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How Social Influence Shapes Behavior

In July 10, 2017
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Imagine you need a kidney transplant. You’ve just come down with end-stage renal disease and you need a kidney to survive. There’s just not enough kidneys available, so you’re looking for a transplant. You’ve waited on the list for months for an available kidney. And the way the kidney list works is the people who’ve been on it the longest are at the top, and people who have just gotten on the list are at the bottom. In some cases, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people before you, on the list. Now finally, after months of waiting, a kidney becomes available. Would you take it? Most ost of us would probably say yes, of course, we’d take the kidney. We’ve been waiting forever. Why wouldn’t we take it? We need that kidney to survive, to be better off. But what if you found out that someone else turned that kidney down first? If you’re 101st on the list, for example, that means a hundred other people turned down that kidney before it got to you.

Would you still take the kidney? Now, some people would probably refuse the kidney for a bad fit, not everybody’s kidney will work in everybody else’s body. It’s a little bit like trying to put a BMW engine in a Toyota, it’s not necessarily a good fit. But, other people may have turned it down for different reasons, and there’s a list, and they go down starting from the top, and eventually, it gets to you. Would you be equally likely to turn it down or take it if you found out that somebody else turned it down first? Well in general, 97% of offers for kidneys are refused and again many of them because of a bad fit, but actually, researchers who’ve studied this found that one in ten people do so in error. One out of ten people that turn down a kidney should have accepted it, and part of the reason was that all those other people turning down the kidney make you think twice. They make you say, well if everyone else did it, everyone else turned it down, maybe it’s not as good as I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t take it either. And what this points to is the importance of social influence on our decisions. Other people’s decisions affect our decisions all the time from the products we buy, the health plans we choose, and the grades we get in school. Whether or not we save for retirement, whether we vote, or even the careers that we choose.

Almost every decision we make on a daily basis is effected in some way shape or form by others. So how do others influence us? And how, by understanding how others influence us, can we make better choices in our personal and professional lives? One major way social influence affects our decisions is something called conformity or imitation. We’re more likely to do something if our friends, neighbours, or co-workers have done it recently. For example, we’re more likely to buy a new car if someone who lives near us has bought one recently. And people are more likely to commit a crime if others they know have done so. You might think about this idea as, monkey sees, monkey do. If other people are doing something, we’re more likely to do it as well, and conformity happens for two key reasons. The first very simply is information. We look to others to figure out what the right thing is to do in a given situation. Imagine you’re travelling, you’re on vacation, or you’re travelling for work, and you’re in a new city that you’ve never been to before. It’s late, it’s time to find a place to go for dinner. How are you gonna decide where to eat? Well most of us use a time tested rule. We walk down the street and we look for a place that’s full. And we say well if it’s full, it must be pretty good. If it’s empty, it’s probably not pretty good.

We use others as a signal of information for what we should do. If you live in a big apartment building and you’re wondering, should I wear a jacket today or carry an umbrella? What do most of us do? We look out the window to see what other people are doing. If other people are carrying an umbrella, maybe we should carry one as well. If other people are wearing a jacket, maybe we should do the same. And so this idea of looking to others for information is a common thing we do all the time. Same with the kidneys, right? When we were deciding whether or not to take that kidney, we looked to others, and we said well if others are turning it down maybe we should as well. This leads to ideas of information cascades. Where information cascades from one person to the next, and so on. It even affects things like the stock market. If one person starts selling, other people might assume maybe I should be selling as well, and do the same thing. Really nice piece of research also showed it affects housing sales. Many houses have a number of days on the market that appears on the listing. You can see the house has been on the market for 10 days or 20 days or 100 days. And what they found is that the longer the house has been on the market, the more likely it is people will leave it to stay on the market. They make an inference if it’s been on the market for 100 days, if everyone else has looked at it and turned it down, it’s probably not so good, maybe I should turn it down as well. Looking at others for information is a key thing we do often. One reason we look to others is that it’s a shortcut to judgment. It saves us time and effort to look to others

Well in general, 97% of offers for kidneys are refused and again many of them because of a bad fit, but actually, researchers who’ve studied this found that one in ten people do so in error. One out of ten people that turn down a kidney should have accepted it, and part of the reason was that all those other people turning down the kidney make you think twice. They make you say, well if everyone else did it, everyone else turned it down, maybe it’s not as good as I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t take it either.  And what this points to is the importance of social influence on our decisions. Other people’s decisions affect our decisions all the time from the products we buy, the health plans we choose, and the grades we get in school. Whether or not we save for retirement, whether we vote, or even the careers that we choose. Almost every decision we make on a daily basis is effected in some way shape or form by others.

So how do others influence us? And how, by understanding how others influence us, can we make better choices in our personal and professional lives? One major way social influence affects our decisions is something called conformity or imitation. We’re more likely to do something if our friends, neighbours, or co-workers have done it recently. For example, we’re more likely to buy a new car if someone who lives near us has bought one recently. And people are more likely to commit a crime if others they know have done so. You might think about this idea as, monkey sees, monkey do. If other people are doing something, we’re more likely to do it as well, and conformity happens for two key reasons. The first very simply is information. We look to others to figure out what the right thing is to do in a given situation. Imagine you’re travelling, you’re on vacation, or you’re travelling for work, and you’re in a new city that you’ve never been to before. It’s late, it’s time to find a place to go for dinner. How are you gonna decide where to eat? Well most of us use a time tested rule. We walk down the street and we look for a place that’s full. And we say well if it’s full, it must be pretty good. If it’s empty, it’s probably not pretty good.

We use others as a signal of information for what we should do. If you live in a big apartment building and you’re wondering, should I wear a jacket today or carry an umbrella? What do most of us do? We look out the window to see what other people are doing. If other people are carrying an umbrella, maybe we should carry one as well. If other people are wearing a jacket, maybe we should do the same. And so this idea of looking to others for information is a common thing we do all the time. Same with the kidneys, right? When we were deciding whether or not to take that kidney, we looked to others, and we said well if others are turning it down maybe we should as well. This leads to ideas of information cascades. Where information cascades from one person to the next, and so on. It even affects things like the stock market. If one person starts selling, other people might assume maybe I should be selling as well, and do the same thing. Really nice piece of research also showed it affects housing sales. Many houses have a number of days on the market that appears on the listing. You can see the house has been on the market for 10 days or 20 days or 100 days. And what they found is that the longer the house has been on the market, the more likely it is people will leave it to stay on the market. They make an inference if it’s been on the market for 100 days, if everyone else has looked at it and turned it down, it’s probably not so good, maybe I should turn it down as well. Looking at others for information is a key thing we do often. One reason we look to others is that it’s a shortcut to judgment. It saves us time and effort to look to others

When we were deciding whether or not to take that kidney, we looked to others, and we said well if others are turning it down maybe we should as well. This leads to ideas of information cascades. Where information cascades from one person to the next, and so on. It even affects things like the stock market. If one person starts selling, other people might assume maybe I should be selling as well, and do the same thing. Really nice piece of research also showed it affects housing sales. Many houses have a number of days on the market that appears on the listing. You can see the house has been on the market for 10 days or 20 days or 100 days. And what they found is that the longer the house has been on the market, the more likely it is people will leave it to stay on the market. They make an inference if it’s been on the market for 100 days, if everyone else has looked at it and turned it down, it’s probably not so good, maybe I should turn it down as well. Looking at others for information is a key thing we do often. One reason we look to others is that it’s a shortcut to judgment. It saves us time and effort to look to others

Looking at others for information is a key thing we do often. One reason we look to others is that it’s a shortcut to judgment. It saves us time and effort to look to others for what they have done previously. Imagine before picking a restaurant you had to sample each place on a given block before doing it. It would take a lot of time. In fact, it would take so much time we’d never end up actually getting to eat dinner. And so it’s much faster to use online reviews or other’s information. It’s much faster to see if those restaurants full and use that as a signal about what we should do. And this inference is much stronger when people have less time or motivation. If we don’t have a lot of time to make the decision and we’re not very motivated, we’re much more likely to turn to other’s to help us make that decision. In fact, here is a great example of people looking to others to figure out what they should do.

 

Read next : Power and Psychology of Social Media: Normative Influence

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