Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior by Jonah Berger

INVISIBLE INFLUENCE is an impressive book--but also a SCARY book. Before reading this book, I admit I had no idea of the subtle ways my decisions can be influenced. The scary part is that we don't know this is happening: "We underestimate how much social influence affects our behavior because we don’t realize it is happening."

Professor Berger provides abundant evidence that people change their behavior--even while denying they are being influenced. "Without our realizing it, other people’s behavior has a huge influence on everything we do at every moment of our lives, from the mundane to the momentous occasion."

To illustrate the point, the author biked around an expensive area in Silicon Valley, finding BMWs, then placing surveys on their windshield. He wanted to find out why the owner bought a BMW. Here's the surprise: The BMW owners admitted that people are influenced to buy cars like this--but only other people, not them! The owners "readily acknowledged that social influence had a big impact on what cars people buy. Except when those “people” were themselves."

Another fun experiment involved students ranking attractiveness of certain woman, based on a photo. Secretly, however, the woman had actually been sitting in the class, each visiting the class a different number of times. Although the students did not know it, they tended to choose the photo of the one who had been in the class more often. The students were manipulated to change their preferences in a subtle way. "Familiarity leads to liking."

Other experiments cited by Professor Berger show that the context in which we see something can drastically affect our judgement: "We don’t just make inferences about others; we also choose things based on who they are associated with. " One survey tested one's response to a proposed welfare law. Even though the participants claimed to be objective, simply stating that the law was favored by a certain political party drastically changed the outcome. Although they didn't recognize they were following a certain political party, "their attitudes completely changed."

Other experiments proved that athletic performance changes just by the fact that others are present. How did social scientists figure this out? Well, using roaches, of course! The performance of roaches was measured while their "peers" watched. If the roach had a complicated path to navigate, having roaches in the "grandstands" led to worse performance. But the audience improved performance if the roach just had to run a simple route: "On the straightaway, roaches ran faster when the audience was present, chopping almost a third off their time. But for the more complex track, others had the opposite impact. An audience led the roaches to run slower, increasing their time by almost a third."

How comforting that human behavior is so well predicted using cockroaches!

Finally, the author notes how social norms influence behavior. The author cites an energy-conservation study in the San Diego area. Surprisingly, attempts to get people to conserve electricity did not work. Save money? No effect. Conserve? No effect. Now the surprising part: If people were told their neighbors were using less energy--that worked! (Have you noticed that hotels use this same trick! I recall a sign in the bathroom noting that xx% of guests are reusing their towels.)

These powerful influences are not only relevant to marketing. The author cites studies on poverty in public housing. Despite well-meaning efforts to reduce poverty and crime around public housing, these efforts were a dismal failure. When the aid recipients were moved however, things changed. Poverty levels decreased when the poor folks were blended into the more affluent neighborhoods. "Moving to better neighborhoods improved people’s lives, and the longer they lived in those better neighborhoods, the more their lives improved."

On an upbeat closing note, the professor encourages the reader to use these influxes to make wiser, more informed choices. The evidence is overwhelming that social influence impacts human behavior. Let's use that information wisely: "By understanding how it works, we can harness its power. We can avoid its downsides and take advantage of its benefits. We can maintain our individuality and avoid being swept up in the crowd. "

All in all, INVISIBLE INFLUENCE is an impressive book, with powerful ramifications. The evidence presented is impressive, and the conclusions are startling--and yes, a little scary. I am happy the professor encourages a noble use of this information, rather than just new ways to manipulate consumers. Of course, this reviewer is never, ever affected by any of these social influences. Nevertheless, I find myself strangely compelled to grant a 5-Star Rating...

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