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Speed Review: Invisible Influence

The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior

by Jonah Berger

Speed Review: Invisible Influence
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Who Makes Our Decisions?

In a provocative new book called Invisible Influence, Wharton professor Jonah Berger explains that we are not the independent thinkers making well-informed decisions and choices that we might think we are. The reason is that many of our decisions and choices are made based on what others are doing. This is called social influence, and in Invisible Influence, Berger demonstrates, through scores of stories and academic research, the power of others on our decisions.

What Makes a Hit

For example, Berger describes an experiment by Princeton sociologist Matthew Salganik based on a website where people could download free music (actual but obscure music that no one knew). Salganik provided a list of songs to choose from, and included in the list how many other people had downloaded the song. Eventually certain songs began to attract more and more downloads, while other songs elicited much less interest. Over time, the chasm between the popular and unpopular songs grew wider and wider. Most people were attracted to the songs that most people had already downloaded.

However, the most surprising stage of Salganik’s experiment was yet to come. Salganik, writes Berger, decided to create eight different websites but with exactly the same list of songs and the same rules. Only the listeners were different. Over time, the same chasm between popular and unpopular songs appeared. The popular and unpopular songs, however, were different for each of the eight websites. Salganik thus demonstrated that if any song started to gain momentum, the mimicry gene kicked in: People decided that was the song they liked best. (Quality plays a role, but smaller than we might think.)

Which leads Berger to an insolent question: If the Harry Potter novels could somehow be introduced into eight completely different worlds, would they have been immensely popular in all eight? Not according to Salganik’s experiment. Social influence can also have the reverse effect: We do the opposite of what others are doing. Berger describes an experiment conducted by Stanford professor Geoffrey Cohen, who presented a generous new welfare policy and asked a group of liberals and conservatives for their opinion. Not surprisingly, liberals loved the idea, and conservatives hated it. However, when Cohen presented the same policy to another group of conservatives, they enthusiastically embraced it. The only difference was Cohen told the second group of conservatives that the policy was supported by 95 percent of House Republicans. And liberals were influenced in the same way: When told that Republicans supported the proposals, liberals tended to be against it.

Invisible Influence is not only filled with fascinating studies but also clear applications for the resulting insights. Berger, for example, describes the power of familiarity. He then uses the example of TiVo trying to sell unfamiliar digital recording technology. From a technological point of view, the TiVo box had no reason to look so similar to traditional VCR recorders. TiVo realized, however, that a familiar-looking square black box sitting on top of the TV would reassure skittish consumers that digital recording was not a radical idea. Whether they want to influence others or simply explore the unexpected reasons they think the way they do, readers will find Berger’s book to be a delightful and engaging guide.

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