"We underestimate how much social influence affects our behavior because we don’t realize it is happening."
Jonah Berger is an expert on word-of-mouth, viral marketing, social influence, and trends. A marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the 2013 bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger has spent his career studying social influence.
According to Berger, 99.9 percent of all decisions are shaped by others. We don’t necessarily see it, but it’s there nevertheless. Through Berger’s research and compelling stories, Invisible Influence, reveals the often subtle and surprising ways in which the decisions and actions of others influence our own.
"Influence is a tool, like any other. If we understand it, we don’t have to stand passively by and just watch it happen. We can use it. We can design environments, shape situations, and build programs… that harness the power of social influence to make the world a better place."
Once we understand influence, we can consciously choose to use, or disregard, its effect. Rather than get swept up in social expectations, we can avoid situations and decisions that conflict with who we are, and we can maintain our individuality.
We can also choose to harness the power of influence, to help others make better-informed decisions, or to put it to work to improve the lives of others.
For example, in my library, we can design an environment that encourages people to spend more time exploring the shelves for reading material. We can shape young lives by creating a place where teens want to be, and earn social credit by assisting seniors with technology.
Attractive and enticing spaces, comfortable and funky furniture, and a sense that programs are popular and that spaces are in demand will increase demand and support the nurturing of a reading culture in the community. This can be driven by the power of unconscious influence.
"Similar enough to what is already out there to evoke the warm glow of familiarity, but novel enough to seem new and not just derivative of what came before. Similarity shapes popularity because it makes novel things feel familiar."
Berger notes that seeing someone more frequently makes them easier to like. Being available makes a difference. For me, this confirms the importance of a daily practice of walking around the workplace, greeting people, engaging in impromptu conversations.
But when it comes to ideas and programs, and making change, Berger’s research shows that changes must have an element of the familiar. “If you’ve seen something before, it’s easier for your brain to process. The mind doesn’t have to do as much work to figure out what it is, and this reduced effort generates a positive feeling that we interpret as familiarity.”
Wholesale change won’t sell, but incremental change—where something looks familiar and yet fresh—will. The warm glow of the familiar makes it comfortable, and the new element can be looked upon with favour and delight.
Berger also notes that: “the more complex the stimulus, the less likely the habituation. So while we may tire of hearing the same song or eating the same cereal relatively quickly, we’re less likely to get bored of our spouse or a favorite restaurant. The latter are more varied experiences that often change each time we experience them.” As a result, relatively complex things—like a spouse or a workplace—may take longer to warm up to, but can also have longer-term appeal.
That said, context is everything. Cultural and socio-economic backgrounds shape preferences and become key factors into the degree to which similarity or differentiation will play out. For example, in East Asian culture harmony and connectedness are valued more than in western cultures. To wield influence effectively, you must understand the context of the person or group you are trying to influence.
"Giving people a sense of how they stack up against their peers can encourage them to work harder and be more likely to achieve their goals. At the same time, though, if not carefully designed, social comparisons can lead people to get disheartened, give up, and quit."
Berger describes the outcome of research about how people are influenced by what they know about their peer group. That is why hotels have started including messages about how many previous hotel guests have reused towels to save energy. That is why some hospitals post signs about how many people have washed their hands. The goal is to persuade people to do the right thing.
Social norms can provide a simple, cost-effective way to reduce energy costs, reduce disease, or work harder. People want to be on the winning team.
If you find out a peer is ahead by a slight amount, you might be motivated to work harder to beat them. People who are told they are behind can be more motivated than people who receive no feedback. Your competition provides you with something to measure yourself against – and winning is more satisfying than losing.
But being behind can be disheartening if winning does not seem achievable. In this case, social comparisons can decrease motivation, and even encourage you to quit. Quitting can provide a defence mechanism that enables people to avoid feeling like a failure.
In the right hands, social comparisons can be highly effective. When looking to hire a new employee, selecting someone who has not previously held a similar role can be highly motivating—they have something to prove. That said, where they stand in relation to others affects their motivation. It has to be achievable to be set up for success.
Similarly, creating a work environment where no one stands far out ahead of the others, where employees are motivated to perform their personal best because those around them are doing so as well, will be far more effective. Good information for an employer to be aware of if you want to create a winning team.
“But, by itself, social influence is neither bad nor good. If people follow others who are evil, it will lead to more evil in the world. If people follow others that are good, it will lead to more good.”
— Invisible Influence, location 2952
We’ve all experienced “groupthink.” If conformity, apathy or a desire for group harmony dominate, groups can be led to make worse decisions. In order for people to feel safe to express a dissenting view to the group, they need to feel like they are not alone. They need to feel that opinions can be shared, and other perspectives welcomed.
It’s essential to keep people engaged in decision-making and fostering a sense of social safety. We are constantly shaped by the people around us. If we’re surrounded by people within our own range of intellect, abilities and status, we’re more likely to be motivated by them.
It’s up to leaders to create environments that allow employees to thrive so organizations can thrive: understanding how social influence works is key.
Let’s aspire to lead more good in this world.