Invisible Influence: A book review by Bob Morris

Invisible InfluenceInvisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior
Jonah Berger
Simon & Schuster (June 2015)

Here are the “simple, subtle, and other surprising ways that others affect our behavior”

Actually, the invisibility to which the book’s title refers is — in my opinion — a misnomer. Influence in this instance is not so much a matter of others deceiving us (although that may be a motive) as it is a matter of our failure to recognize that influence when it occurs. We don’t “see” it only because we don’t recognize and understand it for what it is.

Jonah Berger shares what he has learned during fifteen years of research that involved countless surveys, experiments, and interviews and additional surveys, experiments, and interviews based on what he learned from their predecessors. As is also true of all other sciences, the science of social influence is evidence-driven. Berger is determined to do all he can to prepare as many people as possible to become mindful of the nature and extent of influence that others have and that was not previously recognized.

As I began to work my way through the narrative, I was again reminded of a book I read years ago, Denial of Death, in which Ernest Becker acknowledges the inevitability of physical death but asserts that there is another form of death than CAN be denied: that which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. (I also thought of Becker’s book when I first read Robert Cialdini’s classic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.) Why do people to try to influence others’ behavior? Berger suggests a number of different motives that, I think, tend to fall into one of two categories: those that are altruistic and those that are self-serving. It is important to add that not all influence initiated with the purest of intentions is necessarily good advice. Also, at least some influence can be of benefit to everyone involved.

To what extent are those who attempt to influence others fully aware of doing that? To what extent are the “others” fully aware of that influence? Why are some people more receptive than others? This is an immensely complicated subject, certainly much mores than I realized prior to reading Berger’s book. As he explains, “Social influence has a huge impact on behavior. But by understanding how it works, we can harness its power. We can avoid its downsides and take advantage of its benefits.” That is why he wrote this book.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Berger’s coverage:

o Familiarity (Pages 10-11, and 160-162)
o Mimicry (30-35)
o Harry Potter books (44-46)
o Music website experiment (46-49)
o Parking preferences (49-52)
o Differentiation (63-97)
o Birth order (64-70)
o Social class (86-96)
o Signals (101-128)
o Academic performance and race (117-120 and 141-142)
o Novelty (164-171)
o The Goldilocks Effect (166-171)
o Optimal distinction (171-181)
o Social facilitation (189-196)
o Winning and losing in sports (204-208 and 211-218)
o Low-income housing (223-229)

It remains for each reader to ask and then answer questions such as these: “Where do you see influence? How do others around you shape your life and how are you shaping theirs? Understanding these often invisible [or previously unrecognized] influences can make us all better off.” Of course, the scope and depth of impact of the information, insights, and counsel that Berger provides will vary from one reader to the next but my own opinion is that this material can be of substantial [begin italics] practical value [end italics] to parents and their children as well as to supervisors and their direct reports, to classroom teachers and their students as well as elected public officials and their constituents.

In fact, that is only a partial list. Near the top of any list of benefits would be substantially increased self-awareness. More specifically, developing the “growth mindset” to which Carol Dweck and the “mindfulness” to which Ellen Langer have devoted so much productive attention in their own work.

Social influence that is unrecognized by no means has less impact; if anything, it may have greater impact because none of those involved is aware of it. What I call “enlightened influence” has almost unlimited potentiality for good or will. The choice is ours, once we fully realize that we have that choice and fully appreciate its implications. Thank you, Jonah Berger, for increasing and enriching our enlightenment.

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