If you're like most people, you think that your choices and behaviors are driven by your individual, personal tastes and opinions. You picked a jacket because you liked the way it looked. You picked a particular career because you found itinteresting. The notion that our choices are driven by our own personal thoughts and opinions seems so obvious that it is not even worth mentioning. Except that it's wrong. Without our realizing it, other people's behavior - what psychologists call "social influence" - has a huge influence on everything we do at every moment of our lives, from the mundane (which movie to see or place to have lunch) to the momentous (which career path to take or person to marry). We make riskier decisions because someone patted us on the shoulder. We like the name Mia because Madison and Sophia are popular names this year. Even strangers, or people we may never meet, have a startling impact on our judgments and decisions: our attitudes towards a welfare policy totally shift if we're told it is supported by Democrats versus Republicans, even though the policy is the same in both cases. But social influence doesn't just lead us to do the same things as others.
Like a magnet it can attract, but it also can repel. In some cases we conform, or imitate others around us. But in other cases we diverge, or avoid particular choices or behaviors because other people are doing them. We stop listening to a band because they go mainstream. We skip buying the minivan because we don't want to look like the soccer mom. By understanding how social influence works, we can decide when to resist and when to embrace it: we can affect others behavior and use others to help us make better-informed decisions.
Jonah Berger is an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has been published in top-tier academic journals, and popular accounts of his work have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Science, Harvard Business Review, and more. His research has also been featured in the New York Times Magazine's "Year in Ideas." Berger has been recognized with a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching. The author of Contagious and Invisible Influence, he lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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