re in Control of Your Thoughts? That’s Adorable

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In his new book, Jonah Berger argues that humans are far more deeply influenced by other people than they realize.

By Paul Hiebert

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(Photo: Matt Zhang/Flickr)

Free is what many of us aspire to be — free to express ourselves online, free to vote for the candidate we support, and free to pursue our own definition of happiness without others telling us what to do. Yet, despite our best efforts, we fail pretty big time, in that our personal choices aren’t as unfettered, personal, or sui generis as they so often feel.

With Independence Day just around the corner, Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of 2013’s best-selling Contagious: Why Things Catch on, returns to remind us we’re not as sovereign over our own lives as we might like to think — and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. His latest book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior, explores how other people mold our tastes and preferences, attitudes and opinions. Using plenty of his own research, along with classic studies in psychology — such as Solomon Asch’s experiments with conformity and the mere-exposure effect, which asserts that people grow to favor things as they become more familiar with them — Berger makes a strong case for the environment over the individual.

To get a better sense of the role social influence plays in all our lives — and, again, why there’s nothing inherently sinister about it — I recently spoke with Berger about why some public-service announcements don’t work and the benefits of following the crowd.

Why is it relatively easy to spot social influence in other people’s lives yet difficult to detect in my own?

Two reasons. One is about self-presentation and whether being influenced is a good thing or a bad thing. In American culture, we think it’s better to be independent. We want to see ourselves as different from everybody else, as special unique snowflakes. So, if influence is a bad thing, we don’t want to see ourselves as influenced.

But it’s more complicated than just that. We did some research a few years ago that showed that, even in situations where going along with the crowd is a good thing, people still don’t think they do it. So it’s not just about influence being bad; it’s also because it happens below our awareness. We can’t see it happening because it often happens unconsciously. Think about something you bought recently, like a shirt. You might think you bought that shirt because it’s on sale and you like the way it looks, but if you dug deeper and thought about why you like the way it looks, you might not realize you like it because you saw a bunch of other people wearing something similar in the weeks and months prior.

In the book, we did a big analysis of popular baby names. Everybody thinks they pick unique names for their kids, and they have their own personal stories about why they picked them. Yet when people show up to kindergarten, there are often two or three other kids with the same name. If we’re all making these independent choices, how do we end up with the same name for our kid? When Hurricane Katrina hit, we heard the name Katrina a lot. Our data shows that Hurricane Katrina led to 10 percent more babies receiving a name starting with “K.” We’re not aware of it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect our choices.

In your book, you describe how some people tend to conform to the crowd, while others tend to automatically contradict it. What determines whether an individual chooses one response instead of the other?

A lot of it depends on the situation and particular task at hand. Rather than doing one versus the other, we kind of blend both at the same time. I talk about this idea of being optimally distinct, or similar but different. We buy the same brand of car, but in a different color. We buy the same style of clothing, but from a different brand. Often, we’re trying to balance these two motives, rather than do one or the other. We want to fit in because we want people to like us. We want to feel like we’re doing the right thing, yet sometimes we also want to be a little bit different to feel special. We’re playing between these two poles rather than doing one or the other.

Throughout the political primaries, many critics have blamed Donald Trump’s ascent on the media’s constant coverage of him and his campaign. Trump’s policy and persona aside, would this be an example of the mere-exposure effect in action?

Researchers have examined this in voting, in that voters look for candidates with familiar names, and the candidates with familiar names get more votes. Even if people don’t know the candidate very well, the fact that the name is familiar and has that warm glow means they’re more likely to vote for her or him. So, in this case I don’t think it’s just that Trump is being covered a lot by the media — though that certainly didn’t hurt — it’s also that people are already more familiar with him and his name. He’s been on television shows, and, as a result, people might be more likely to support him.

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Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior. (Photo: Simon & Schuster)

One study in your book describes how both Democrats and Republicans tend to support party-backed policies regardless of their content. How is that not scary for American democracy?

In general, I think we see influence as evil, or a bad word. We think of manipulation or persuasion. I want to be careful here, because there are certainly cases where influence is a good thing. Imagine if you had to pick a mechanic to repair your car or choose a restaurant to try out, and you had to figure it out on your own. You couldn’t use online reviews or talk to your friends. Life would be difficult and complicated. Others can provide useful shortcuts that help us make better decisions.

That said, you’re definitely right: Those same processes can sometimes lead us astray. Sometimes, relying on labels or what things stand for rather than what they are can lead us to worse choices. I don’t know if that’s ever going to change. People like shortcuts, and parties are happy to provide them.

Social media has expanded our reach and ability to communicate with far more people across far greater distances than ever before. This must result in something new for society, no?

It used to be that we only knew what our friends were doing. Now we can see what people are doing far, far away from us.

In the book, I talk about how different parts of the United States use the words soda, pop, or Coke. Look at different regions in the country, and they call it one thing or the other. People are being influenced by those next to them. At least, that’s how it used to be.

Now we can be influenced by people who aren’t next to us at all. We can be influenced by people who are on the other side of the world. So social media does allow for change to spread faster and easier than it might have before. This can lead to good things and bad things. It can lead brands and fashion trends to catch on much faster, but it can also lead them to die out just as quickly.

I suppose some of my questions are revealing my own ingrained bias that all independence is good and all influence is bad. In the end, though, we can’t get away from other people, right? We’re always in relation with those around us.

We’re social animals. Whether it’s being the same or being different, we are shaped by our environment. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Our family members got us to where we are today. Our friends and spouses have made us who we are. Peers are a great source of information and value, and can help us live happier, healthier lives. It’s important to acknowledge and understand that.

Americans do tend to champion individualism over one’s environment, yet your book makes a strong case for the environment over the individual. If social influence is here to stay, how can we leverage it for the good?

There’s a bunch of ways. Let’s say we want people to adapt a good cause. How do we do that? One simple trick I talk about in the book is mimicking. Researchers looking at what makes certain negotiators successful found that by subtly mimicking their partners — whether it’s crossing their legs or tilting their head to the side — these negotiators were five times as likely to reach a successful outcome. In a restaurant context, for example, waiters or waitresses that repeated a customer’s order got a 70 percent higher tip. Emulating others’s mannerisms, behaviors, and actions is a way to build trust and be more persuasive. So we can use these tools, just like any tool, to get good stuff to catch on.

Health messages, for example, often focus on the benefits and downsides: “Don’t smoke because it’ll hurt your lungs.” “Don’t binge drink in college because it will make you engage in risky things.” Those messages are great, but they’re often not super effective — partially because people aren’t smoking or drinking because they think it’s healthy. People smoke and drink in part because of what it signals about them to others. They feel cool to smoke and drink. If we want to combat those things, we need identity-based appeals rather than information-based appeals. In a study on binge drinking, we changed the signal associated with the behavior, and found that was much more likely to reduce students’ binge drinking. Changing the identity associated with it made them less likely to drink because they didn’t want to signal undesirable identities to others.

Your book makes such a strong case for the environment over the individual that it makes me wonder if independent decision-making even exists, or if each person is just a unique mosaic of colliding influences.

What was amazing to me during the research for this book, is it’s almost impossible to find an area of life that is not affected by social influence, whether it’s the things we buy, the decisions we make, the small things, like coffee and clothes, or the large things, like careers and 401k investments.

The end of the book talks about recent work that shows moving to a different community can totally change your health and job prospects. So it’s almost impossible to find an area where influence doesn’t affect us. I don’t think we’re ever going to be totally outside the influences of others.

What do you hope for your book? What’s the best outcome?

That we can take advantage of influence and use it to get good messages and ideas to catch on. We can use influence to make better group decisions. But in all these things we have to see it first.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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