Jonah Berger is a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a world-renowned expert on word of mouth, social influence, and how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. His first book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, and his new book Invisible Influence comes out in June.
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- Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence– Jonah’s books
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3 Key Points:
- Take advantage of the power of peers.
- Social influence CAN be used to motivate others, but it doesn’t always work.
- If you know how to use it, social influence can be the flashpoint for entrepreneurial success.
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Time Stamped Show Notes
(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
- [01:05] – Invisible Influence has been out for a couple of months now
- [01:38] – Jonah was on Episode 253 of EOFire!
- [02:03] – How is the focus of Invisible Influence different? Social influence – one person’s effect on another is a powerful way to do that
- [03:03] – How do you define Social Influence? It’s actively or inactively being present, and how that presence affects another behavior.
- [05:57] – Why is it so hard for people to recognize social influence in their own lives? “It often happens below our awareness level… below the conscious”
- [06:17] – Professor Berger’s research study
- [08:00] – How do we harness this power of social influence?
- [10:47] – What was your favorite experiment to conduct and what was surprising about the result? It was about motivation…
- [16:54] – Talk to us about cockroaches
- [20:55] – What do you think we’re going to be most surprised about with Invisible Influence? “The power of influence to change our lives and others’ lives.
- [22:23] – Parting piece of guidance: “Take advantage of influence around you to live a happier and healthier life”
- [22:37] – Connect with Jonah through his website and get a free resources on how to be more influential, make better decisions and motivate yourself
Jonah: Yes, I am.
John: Yes. Jonah is a marketing professor at the Warton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a world renowned expert on word of mouth social influence and how products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. His first book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller, and his new book, Invisible Influence, was published in June of 2016. Jonah, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro, and give us just a little glimpse of your personal life.
Jonah: Sure. As you mentioned, a new book, Invisible Influence, has been out for a couple months now. Already a New York Times best seller and really excited to share some new science with the folks out there. Contagious was a lot of fun and would often have people come up to me afterwards and ask some questions that were great questions that that book didn’t answer. Invisible Influence is kind of an answer to many of those questions that came up into the interim. It’s been exciting to write and exciting to tell people about.
John: Well, a huge congratulations on the New York Times best seller, brother. I never doubted – nobody ever did. Fire nation, if you’re recognizing Jonah’s voice or name, well, he was episode 253 of entrepreneur on fire. Jonah, that was over 1,200 episodes ago, brother. You are joining us talking about Contagious. That book, you explored why certain products and ideas actually go viral and effect large groups, so how is the focus of Invisible Influence different?
Jonah: Well, first of all, I wanna congratulate you and your audience for 1,200 episodes later.
John: Thank you.
Jonah: It’s great to hear how strong you and your audience is going, and it’s fun to be back chatting with them. Contagious was all about how we get a product, an idea, a service to catch on by using the power of word of mouth, but sometimes we don’t have something we wanna get to catch on; we just wanna influence one or two other people. We wanna get our boss to do something in particular. We wanna change our employees’ behavior. We wanna motivate ourselves and others, and so social influence – one person’s effect on another – is a powerful way to do that. It’s a little more micro than, maybe, getting an idea to catch on globally or getting a product to be super successful, but equally important, if we’re an entrepreneur starting a business, whether we wanna persuade others, or whether we’re a small business trying to grow more effectively.
John: Now, one thing that we talk a lot about here on entrepreneur on fire and I know that you’re just really the expert on, so I’d love to have you to find this, and that’s social influence. How do you define social influence?
Jonah: Think about the last product you bought, the service you purchased from someone, the last decision to made, whether a small one like what breakfast cereal to buy, or a big one like who to marry or which house to purchase, we think we make those decisions. We think it’s all about our preferences, our likes, and our dislikes.
We’re actually, surprisingly, wrong. Other people are often making those decisions for us; others we know like our family members, our friends, and our colleagues, but also even others we may not realize; the person running next to us on a treadmill or the person sitting across from us on the subway or the bus. Social influence is any case where one person, whether actively like via word of mouth, or not so actively, just by engaging in a certain behavior, being present, effects another’s behavior.
John: So you’ve been studying this for 15 years. Fire nation, believe me, Jonah knows what he’s talking about. He has the examples. Since you are just so attuned to this phenomenon, there are have been times that you noticed the impact that it was having on you personally, so can you talk about those?
Jonah: There’s a funny example. Recently, I was talking to my dad, and I was telling him that I was writing this book about social influence, and he was lamenting the effect of social influence on his peers. He’s a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and he was saying, “God, all D.C. lawyers are the same. The first thing they do when they make partner, they hit it big, is they go out, and they buy a BMW.” I said, “Well, dad, that’s interesting, but aren’t you a lawyer in D.C., and don’t you, in fact, drive a BMW?” He said, “Oh, yes, but they all drive gray ones, and I drive a blue one.”
What I find so interesting about that story is two things. First of all, sometimes we do see influence. When we look around, we see other people driving the same cars or acting the same. The one place we never seem to see influence is ourselves. We never seem to think that we’re influenced, often, because influence happens nonconsciously. We’re not aware of it, whether it’s happening to us or we can use it to affect others. We’re often not aware of how it occurs, and as a result, we’re not taking full advantage of its power. Secondly, influence isn’t just as simple as doing the same things as others. Sometimes we think about influence – you think, “Oh, yeah, one person buying the same thing as someone else, but I’m never influenced. I always doing different things from someone else.
“If I’m out dinner and I have an entrée in mind and someone else picks it, I pick something different because I’m not influenced by them,” but that’s being influenced in the opposite direction. There, you’re being influenced to be unique, or in the case of my father, being similar and different at the same time. So there are many different flavors or styles of influence, and the more we understand about them, the more we can take advantage of their power.
John: See, that’s so funny because my dad loves playing devil’s advocate. Whatever I say or an opinion somebody shares, he always shares the other side of it, and it makes him feel all proud, like, “I don’t go with the crowd. I’m different.” The example you gave about your dad is so perfect, and so my question is, why is it so hard for people to recognize social influence in their own lives?
Jonah: One reason is we don’t wanna admit we’re susceptible to influence because we think influence is a bad thing, even though it isn’t, but more importantly, it often happens below our awareness, nonconsciously in some ways, shapes, and forms. There’s a great study I talk about in the book where a researcher professor at a school took some students in his course, and at the end of the course, he asked them to rate how attractive they found different people. Showed them some photos, how much they liked those people, how attractive they found them.
You think everyone has their preferences, their likes and dislikes. Some people prefer blondes; some people, brunettes. Some people like their significant tall, dark, and handsome. Others have different preferences, and we think all those choices are about us, our conscious decisions, the things we like and don’t like. Interestingly, when the researchers looked at the data, they found that there was a particular trend, and the students had rated people that looked like they were in the class, and in fact, they were. They had been students that were in the class during the semester, but they weren’t actually real students. They were actors, and the professor manipulated how often these different actors had come to class. Some came to class every day in the semester, some came not at all, and some came different amounts throughout the course. What the researchers found was that the people came to class more often were seen as more attractive. Even though the only difference was they had come to class more, the fact that people had seen them more made them like them more, even though they didn’t realize it.
People said, “Oh, I like this particular feature of them. This is why I like the person I like,” but the mere fact that people had seen others more changed how much they liked them and how attractive they found them. It’s called mere exposure. One idea here is we often don’t realize others’ effect on our behavior. We often don’t realize what shapes our preference, so when we introspect and think about it, we’re often unaware that influence has occurred.
John: So if we have a crush on somebody, no matter how unattracted they are to us, as long as we just keep our faces in their eyesight as much as possible over weeks and months, you’re saying they’re gonna fall in love with us, right?
Jonah: What I tell my students is, “Look, you come to class more often, you’ll definitely learn something, and a side benefit might mean you might just meet that special someone along the way.”
John: Jonah, fire nation, we are entrepreneurs. We wanna know how we can harness this power of social influence to make better decisions in our personal lives and in our businesses, so what say you?
Jonah: Yeah, let me give you just one example – a fun one – and it’s all about how to be more persuasive. Who wouldn’t wanna be more persuasive, right? More influential, better able to change others’ minds and some researchers looked at this in interesting context. They looked at negotiations. If most of your listeners are like me, you probably said, “God, I do not like negotiating. It’s always tough. It feels forced. It feels one person win, the other loses. It’s a fixed pie. What can I do to be better at negotiating?”
Well, researchers looked at hundreds of negotiations. They found that one simple trick led negotiators to be five times successful, five times as likely to reach an outcome when all seemed loss, and that trick, very simply, was mirroring or mimicking their negotiating partners’ behavior. So if you were looking at someone and they crossed their legs, for example, and you crossed your legs yourself, that would be mimicking or mirroring them. If they took their head slightly to the side or crossed their arms or made a certain verbal behavior and you mimicked or mirrored exactly or similarly what they were doing, that’s called mimickery. Now, not obviously, not so much that the person could tell, but subtly mirroring or mimicking the behavior of others led negotiators to be five times successful. It’s not just negotiation in a sales context. Some researchers looked at, actually, waiters and waitresses.
They found that waiters and waitresses who mimic their customers order word for word – so if you ordered, and you said, “Hey, I’d like a cobb salad, dressing on the side, with a diet coke,” and I say back to you, “Okay, cobb salad, dressing on the side, with a diet coke,” word for word, I got a 70 percent higher tip, on average, when I did that. This has been shown in a host of different domains, and the idea, very simply, is that mimicking others makes us trust them more and bridges the gap. It facilitates a social interaction. It turns strangers into friends and acquaintances into allies.
If you and I found that we had the same birthday in common, for example, or went to the same high school, we’d feel like kinship, we’d feel more similar, and that’s exactly what mimickery does, makes people feel more similar to one another. Next time you’re trying to persuade someone or trying to influence someone, don’t just listen – we were taught to listen, which is important – but also emulate them. Think about how to subtly mimic their mannerisms, their behavior, their choices. If you do that, they’re more likely to like you as a result.
John: No, I love that, and that’s why social media platform like LinkedIn is really powerful because you can, often times, see, “Oh, there’s a connection that I have.” Maybe it’s friends; maybe it’s industry; maybe it’s a college – whatever it might be – and you can lead with that connection, and that’s gonna just put you on that much higher level to start with. Jonah, one thing that I love that you do and you really talk about and break down in your books is you do a lot of experiments, and with Invisible Influence, you do a lot of experiments, and so if you had to share with us, what was your favorite experiment to conduct, and what was surprising about the results?
Jonah: There are too many to have a favorite, but I’ll tell you about one that I liked, and it’s about motivation. How do we motivate people to work harder? We all know that feeling, whether you’re trying to motivate yourself to get off the couch and exercise a little more or muscle up the resources to finish a tough project or trying to motivate employees around the office to get them to change their behavior, often, we think carrot and stick, punishment or reward. If I go exercise, then I’ll take myself out to a nice dinner, or if I don’t do this, I won’t get something else, but those are often not so effective. What else are good motivational tools? We actually looked at the role of others in motivation. Can other people be a powerful motivating force?
I used to be a soccer coach. I coached U12 boys in California, AYSL, and I noticed something unusual about my team. I tried to be a good coach, tried to teach come useful drills in practice, but every time we got to the game, it wasn’t clear that my teachings were working, and I try to give a good speech at half time. It couldn’t clearly make a difference, but I did notice one pattern, and that was, if we were losing, we seemed to figure out a way to win. When we were behind, we figured out a way to win. Sometimes when we were winning, we figured out a way to lose, but at least when we’re behind, we figured out how to win, and I wondered if there was a pattern there, if there was a reasoning why.
Actually, with a friend and colleague of mine, we collected a bunch of data on a different sport, NBA basketball, looking at tens of thousands of NBA basketball games to look at the score at half time and the score at the end of the game. We were interested in seeing whether being behind or ahead relative to an opponent effect performance. Could others be a powerful motivating force? Could others motivate you to action? The NBA’s a particularly interesting place to test this idea because, god, those guys are getting paid millions if not tens of millions of dollars to play.
You’d think they’d be playing to their peak performance. They shouldn’t need any extra motivation, but could how they’re doing, relative to the other team, affect their behavior? What we found is if you’re a betting man or woman and you’re trying to figure out what team to bet on at half time, in general, you should bet on the team that’s ahead. On average, every two points a team is ahead of another team, they’re about eight percent more likely to win, so two points ahead, they’re 58 percent, four points ahead, they’re 66 percent and so one more likely to win.
But there was one place where losing was actually a good thing, and that was losing by just a little bit. Teams that were down by one at halftime were actually more likely to win than their opponents, even though they were down, had to work harder to catch up. They had to score more points, and they tended to be worse teams on average. The fact that they were down made them work harder. It motivated them because they saw themselves behind by just a little. This idea’s called social comparison, comparing ourselves to others, and it’s a powerful motivating force. Lots of research has shown it’s much more powerful than any sort of incentive, monetary or otherwise, that we can find. Too often, though, we compare ourselves and other employees to the wrong people.
Too often, we say, “Look, someone will win employee of the month. Whoever has the most sales will win employee of the month,” or we compare our own company to the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. While that’s very useful for almost there – if we’re just close it’ll be useful – too, often, we’re comparing people to others or situations that are far ahead of them. If you’re 66 out of 100 on a sales competition, you’re so far behind, you give up. You’re not so close you can almost taste it; you can’t even smell it you’re that far behind, and so you tend to give up.
Rather than picking top peers, we need to pick what’s called proximal peers, other people that are ahead of us just a little bit. If we’re trying to exercise or run faster, for example, pick someone who’s just a little bit more in shape or just a little bit faster than we are. At the office, if we’re giving people feedback, give them feedback relative to someone just a little bit better than them or pick a company to compare ourselves with that’s just a little bit better than we are. Picking proximal peers will be much more likely to motivate people and make them more successful as a result.
John: Fire nation, you just really need to understand the power of what Jonah is saying here. if we can pick the right people to mentor us or to admire to emulate or to follow or to train from, to glean this information from, that could make all the difference in the world. Now, we’re gonna take a quick break to thank our sponsor’s, but don’t go anywhere because we’re gonna be talking about cockroaches. All right, Jonah, we’re back and fire nation. Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, Jonah has been breaking this down for us. So, Jonah, talk to us about cockroaches.
Jonah: Another fun study from the book, and we wouldn’t think that cockroaches can teach us much about motivation, but it turns out they can teach us a lot. We talked about the power a couple minutes ago before the break. We talked about the power of social comparisons, how comparing ourselves to others can motivate us. What about mere presence of others? What if we’re not competing with other people? Just the mere fact that they’re around, could that motivate us or demotivate us? A scientist looked into this. His name is Bob Ziance, and he figured out an ingenious way to do it. He was interested in how social presence – the presence of others – effected motivation, and it turned out that some studies had shown a positive effect.
Some studies had found that cyclists, for example, cycled faster when they were being watched rather than not being watched, or students filled out a questionnaire more quickly when other people were around, and animals actually did the same thing. Dogs, for example, eat faster when there are other dogs nearby. At the same time, other studies had shown the exact opposite, that others hurt motivation and performance, that people, when doing a difficult maze, for example, were slower when other people are around, that learning a new task, for example – tying a bow tie – was worse when you were being watched then when you weren’t. So when do others help motivate us – their presence – and when do they hurt?
He decided to look at the most unusual subject ever, cockroaches, and he actually built a little cockroach stadium to measure cockroach performance. He had a little racetrack. Imagine a little track where cockroaches, just like in the Olympics, can run a race. There’s a starting area, a little gate that opens up. You shine a light. Cockroaches hate light, so they run out of there. They look for darkness, and at the other end of the track, right down in a straight line, with a dark endpoint that they could run to. He timed how quickly cockroaches ran from one end to the other, either when they were by themselves or, actually, when there were other cockroaches around.
He built these little cockroach stands, almost, that he could put next to the track so cockroaches are being watched by other cockroaches, and he timed how quickly the roaches ran when they were by themselves versus when they were being watched. There was one other key detail he manipulated. One other idea he had to test when others might help and when they might hurt, he thought the idea was maybe others help us do simple tasks – when others are around, we do simple tasks better, but when others are around, we actually do complicated or difficult tasks worse. They impair performance on a difficult task. So he had the cockroaches run one of two types of mazes. One was a straight race – straight ahead, the cockroach just ran straight, only one way to go. But another was T shaped. The cockroach had to run out straight, either make a left or a right turn, almost like a plus sign, and go to the exit on the left or the right side. It was much more complicated. The cockroach couldn’t just run. They had to figure out which way to go – which was the right way to go. What he found was that, sure enough, others’ presence helped in some cases, but hurt in others. In that straightaway when something was easy, cockroaches ran faster when others were around.
When the maze was more complicated, you had to run out straight and then make a turn, cockroaches actually ran slower when others were around. What this has pointed out – it’s been shown again and again since that point – is that others can help or hurt, depending on the nature of the task. So if we’re doing something simple and easy, like running for example, if you’re off and run, you’re pretty good at running, while being watched by other people, that’ll help you run faster. If you’re doing something at the office, a task you’ve done a bunch of times before, having an open office plan will help; other people around will make you do it better.
But if it’s something complicated like parallel parking or learning a new skill that is difficult to learn, well, then other people around can actually hurt us. That open office plan can make us slower to learn something difficult and new that we haven’t learned already. What this suggests is let’s take advantage of the power of peers. Let’s think about those times where we are doing something that others can help and times when they can hurt and leverage them accordingly.
John: Jonah, fire nation loves surprises, and you have some surprises for us when we’re reading this book. What do you think we’re going to be most surprised about with Invisible Influence?
Jonah: I think we’re gonna be surprised by the power of influence to change our lives and others’ lives. I think we have a sense of conformity, the notion that people do the same thing as others. We have some sense of that already. We know that when we go online, if something’s popular, we’re more likely to check it out. We may be more likely to wait in line at a restaurant if there’s a long line out front than if there’s a short line. But when do we do the same as others, and when do we do the opposite? As we talked a little bit about before, if we’re out to dinner and we actually change our entrée to avoid what others are picking, and we end up being less happy as a result. So when do we act similar to others, and when do we act different? When do others motivate us – as we’ve talked about – and when do the demotivate us? I also talk a lot about how we blend these different influences together. When launching a new product or service, for example, we’re taught a lot to be different, the notion that being different is a good thing. Apple succeeding because they think different, but that’s actually not the case.
Apple wasn’t the first one to launch many of the products and services they’ve been successful in, and they were actually the second or third or even fifth mover in this space. Same with Google and many other successful organizations. I talk about something called the Goldilocks effect and how being similar but different at the same time actually leads organizations to be more successful than just being different.
John: Now, Jonah, let’s end with a parting piece of guidance, the best way we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Jonah: The main reason I wrote this book is to just notice influence around us. We can’t take advantage of it if we don’t see it in the first place, and so the main goal of the book is to help us see influence and then take advantage of it to live happier and healthier lives. It shapes our behavior, we learn more about ourselves, but we can also use it to make our businesses and our ideas more successful if we can take advantage of the tools. So, powerful tool kit if we know how to use it right.
And then in terms of how to find me, the best place is just Jonah – that’s Jonah – Berger – Berger – com. You can find out more about the book. There’s a bunch of free resources there, so how to be more influential, how to make better decisions, how to motivate yourselves and others, and you can find out more about how to apply the principles.
John: Fire nation, you’re the average of the five people that you spend the most time with, and you’ve been hanging out with JB and JLD today, so keep up the heat and head over to eofire.com. Just type Jonah in the search bar. His show notes page will pop up with everything that we’ve been talking about today, and, of course, head straight over to his site, jonahberger.com, and then snag his book Invisible Influence. It’s a great read. You won’t be disappointed. Jonah, I wanna thank you for coming back on EO Fire 1,200 plus episodes later and sharing just the knowledge bonds that you have for us. For that, we salute you, and we’ll catch you on the flipside.
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