Posted inEditor's Pick

The Invisible Forces Behind All of Our Decision-Making

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 16, 2016 | 4,137 words

Author Jonah Berger explains when and why we follow the herd.

Posted inBooks, Featured, Profiles & Interviews, Story

The Invisible Forces Behind All of Our Decision-Making

Author Jonah Berger explains when and why we follow the herd.
Photo: Deborah Feingold

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2016 | 16 minutes (4,137 words)

Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at Wharton, has spent more than 15 years investigating social influence. In his 2013 book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, he explains how and why certain products and ideas become massively popular. In his new book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, Berger focuses on the immense sway others have over the choices we make—whether we’re imitating or differentiating from them—often in ways we aren’t aware of. Berger and I spoke by phone about the often surprising findings he draws on in the book, the tension between fitting in and standing out, and how social influence can best be wielded.

How did you first become interested in studying social influence?

I’m from the D.C. area originally, and have a friend who’s a lawyer there. I was talking to him, and he was complaining that all D.C. lawyers drive BMWs—when they make it, they go out and buy a BMW. He said, “Look at how D.C. lawyers are all conformists.” I pointed out that he had actually himself just bought a BMW. And he said, “No, no, but I bought a blue one. Everyone else buys gray ones.”

What I thought was really interesting about that story was a few things. One, he saw everyone else as influenced, but not himself. Sometimes we recognize that social influence is out there, but we think only other people do it. We don’t see it in our own lives. And yet, here was a great, amazing, powerful example of someone’s own life being shaped by what others are doing.

But also, influence isn’t a simple thing. It’s not just doing the same thing as others. Often, when we think about influence, we think, “If someone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?” But influence is actually much more complicated than that. Influence is actually like a magnet: sometimes it attracts and leads us to do the same thing as others; other times it repels and leads us to do the opposite thing. And sometimes, like with this example of the BMW, it actually leads us to be similar and different at the same time, so that we’re optimally distinct. We end up being similar on one dimension and different on another.

And so what I wonder is, when do these different things happen? When does influence lead us to be the same? When does influence lead us to be different? When does it lead us to go along with the group? When does it lead us to be more independent? How do others motivate us? How do others de-motivate us? And how can we use all this science to live happier and healthier lives?

Continue reading “The Invisible Forces Behind All of Our Decision-Making”