‘Invisible Influence’: What Really Shapes Our Decisions by Knowledge@Wharton

Jonah Berger discusses his new book on social influence.

In his new book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger takes us inside the conscious and unconscious ways that social influences shape our decisions. Knowledge@Wharton recently had an opportunity to talk with Berger about his book.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the inspiration for focusing on social influence as the topic of your book?

Jonah Berger: There’s a funny story that I mention briefly in the book. A number of years ago, my dad was buying a new car. He lives in Washington, D.C. He’s a lawyer there. He bought a BMW. Then he was complaining that all DC lawyers buy BMWs. I said, “Well, Dad, you bought a BMW also.” He said, “Oh, but mine’s a blue one. Everyone else drives a gray one.”

What’s really funny about that is social influence happens in the world. We see everybody else doing the same thing. “Oh, look at all those DC lawyers. They all drive the same car.” But when it comes to our own behavior, sometimes we feel like our own behavior is somehow privileged, or different. I am a rugged individual. I’m independent. No one else has any effect on what I do.” Actually, we’re kind of wrong. What I thought would be interesting to talk about in this book is all the science about how others shape our behavior, often without us knowing it, and what we can do about it and how we can use it to live happier and healthier lives.

Knowledge@Wharton: Your previous book, Contagious, focused on why things go viral. Do you feel like there’s an interplay between social influence and virality?

Berger: Certainly. They are both related to how people shape other people’s behavior or decisions. The first book, Contagious, was more about, how do we influence others? If I’m a business owner, or I have an idea I want to spread within my organization, Contagious was about, “We know word of mouth matters. How do I get people to talk about and share my stuff?”

Invisible Influence is almost the converse, or the opposite. It’s, “Well, how are other people affecting my behavior?” Sure, we can use that to influence others. But we can also use it to make ourselves better off. To help us make better decisions or be healthier when we’re having trouble doing that.

Knowledge@Wharton: The book is really not about how to go above the influence. You make the point that resistance is a bit futile when it comes to social influences. Whether we know it or not, it’s happening.

Berger: That’s, I think, the most interesting part. We see it all the time. If you ask people, “Oh, of course. You know, my neighbor bought this thing because someone else bought it.” Or, “My wife did this thing because someone else was doing it.” But we don’t necessarily see it in ourselves. That idea — resistance is futile — is important.

What we have to be careful of, though, is influence isn’t always a bad thing. Imagine if we couldn’t use others as a source of information. If every time we wanted to figure out where to go out to dinner or what movie to watch, we had to sample it ourselves? It would be exhausting. We would have to read all the information and look at all the options and sample a little bit here or there. Others are a really helpful cue. Others often help us make better decisions. But not always.

Invisible Influence talks about, when do others help us make better decisions? When do they make worse decisions? When do others motivate us? When do they demotivate us? And how can we use this to be better off?

Knowledge@Wharton: If we know that social influence is going to play a role, how can we harness that and use it to help us make better decisions?

Berger: One thing I talk a little bit about is motivation. Others often affect whether we give up, whether we try harder. How can we use that to be better off? One thing I felt in my own life — you want to exercise, you want to be healthier. How can you use others to help you do that?

Simple tricks like working out with other people, really having someone else to compare yourself to [matter]. There’s lots of research on something called social facilitation. Merely biking with someone else, for example, makes you bike faster. Running with someone else makes you run faster. Swimming with someone else makes you swim faster. Others can help us do things that we might not do otherwise. So we can set up situations where we actually encourage ourselves to be healthier, encourage ourselves to make better choices, by shaping our environment through others.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the factors that go into determining whether social influence will make us want to, for example, buy the same car as our neighbor, versus buy a different one? Or make us want to work harder, versus give up?

“Merely biking with someone else, for example, makes you bike faster…. Others can help us do things that we might not do otherwise.”

Berger: I’d have to give you a long answer for all of it. But some simple things are, first, others often provide information. When we’re uncertain about what to do, we often look to others. That leads us, often, to the same thing. Yet at the same time, we want to see ourselves as different. Particularly in American culture, we like to see ourselves as special snowflakes — like my dad, buying the blue BMW rather than the gray one.

Maybe we pick the same car, because we know it’s a good car, because others have bought it. But we pick a different color, because colors allow us to feel different. So we’re similar and different at the same time. We’re optimally distinct.

Or in terms of motivation, for example. Others can motivate us, except when they are too much better than we are. If we compare ourselves to someone who’s much better, much faster than we are, sometimes it causes us to give up. We say, “Well, there’s no way I’m going to reach that standard, or that score, or that level of performance. They are so much better than I am that I’m not going to try anymore.” It’s really about understanding the subtle differences of social comparisons, and understanding the situations people are in, that helps us figure out which way it goes.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have a couple of really interesting examples like this in the book. My favorite one was why social influence makes it harder for us to parallel park but easier to tie our shoes. The reason is, I hate it when people watch me parallel park. I’m horrible at it if someone’s watching. I’m a master if no one is.

Berger: There’s this wonderful old study on motivation. This researcher was interested in just the question you were interested in. He looked at a bunch of research and said, “Well, sometimes others seem to be motivating.

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