Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, presents a basic primer about the forces of “social influence” and peer pressure. He explains how other people shape your thoughts, purchases and actions. Berger brings the right credentials; on his own and with partners, he has run studies to gauge the influence of social forces. He writes with a clear, straightforward style, packs in a lot of information, and simplifies complex ideas, as if trying to serve both marketing professionals and his marketing students. As in a classroom, he poses rhetorical questions. Berger covers a wide range of influence scenarios, showing great passion for his field. getAbstract recommends his text to marketing students and professors and to marketers as a reminder of how malleable human behavior can be.
Other people constantly shape how you think, behave, dress, drive and manifest your identity through what you choose to purchase. This social influence is the water in which everyone swims, but you may not see it. Most people recognize how social influence affects everybody else, but firmly believe it has no impact on themselves. Social influence leads you to mimic other people and leads others to mimic you. If they want you to like them, people will – consciously or not – imitate your posture, gestures, smiles and tone of voice. Such mimicry – and your desire to copy others or to want them to copy you – drives your purchasing choices. It also affects what becomes popular in society and the scale of its popularity.
“Without our realizing it, others have a huge influence on almost every aspect of life.”
People like those who like them. That applies to their facial features, style of dress, and racial or genetic traits. You can use this phenomenon effectively as a negotiation tactic, since negotiators who mimic their opponents are “five times as likely” to get what they want. If your opponent rubs his face, rub yours. If she scratches her neck, do the same. Mimicry “generates rapport” and subtly conveys that you’re in the same “tribe,” not an adversary. If you both belong to the same tribe, then your counterpart can trust you. In retail sales, “mimicking increased persuasion.”
“Where we grow up, and the norms and practices of people around us, shape everything from the language we use to the behaviors we engage in.”
The actions of other people can guide your behavior and give you a great deal of insight. This information offers details of other people’s socioeconomic status, their politics, their education, how they view the world, and much more. It also establishes what you should consider worth imitating. While some people inspire mimicry, others inspire its opposite. If someone you dislike – after sharing a meeting or a bit of conversation – turns out to love your favorite band, you might like that band a little less. If someone you admire loves a purse you dislike, you might reconsider your opinion about that person. This is “divergence” – you move away from such people in thought and action. You don’t want to be like them.
“Like an amateur Sherlock Holmes, we try to deduce things about the people around us based on their choices.”
If something gets “too popular,” you might reject it because too many other people mimic each other in praising or purchasing it. Your movements through this sea of social influence are never sharply defined. You don’t want to be precisely like someone else or so reactive that you turn into his or her direct opposite. You – like everyone – hold onto the illusion of independent choice.
“Other people have a subtle and surprising impact on almost everything we do.”
You seek to be optimally distinct. That means being sufficiently yourself so your actions don’t violate your identity or integrity, but also enough like the peer group you admire to gain its members’ acceptance. You send out signals that you hope the people whom you want to read them will interpret correctly. Yet, you want those signals to be so subtle that the people whom you don’t want to read them will miss them. The people you’re deliberately signaling don’t drive your choices, but they do subtly “motivate you to action.” For example, if you carry a certain handbag, you want it to communicate a variety of signals about you. The people who make and sell that handbag know that when you carry it, you send signals about their brand.
“The notion that uniqueness is good is pervasive in American culture.”
One day in 2010, actress Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi – known for playing an “outlandish,” character who wore “trashy” clothes on the reality TV show Jersey Shore – received a free Gucci handbag in the mail. This wasn’t unusual. At the height of her fame, marketers sent Polizzi a lot of free merchandise. In this case, however, a Gucci competitor sent the bag. The competitor knew that if large audiences saw her carrying the bag, the perceived value of Gucci bags would drop considerably among the sophisticated buyers Gucci sought, because she was so deliberately inelegant. Her castmate Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino entered a reverse endorsement deal with Abercrombie & Fitch. For reasons like those of Gucci’s sneaky rival, it paid him never to wear its clothes.
“Rather than reflecting external considerations, in America, choice is seen as reflecting one’s inner preferences, one’s personal wants and desires.”
You and everyone you know are social animals. You may doubt the force of social influence. You may claim you are immune to letting other people shape your opinions and actions. But no one is exempt. Other people shape “almost every aspect of life.”
“Group decisions often suffer from something called ‘groupthink,’ where conformity and the desire for intragroup harmony lead groups to make worse decisions.”
Author Jonah Berger gave questionnaires to people who recently bought BMWs. He asked why they chose that car and why other people they knew also bought BMWs. Nearly without exception, the respondents said they bought their BMWs for price, performance, safety or aesthetic reasons. Also without exception, they thought other people bought BMWs due to social influence, since owning one enabled them to upgrade their status. Yet, no one attributed his or her own actions to social influence. One lawyer complained that all the young lawyers he knew bought BMWs. He found the conformity upsetting. When Berger noted that the lawyer also drove a BMW, he said the young lawyers all drive silver BMWs, but he’s not like them. His is blue.
“The mere presence of others changes performance. People tend to do better when others are around.”
Familiarity Breeds Affection
A psychology professor had three women join his class during a semester. Each woman took notes and looked and acted like the other students. One came to five of the 40 classes, one attended 10 and one sat in on 15. At the end of the term, the professor showed the other students photos of the women and of a fourth woman who’d never attended. He asked the students to grade the women on attractiveness and on if they thought they’d like to be friends with them. Unfailingly, the students had the most favorable impression of the woman who came to class most. They liked her because, consciously or unconsciously, she was the most familiar. Many other experiments validate that “mere exposure creates liking.”
“People diverge to avoid being misidentified or communicating undesired identities…tech CEOs wear hoodies rather than suits to avoid looking like, well, a suit.”
“Nothing Draws a Crowd Like a Crowd”
Group decisions often yield to “groupthink,” which holds sway when the desire to conform and to create “intragroup harmony” takes precedence over individual thought or taste. J.K. Rowling, the famed author of the Harry Potter series, provides an astounding example of the power that mimicry, groupthink and familiarity have to generate liking. Seeking to escape the Harry Potter limelight, she published a novel under a pen name. Its readers gave it positive reviews. After three months, it ranked number 4,709 on Amazon but still had sold only 1,500 hardcover copies. Then, someone leaked the secret that Rowling was its author. In a day, the book leapt to bestseller status. When no one knew she wrote the book, few bought it. As soon as her connection was public, many people bought it – 450 million copies – in part because many other people bought it.
“Technology is never evaluated alone. Design and technology combine to shape consumer perceptions, and the combination is more effective when it makes innovations seem optimally distinct.”
Big Brother and Big Sister
Your upbringing has a profound influence. How your peers and the adults around you behaved, what they valued, and how they used language all shaped you. Your experience may have inspired you either to conform to their preferences or to diverge from them. Few aspects of your upbringing shape your consciousness as much as your siblings. Three-quarters of the US’s top female soccer players have at least one older sibling. Across sports and worldwide, “top athletes tend to be later-born children.” At least until a child’s adolescence, his or her older siblings are always bigger and stronger, serving as both inspiration and competition. Younger kids must work harder to beat their siblings than to defeat their young peers.
“We mimic the facial expressions, gestures, actions and even language of the people around us. We smile when others smile, wince when we see others in pain and say ‘ya’ll’ when talking to a friend from Texas.”
A firstborn tends to be a family’s academic star. Younger siblings can try to mimic an older sibling by also excelling in school. Or they can diverge and choose to thrive in sports. Firstborns tend to hold more conservative views; younger siblings diverge and tend to be more permissive. In general, siblings seldom mimic each other in significant ways. Studies say siblings are “little more alike” than any two people picked at random. This may be because siblings grow up in essentially different “environments.” Parents and their parenting change from child to child. The world in which a firstborn grew up may be long gone by the time a younger sibling comes along. Mimicking might lead younger siblings to imitate the enthusiasms of their older brothers and sisters. Those who do so quickly learn there is little room for them on the same road. It is hard to become “the artsy one, funny one” or “sporty one” if an older sibling already claimed that role. Younger siblings diverge to protect their individuality and their identities.
“We use observable characteristics like how someone dresses, how she talks or what she drives as a clue to more unobservable characteristics, like whether she’d be fun to grab a beer or go to dinner with.”
Mimicking: From Impetus to Discouragement
If you’re biking next to someone, just his or her presence makes you go faster. If you fall slightly behind someone in a game, that makes you try harder. But if you’re behind by a margin that’s too wide, either in sports or in trying to conform to reach a certain status, you give up and quit. You’d like to mimic that achievement, but once the gap becomes too forbidding, you no longer care.
The cartoon sailor “Popeye always ate spinach to make himself strong, and this association is believed to have boosted US spinach consumption by a third.”
Ask a friend about his or her most valued item – a piece of jewelry, a vehicle or an article of clothing. Ask how many other people own the exact same thing. Invariably, your friend will “underestimate the number,” usually by a large factor. This illustrates the lure of distinction. Rich kids grow up with more options. They’re used to getting what they want. This enables them to vest heavily in differentiation. They pay no penalty for divergent desires. Working-class kids grow up with fewer options and learn to value “adjusting to those around them.” Necessity teaches them to value others’ needs and downplay selfish desires. They prefer less differentiation.
Culturally, Americans, in particular, value uniqueness. But uniqueness has no moral aspect. Some cultures, as in East Asia, value “harmony and connectedness” more than uniqueness. Chinese and Koreans find value in conformity. In each case, individual values depend on social context.
You want to be validated, to belong to groups that bolster your identity. When you act like the celebrities that you – and millions of other people – admire, you gain “confidence that you’re doing something right.” But as you yearn to be validated for conforming, you also yearn to be unique. Even as you follow a herd, you want to be “special.” This leads to “moderate similarity.” Known brands give their users an “identity-relevant attribute.” So wearing something branded tells others about your “social identity and preferences.” And you respond favorably to those who echo your identity and preferences. You might imitate others by owning identity-relevant items while also showing your uniqueness with “identity-irrelevant” items. So, you might drive a blue BMW (identity-relevant) while wearing your favorite old, torn-up T-shirt (identity-irrelevant).
“Similarity and Difference”
Striking a balance between similarity and difference is crucial for innovation, especially in marketing. No matter how advanced a new product is, its success or failure will depend on “consumer perception.” If it’s too much like what already exists, people won’t feel the need to buy it. If it’s too unlike what’s already on the market, consumers will be leery of embracing it. Consider the automobile’s early days. Horses were afraid of noisy, smoky early cars, so driving a car on a road filled with horses and horse-drawn conveyances was dangerous. In 1899, an inventor created a car to address this problem. The “Horsey Horseless” had a fake, life-size horse’s head attached to its front panel. The head was both a gas tank and a way to avoid scaring horses. This is a clear case of walking the line between similarity and difference.
Another example is the introduction of the TIVO digital DVR, a then-unprecedented machine. Because it was digital, manufacturers could have made the TIVO any shape. It didn’t contain any large mechanisms that required making it a certain size. But because marketers intended the TIVO to replace VCRs, its creators did something quite clever: They built the TIVO in the size and shape of a VCR. They chose a recognizable form to make a revolutionary product acceptable.
This is part of a long-standing trend in which “digital actions” mimic their analog predecessors. Steve Jobs did the reverse with the 1998 launch of the iMac. It had a strange new “gumdrop” shape and vivid new colors. While the technology inside was innovative, the shape and colors screamed differentiation. Consumers value technology, like everything else, in context. Function and design join to shape market acceptance. Successful products hit just the right level of optimal distinctness. Like you, they want to be acceptably similar, but different enough to be unique.
Jonah Berger, who also wrote the bestseller Contagious, is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in TheNew York Times, Science and the Harvard Business Review.