Episode 61: Jonah Berger – Invisible Influence
How can we influence others using the tools of social science and psychology? First, we have to realize how they are influencing us, says Jonah Berger, author of Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. According to Jonah, most of our decisions, from how fast we set the treadmill at the gym to what car we drive, are subtly influenced by the people around us. Discover how you can use this invisible influence to move a group towards consensus, what you can do to encourage more meaningful viewpoints in your next meeting, and the one skill that sets great negotiators apart from good ones.
- “We never stand out as much as we think.” Why the Spotlight Effect goes both ways #podcast @j1berger
- There’s no right or wrong way to be, says @j1berger – join us as we discuss being “different” vs. conforming to the group
Book: Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior
Bio: Jonah Berger is an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has been published in top-tier academic journals, and popular accounts of his work have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Science, Harvard Business Review, and more. His research has also been featured in the New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas.” Berger has been recognized with a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching. The author of Contagious and Invisible Influence, he lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
Professor Jonah Berger is here with me today. He’s a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s written a bunch of really great books, the latest of which is Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. He also wrote the book Contagious. He’s smart, he’s a good writer. It’s worth picking up the book. First of all, it’s worth picking up the book to read it. But it’s also worth picking it up just to see the cover, which is the most creative cover I’ve seen in a very long time. I’m not going to tell you anything more, because you’re going to have to go into an actual store and pick up the book and see the cover, or buy it on Amazon and let it come to you, and then you’ll be able to see the cover. Jonah has some really interesting things to say about what influences us, how we influence other people, and how the two interact. So I’m happy, without further ado, to welcome you, Jonah, to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Jonah: Thanks so much for having me.
Peter: Jonah, share with us, if you would, the big idea in the book that kind of drives through the book.
Jonah: The big idea is a really simple one, and that is, think about a decision you’ve made recently, whether it’s a simple decision like what breakfast cereal to buy, or how to answer a particular email, or a more complicated decision, like whether to take a new job, how to motivate a set of employees, whether to buy one house or another. When we’re thinking about the simple or the complex decisions that we make, we think at the root of them lies one person, and that is us, our likes and our dislikes. We pick the cereal we like, we vote for the candidate we like, we avoid buying the car we don’t like. Everything is driven by our behavior, our preferences, our likes, and our dislikes.
All that makes a lot of sense except for one thing: It’s wrong. Other people have a huge impact on everything we do. We’re more likely to buy a new car if our neighbors have bought one recently. We work out harder at the gym if someone’s on the treadmill next to us. Others can cause us to do the same thing as them, and do different things. Others can motivate us, and others can demotivate us. The book really is about, well, how does invisible influence affect our lives, and how, by understanding those often invisible influences, can we be happier, healthier, and more successful?
Peter: You start with this great question, which is, “You, the reader, are going to think that this research applies to other people and not you, but you’re wrong.”
Jonah: That is the challenge about convincing people of something they don’t think applies to them, right? We do see influence in the world around us. I was talking to my father, actually, telling him about this book I was working on, and he used to be a lawyer in Washington, DC, and he was complaining about the influence of influence on DC lawyers. He was saying, “God, you know, DC lawyers, they’re all the same. They maybe make partner or whatever it is, and they go out and they buy a new BMW.” I said, “You know, that’s really interesting, but don’t you drive a BMW, and aren’t you a lawyer in Washington, DC?” He said, “Oh, yeah, but they all drive gray ones and I drive a blue one.”
Related to the introduction of the book, we do see influence, right? We see other people driving similar cars. We see kids listening to similar music. The one place … Look around the world. The one place we never seem to see influence is ourselves. We never seem to see it affecting us, and because we can’t see it affecting us, we don’t realize how to use it more effectively to change others’ minds. Really, observing that influence, spotting it, is the first key.
Peter: It’s complicated because, you know, as I was reading through, you’ve got these great stories and proof about how we really try to be like everybody else. We listen to the same hits. We read the same books. That’s how you have runaway bestsellers. On the other hand, we also really try to be different, and we want to distinguish ourselves, and we live in this culture, certainly in America, of independence and uniqueness. How do we parse those two things out? The sort of subtlety of … You talk about, you use this term, “optimally distinct.” The subtlety of being the same enough and different enough.
Jonah: Yeah. I mean, that is really the fundamental question. One of the fundamental questions of the book. As you nicely sketched out, we have these two motivations. We want to fit in. We want to be like others. We want to be liked. Doing the same thing as others is good. Others provide information. You know, you make the same choice a bunch of other people did, you know it’s probably pretty good. At the same time, we also want to be different. We want to stand out, want to feel special and unique. We often end up blending these two influences or motivation at once. You know, we want to be optimally distinct. Similar and different at the same time. We buy the same brand of car but a different color. You know, we say we support a given candidate, but we disagree with some of their policies. We both want to fit in and stand out at the same time.
What I also think is interesting is we never end up standing out as much as we think. Some of that is more in our mind than it is in the real world. We want to be different, but we actually don’t want to be as different as we think we do.
Peter: I struggle over these decisions, right? You know, what watch to buy, what clothing to wear. I will admit to being guilty as charged that I think about optimal distinctiveness – that I want to fit in enough but not so much that I look like and act like everybody else. It made me realize as I was reading the book, I think I might be the only one who notices. That I think I’m kind of standing out. My shirt’s more colorful than other people, but I really might be the only person who notices that distinction, and that all of the effort and energy that we put into this might be better spent somewhere else.
Jonah: You know, there’s something in psychology called the spotlight effect, which is we assume that the spotlight is always on us. We assume that other people see that small stain on our shirt. We assume that when we’re doing public speaking, everyone noticed that we missed a certain word, or that we forgot an idea that we meant to present. Really, other people do care about us, but not as much as we think. They’ve got their own problems and their own spotlights to worry about. We are trying to be similar. We are trying to be different. We are trying to fit in in the right ways, but other people never end up seeing it as much as we do.
I did a little study as part of the book, and showed a bunch of people two different handbags that looked very much the same, and in fact if you didn’t own one of those handbags, you thought they were almost identical. They were basically two different colors of the same handbag. You ask a set of people who own that handbag what they think, and they think, “Oh, they’re completely different. Look, that one’s a different color, and it’s not the same.” We can really focus on those minute differences when we want to see ourselves as different, when really at the whole, at a higher level, we’re actually quite similar.
Peter: That last question I asked you, I was thinking specifically about the pocketbook. The point that you made in the book resonated with me in that exact spot. I found myself thinking about something around this distinction you make between middle class differentiation and lower economic classes and connection, that there’s this isolation and loneliness of really being different, and more of a connection at lower economic classes. You were talking about the firemen wanting to drive the same cars as each other, and being happy when their neighbor gets the same car, and yet someone who’s a little bit more middle or upper class wants to have that distinctiveness, and the research in the shopping centers of Walmart versus a Neiman Marcus and how different the cars were in the higher end shopping center versus the lower end.
I’m curious to get your perspective on that in relation to how satisfied we are with our lives.
Jonah: Yeah. I think this is important to think about as a manager. I think we have this notion that everyone is like us, right? If we want to be different, everybody wants to be different. Some people have this notion that difference is the right way to be. It’s important to remember, there’s no right or wrong, right? It’s not that difference is a good thing and being the same is bad. You could just as easily say being different is bad and being the same is good. Depending on sort of your cultural background, the area of the world you’re from, as well as sort of your socioeconomic status, there are different norms about what’s right and wrong.
In middle class American culture, we see standing out as a good thing. You think about Disney movies, and it’s always about the winner is the one that stands out from the pack and differentiates themselves. But you could just as easily say, “You know, why would you want to be different from all your friends and family members? Why wouldn’t you want to be a good member of the group?” Which is much more the norm in sort of east Asian cultures, or sort of lower socioeconomic status groups in the United States.
A colleague of mine did a great study you mentioned briefly. Imagine going into the parking lot of different shopping malls and looking at the types of cars that people are driving. Sure enough, they found, consistent with those differences and desires for distinction, you go to sort of a Neiman Marcus shopping mall, and lots of different cars, lots of different colors. You go to more of a Walmart shopping mall, much more similarity. Much more people being the same as others around them. You ask MBA students, “How would you feel if a friend of yours bought the same car as you?” MBA students get really upset when you tell them that. “Why would they do that? God, I feel they’ve copied me. I’m annoyed. I’m angry.” You tell the same thing to a different set of people, fireman, and they say, “Let’s start a car club. Wouldn’t that be great if we had the same car? We have something in common. That facilitates our interaction.”
Again, it’s not that similarity or difference is right or wrong. They’re just different ways of being, but as a manager, we have to think about, how do we manage folks based on their own ways of being and what’s important to them?
Peter: Did you find a different level of connectedness amongst people based on whether they had that perspective of, “Let’s start a car club?” Versus, “Why did he just get the same car that I got?” This might not have showed up in your research, but I’m curious whether one sensibility leads to more connected relationships than another?
Jonah: You know, I think part of the way we connect is being similar. There’s some other great research I talk about in the book about mimicry, sort of the chameleon effect. If you’re in a negotiation, for example, and researchers were looking sort of what makes successful negotiators. They looked at hundreds of negotiations. They found that one simple trick led negotiators to be about five times as successful. The trick was mimicking or mirroring their negotiating partner. Your partner crosses their legs, you do the same. If they tilt their head to the side, you do the same. Not obviously, subtly so, but non-consciously in some sense mirroring what they’re doing. In a sales context, a waiter or waitress that mimics the customer’s order word for word gets a 70% higher tip.
The reason these work is mimicry creates this feeling of similarity. If you and I are doing the same thing, if we’re sitting and eating the same meal together, for example, we order the same entrée, or we say the same thing, or we wear similar clothes, we feel like we have something in common. There’s a kinship there, and it can turn strangers into friends, and acquaintances into allies. But if we’re different, if we’re completely different from everybody else, then we don’t have that connection. We don’t have those things in common. I think being unique is good in some ways, but it’s bad in others, and particularly if we want to connect with others, we want to deepen that trust and those social bonds, similarity is a powerful way to do it.
Peter: I guess what you’re also saying is, even when we think that we’re distinctive, like your dad, we’re actually more similar than we think we are. You know, we’re all driving BMWs. They just might be gray and blue as opposed to all being gray. Even in those groups, I might feel a little more unique because I have a different color, but in reality I’m still clearly connected to the same group of people that drive the same cars.
Jonah: Yeah. I mean, think about why brands make an item in different colors. Part of it is certainly because people have color preferences, but part of it is also to give people that opportunity to feel different. There’s almost minimal distinction, if you will. The smallest thing that can allow you to feel different, even though you’re basically the same. If we’re thinking about producing products or services, part of it is about thinking about, “How can we make people feel distinct or special, not the same as everyone else, even if they very much are?”
Peter: It feels like marketers know this much more than others. You were talking about, in the book, these ads it’s 10 times more likely to include people in the car ads when targeting the working class than when they’re targeting upper middle class.
Jonah: Yeah, and again, this question is, “What are people buying?” I teach the marketing core at the Wharton School, you know, the five Cs. The four Ps. Segmenting, targeting, positioning. One thing we often talk about is, “What are people really selling? What is a company selling?” When you’re selling a car, obviously you’re selling transportation, but you’re also selling more than that. What does that car say about you? What we buy says a lot about us. It signals our identities. Depending on who you are, you may want to buy a car that signals that you’re different, or you may want to buy a car that signals that you’re part of a group of people that have something in common.
Think about when we all go to a football game, on a Sunday for example. We all dress up the same. We all support the same team, because we want to feel like something that’s bigger than ourselves. Ads that cater to groups that want more of that definitely think about the right way to approach those questions.
Peter: Do we betray our beliefs in order to conform with the crowd and be comfortable from a social perspective? Or does the similarity, does the desire to connect with the crowd just influence our beliefs in such a way that we’re not really betraying? We’re not buying a bag we don’t want to buy. It’s just that we buy a bag we might not buy if we were in isolation, but we’re not in isolation, so we’re buying the bag that other people are buying also, and that we’re not betraying a belief. It’s just part of the equation.
Jonah: What’s so interesting about that question is, you know, does it change our beliefs, or does it change what we say, but our beliefs are the same? We can think about this in a work context. Imagine there’s a hiring meeting and there’s two people everyone’s choosing between, person A and person B. Everyone else supports person B, but you support person A, and they call say, “Person B. Person B.” It gets to you, you’re thinking person A. What do you now say? Do you say, “Person A”? Or do you say “Person B”? Part of the question is, well, does the fact that they all said person B change your mind to some degree? The research shows it’s a little bit of both. On the one hand, others’ choices provide information. If everyone else thinks person B is really good, you start to wonder, “Well, maybe I’m missing something.” That if a restaurant’s full, it’s probably pretty good. If lots of people support a certain job candidate, they may be worth hiring.
At the same time, it’s also hard to stand out in those situations. If everyone else is voting one way and you’re voting a different way, you might not want to cast your vote in a way that other people can see. You might actually say, “Well, I’ll hold my vote.” Or, “I’ll change my vote,” just because others are around. If we’re all out to dinner and you want to order dessert, and everyone else skips dessert, you still want it, but you’re not going to order it because you don’t want to stand out in a bad way. Sometimes it changes not only our beliefs, but also what we say in the group.
Peter: What do we do to resist the pull of these decisions that are influenced, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively, by other people’s input. If we want to resist that pull, have you found anything works?
Jonah: Let’s go back to that meeting context we were talking about. Imagine you’re in that meeting, and you’re the boss structuring that meeting. How do you structure the meeting to take advantage of everyone’s opinion? Really what we’re talking about is the wisdom of crowds. This notion that the crowd is wiser than the individual. The crowd put together, with all their different opinions and ideas, makes a better decision than just the individual. That’s why the boss just doesn’t decide by themselves. He takes a vote, has a meeting, he asks people to share their opinions. But the crowd is only wise, the crowd only makes a better decision than an individual would by themselves, if unique information gets shared. If everyone is just going along with the group, they’re saying exactly what everyone else is saying, not really sharing their unique information, well then there’s no benefit to that crowd. There’s no actual extra added value. If people are just going along, it doesn’t help.
How do we make sure to get each of those independent opinions? Each additional information? One thing I often use, and suggest in the book, is what’s called a designated dissenter. That’s basically, ahead of time in the meeting, setting up someone’s job who it is to go against the rest of the group. That does two things that are interesting. One, it makes diverse viewpoints more likely to be heard. They’re going against the group. They’re poking holes in arguments, sort of like a devil’s advocate, and so people are more likely to hear a diverse viewpoint. That, I think, is the less interesting reason.
The more interesting reason is the mere fact that someone there is disagreeing with the rest of the group makes everyone else, even if they’re not the dissenter, more comfortable sharing their opinions. The fact that someone else said something different from the group, even if it’s not what they think … Imagine there are three candidates, A, B, and C. You vote A, everybody else says B. Having one other person who says C, even if they don’t say A, the fact that they’re saying something different than the rest of the group, not B, makes you feel more comfortable sharing your unique viewpoint, your unique ideas. It really frees everybody up to share their opinion. No longer is it a right or a wrong answer. It’s a matter of opinion. Well, if it’s a matter of opinion, everyone will feel more comfortable sharing theirs.
Peter: I would guess that the person who’s the designated dissenter, and I love that idea, would have to really support the position. Meaning, if they’re really being the designated dissenter, and they’re doing it in that kind of half enthusiastic way, because that’s their role, that the role probably wouldn’t have the same impact. But if they really are willing to take the risk of truly being different than everybody else and embodying that other perspective and coming out with it wholeheartedly, then you end up having a much more robust discussion, I would imagine.
Jonah: Certainly. I think part of setting that up is telling the rest of the group that that’s the person’s job, right? Because no one wants to be disagreeable. No one wants to be disliked by the group. Going against the group is tough when everyone thinks you’re just doing that just because, but if your job is to go against the group, well now you’re evaluated based on how well you went against the group. I think then people are much more likely to take that job seriously, and you’re more likely to get those diverse viewpoints that you’re hoping for.
Peter: I wonder how you’ve seen this play out in organizations and what advice you might have for leaders who are saying, “Look, I want to move a group of people from point A to point B. What’s the best way I could leverage this invisible influence competence?
Jonah: It’s a funny question, because we’re actually going through exactly this in the organization I work in, where there are a whole bunch of diverse viewpoints, we want to get everybody on the same page. How do we do that effectively? Social influence is a great way to do that, but you know, people tend to follow others, but if there’s too many fragmented groups, no one will ever reach consensus. If you have something that you want to get to catch on in the group, you have an idea that you think is successful but you want to get people to go along, well part of it is thinking about, “How can I build consensus and make it visible?” If you think about it, if you just go to the meeting, and people are sort of 50-50, then who knows which way it will go? Maybe no decision will get made. If instead, you go around and you find the people that support you, you get all of them on board, you make it then easier for other people to see those folks are on board, maybe it will convince them before you get to the meeting, when they realize, you know, there’s another half of the people that feel opposite, right?
If 50% of the people want to do A, the other half want to do B, people may stick to their guns, but if people don’t realize that, it’s not visible yet, and you walk around and say, “Look, these seven people support this side of the thing. Which side are you on?” They’re much more likely to say, “Wow. If all those people are doing it, I probably support it too.” Then use them to go after the next person, and use them to go after the next person. Build that consensus slowly, but make it visible. The more people can see that other people are doing something, the more likely they’ll be to do it.
On the other side, if you’re trying to avoid that, if you’re trying to avoid sort of a false consensus forming, then think about ways to get people’s individual opinions. Use that designated dissenter. Have people vote privately, for example. Great way to make sure everyone feels more comfortable in sharing their unique opinion. If other people can’t see it, well then they’ll share their own opinion, and they’re also unaware of others’ opinions. Those are kind of two easy tips to use influence more effectively.
Peter: I would imagine that it’s worthwhile to think about who in the organization might people aspire to be? The aspirational people – and work with them to act in a certain way where others look at them and say, “Okay, I want to be more like this person, and this person seems to be moving in that direction. They’re an opinion setter, and they’re the person I want to align with, so I’ll move more rapidly to this side of the table.”
Jonah: Yeah, and that’s a whole other chapter of the book. Really think about, “What does it mean to engage in a certain behavior? Who does it suggest that you’re like or different from, and how does that affect your willingness to do it?” One, the more aspirational someone is, the more people want to look like someone, the more they’ll imitate their behavior, but the flip side is also true. If a bunch of people are doing something, and you don’t want to look like one of those individuals, you’re less likely to do it. You know, that’s definitely playing out in today’s political debates, where people are choosing sides not necessarily based on the issues, but based on what it signals about them to support a certain candidate or a certain cause. What does it say about you to be one candidate supporter versus another? That signal, that identity, the associations are just important as the issues themselves.
Peter: We all are familiar with the examples of product placement and paying people to wear certain clothing or drink a certain drink on television. You have examples of companies, brands that have paid people to not wear their clothing because of what they represent, and that they didn’t want the brand to get sucked into that representation.
Jonah: Oh, yeah, and this is a hilarious story. Your listeners may remember the Jersey Shore. They were a bunch of sort of early 20s folks that drank a huge amount, were very obnoxious, used a lot of fake tanner, and all those sorts of things. One of them, one of the famous ones was a guy named Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. He was the guy who had the abs. That’s why he was called “The Situation.” Abercrombie and Fitch sent him a letter offering to pay him money. That by itself is not surprising. Celebrities often get paid money by companies. It’s part of product promotion, but the unusual thing was they were actually sending him a letter offering to have him not wear their clothes. They were offering to pay him money not to wear Abercrombie and Fitch.
Actually, one of his cast mates, Snooki, the short one that looked sort of like a parking cone, had a similar experience. She got a Gucci handbag in the mail, except it didn’t come from Gucci. It came from one of Gucci’s competitors. Why would Gucci’s competitor send her a free bag? Why would Abercrombie and Fitch pay them not to wear their clothes? The simple reason, as we’ve been talking about, is, well, they were worried that if those folks were doing it, other people wouldn’t want to do it. There’s not just positive associations. Influence, it doesn’t just attract. It also repels, and the mere fact that those folks were doing it might make other people less likely to do it.
Peter: It’s amazing that they would go to those lengths, but you can understand it, because there’s a lot of money at stake, and the influences are really strong.
Jonah: Certainly. Yeah.
Peter: I’m curious, Jonah, how your research has changed the purchasing decisions that you make, or the choices of what to do, where to do it. You’ve explored deeply how the social influences change behavior. How has that impacted you?
Jonah: Yeah, you know, I’ve been told that I’m a horrible person at making decisions, and part of it I think is because I’m always thinking about the influences that may be pushing me one way or the other. The hope is, you know, in realizing these tools, we can use them more effectively. I certainly use them to help motivate myself, using peers as a motivation tool, and also to motivate others. It’s a persuasion tool, to help us persuade others. The more we understand about how influence works, the more we can take advantage of its power.
Peter: Jonah Berger’s book is Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. It’s one of those delightful books that are both interesting to read, and have great, valuable information that’s useful. Jonah, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Jonah: Thanks so much for having me, Peter. Appreciate it.
Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit PeterBregman.com. Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Brian Wood, who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.