Friday, April 7, 2017

Why Social Influence is Important in Business: Q&A with Jonah Berger

We were lucky enough to recently catch up with one of our favorite conference speakers Jonah Berger, who is well-known as a Wharton Professor and Bestselling Author of Invisible Influence and Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Berger shared some key insights about why social influence is key to business from his new book Invisible Influence.


Here’s what Jonah had to say:

What is “social influence”?

Berger: Social influence is the impact people have on others around them. We vote if our spouse is voting, run faster if someone else is watching us, or switch our entrĂ©e if someone at the table orders the same thing.  In each instance, others’ behavior influences or affects our own. Those others can be spouses and friends, but also people we never even talk to, like the stranger sitting next to us on the plane.  Social influence effects small things, like the food we eat, but also big things like the career we choose or whether we save money for retirement. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all decisions are shaped by others. It’s hard to find a decision or behavior that isn’t affected by other people.

Why is social influence important in business?

Berger: If we understand how influence works, we can harness its power. We can convince a client, change the boss’ mind, and motivate employees to take action.  One section of the book, for example, talks about how being a chameleon can make you more successful. Researchers looked at what makes someone a good negotiator. 

What makes them more likely to reach a deal when all looks lost. And they found that one simple trick led negotiators to be 5x as successful. That trick?  Imitating or mimicking the language, behavior, or facial expressions of their negotiating partner. If their partner crossed their legs, they did the same.  And if their partner leaned back in the chair, they did so as well. Not obviously, but subtly mirroring their partner.  Turns out the same trick works in a range of contexts. Waiters or waitresses that mimic their patrons’ orders get 70% higher tips.  Mimicry increases liking, trust, and affiliation.  It deepens social bond and makes people feel a kinship that turns strangers into friends and acquaintances into allies.

Why is social influence key to reaching the right customers?

Berger: Word of mouth is 10x as effective as traditional advertising. People trust it more and its more targeted.  So, to reach the right customers, we have to turn our existing customers into advocates. Use social influence to get them to talk about and share our message and bring new converts in along the way.   

How can individuals harness the power of social influence to make better decisions in their personal lives?  

Berger: If we understand how influence works, we can take advantage of its benefits and avoid its downsides. Following others can provide a useful shortcut that saves time and effort. If lots of people chose or did something, it’s probably pretty good. So, others can be a valuable source of information, a heuristic that simplifies decision making. Other times, however, following others can lead us astray.  So, simple tricks like considering whether others have the same preferences as we do can help us avoid going the wrong way.

Have you ever been personally affected by the power of social influence? What is an example?
Certainly. I was telling lawyer friend of mine from DC about the book and he was lamenting the effect of social influence on his colleagues. He said the first thing new lawyers in DC do when they make partner is go out and buy a BMW.  I said that was interesting, but then pointed out that he himself was a DC lawyer and drove a BMW. He said yes, but they all drive grey BMWs. I bought a blue one.

What I love about this story is that it perfectly encapsulates the tension inherent in social influence.  People often think being influenced means doing the same thing as others, but it’s more complex than that.  There’s more than one flavor of influence. Sure, sometimes we imitate those around us, but we also care about standing out and being unique.  So, when do we do the same thing as others and when do we do something different. 

In your book, you share an experiment about cockroaches and how their behavior changed when they had an audience.  What insights can you share about how we behave when our actions are observed?

Berger: It makes sense that people and animals might work harder when there is a competition.  If two pigeons are racing to get the last piece of bread, or two people are competing to win a golf tournament, the desire to achieve the reward or win the competition might lead people and animals to work harder. Even the mere presence of others though, can have similar effects. 

Cockroaches, for example, ran faster through a maze when other cockroaches were watching them, even though those others weren’t directly competing.  People behave similarly.  The mere fact that someone is watching us can increase motivation and performance.  But for new or difficult tasks, others can sometimes have the opposite effect.  Having someone else in the car when we’re trying to parallel park, for example, makes it harder for most of us to fit in the spot.  So, whether others presence helps or hurts depends on the nature of the task.


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