Tag Archives: influence

Influencing and Bullying

We sway our co-workers. We coach teams. We cajole our spouses and we parent our kids. But what characterizes this behavior over more overt and negative forms of influencing, such as bullying? It’s a question very much worth exploring since we are all bullies at some point — much more so than we tend to think of ourselves. And, not surprisingly, this goes hand-in-hand with deceit.

From the NYT:

WHAT is the chance that you could get someone to lie for you? What about vandalizing public property at your suggestion?

Most of us assume that others would go along with such schemes only if, on some level, they felt comfortable doing so. If not, they’d simply say “no,” right?

Yet research suggests that saying “no” can be more difficult than we believe — and that we have more power over others’ decisions than we think.

Social psychologists have spent decades demonstrating how difficult it can be to say “no” to other people’s propositions, even when they are morally questionable — consider Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments, in which participants were persuaded to administer what they believed to be dangerous electric shocks to a fellow participant.

Countless studies have subsequently shown that we find it similarly difficult to resist social pressure from peers, friends and colleagues. Our decisions regarding everything from whether to turn the lights off when we leave a room to whether to call in sick to take a day off from work are affected by the actions and opinions of our neighbors and colleagues.

But what about those times when we are the ones trying to get someone to act unethically? Do we realize how much power we wield with a simple request, suggestion or dare? New research by my students and me suggests that we don’t.

We examined this question in a series of studies in which we had participants ask strangers to perform unethical acts. Before making their requests, participants predicted how many people they thought would comply. In one study, 25 college students asked 108 unfamiliar students to vandalize a library book. Targets who complied wrote the word “pickle” in pen on one of the pages.

As in the Milgram studies, many of the targets protested. They asked the instigators to take full responsibility for any repercussions. Yet, despite their hesitation, a large portion still complied.

Most important for our research question, more targets complied than participants had anticipated. Our participants predicted that an average of 28.5 percent would go along. In fact, fully half of those who were approached agreed. Moreover, 87 percent of participants underestimated the number they would be able to persuade to vandalize the book.

In another study, we asked 155 participants to think about a series of ethical dilemmas — for example, calling in sick to work to attend a baseball game. One group was told to think about these misdeeds from the perspective of a person deciding whether to commit them, and to imagine receiving advice from a colleague suggesting they do it or not. Another group took the opposite side, and thought about them from the perspective of someone advising another person about whether or not to do each deed.

Those in the first group were strongly influenced by the advice they received. When they were urged to engage in the misdeed, they said they would be more comfortable doing so than when they were advised not to. Their average reported comfort level fell around the midpoint of a 7-point scale after receiving unethical advice, but fell closer to the low end after receiving ethical advice.

However, participants in the “advisory” role thought that their opinions would hold little sway over the other person’s decision, assuming that participants in the first group would feel equally comfortable regardless of whether they had received unethical or ethical advice.

Taken together, our research, which was recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that we often fail to recognize the power of social pressure when we are the ones doing the pressuring.

Notably, this tendency may be especially pronounced in cultures like the United States’, where independence is so highly valued. American culture idolizes individuals who stand up to peer pressure. But that doesn’t mean that most do; in fact, such idolatry may hide, and thus facilitate, compliance under social pressure, especially when we are the ones putting on the pressure.

Consider the roles in the Milgram experiments: Most people have probably fantasized about being one of the subjects and standing up to the pressure. But in daily life, we play the role of the metaphorical experimenter in those studies as often as we play the participant. We bully. We pressure others to blow off work to come out for a drink or stiff a waitress who is having a bad night. These suggestions are not always wrong or unethical, but they may impact others’ behaviors more than we realize.

Read the entire story here.

Atwood on Orwell

One great writer reflects on the influences of another.

[div class=attrib]From the Guardian:[end-div]

I grew up with George Orwell. I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. I read it at age nine. It was lying around the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book – the child’s version of politics then, just after the war, consisted of the simple notion that Hitler was bad but dead. To say that I was horrified by this book would be an understatement. The fate of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs were so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the sheep were so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust.

The whole experience was deeply disturbing, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I’ve tried to watch out for since. As Orwell taught, it isn’t the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names.

Animal Farm is one of the most spectacular emperor-has-no-clothes books of the 20th century, and it got Orwell into trouble accordingly. People who run counter to the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn’t have all that figured out at the age of nine, of course – not in any conscious way. But we learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings, and Animal Farm has a very clear pattern.

Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. I read it in paperback (the copy of which is pictured here) a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again. It struck me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me, a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical education under chilly conditions – a feature of my school – and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen Eighty-Four is best read when you are an adolescent; most adolescents feel like that.) I sympathised particularly with his desire to write his forbidden thoughts down in a secret blank book. I had not yet started to write, but I could see the attractions of it. I could also see the dangers, because it’s this scribbling of his – along with illicit sex, another item with considerable allure for a teenager of the 1950s – that gets Winston into such a mess.

Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life – in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale. By that time I was 44, and I’d learned enough about real despotisms that I didn’t need to rely on Orwell alone.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]First edition cover of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and first edition cover of Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Courtesy of Wikipedia and respective publishers.[end-div]

The Benefits of Self-Deception


Psychologists have long studied the causes and characteristics of deception. In recent times they have had a huge pool of talented liars from which to draw — bankers, mortgage lenders, Enron executives, borrowers, and of course politicians. Now, researchers have begun to took at the art of self-deception, with some interesting results. Self-deception may be a useful tool in influencing others.

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

Lying to yourself—or self-deception, as psychologists call it—can actually have benefits. And nearly everybody does it, based on a growing body of research using new experimental techniques.

Self-deception isn’t just lying or faking, but is deeper and more complicated, says Del Paulhus, psychology professor at University of British Columbia and author of a widely used scale to measure self-deceptive tendencies. It involves strong psychological forces that keep us from acknowledging a threatening truth about ourselves, he says.

Believing we are more talented or intelligent than we really are can help us influence and win over others, says Robert Trivers, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Folly of Fools,” a 2011 book on the subject. An executive who talks himself into believing he is a great public speaker may not only feel better as he performs, but increase “how much he fools people, by having a confident style that persuades them that he’s good,” he says.

Researchers haven’t studied large population samples to compare rates of self-deception or compared men and women, but they know based on smaller studies that it is very common. And scientists in many different disciplines are drawn to studying it, says Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “It’s also one of the most puzzling things that humans do.”

Researchers disagree over what exactly happens in the brain during self-deception. Social psychologists say people deceive themselves in an unconscious effort to boost self-esteem or feel better. Evolutionary psychologists, who say different parts of the brain can harbor conflicting beliefs at the same time, say self-deception is a way of fooling others to our own advantage.

In some people, the tendency seems to be an inborn personality trait. Others may develop a habit of self-deception as a way of coping with problems and challenges.

Behavioral scientists in recent years have begun using new techniques in the laboratory to predict when and why people are likely to deceive themselves. For example, they may give subjects opportunities to inflate their own attractiveness, skill or intelligence. Then, they manipulate such variables as subjects’ mood, promises of rewards or opportunities to cheat. They measure how the prevalence of self-deception changes.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Truth or Consequences. Courtesy of CBS 1950-51 / Wikia.[end-div]

Social Influence Through Social Media: Not!

Online social networks are an unprecedentedly rich source of material for psychologists, social scientists and observers of human behavior. Now a recent study shows that influence through these networks may not be as powerful or widespread as first thought. The study, “Social Selection and Peer Influence in an Online Social Network,” by Kevin Lewis, Marco Gonzalez and Jason Kaufman is available here.

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

Social media gives ordinary people unprecedented power to broadcast their taste in movies, books and film, but for the most part those tastes don’t rub off on other people, a new study of college students finds. Instead, social media appears to strengthen our bonds with people whose tastes already resemble ours.

Researchers followed the Facebook pages and networks of some 1,000 students, at one college, for four years (looking only at public information). The strongest determinant of Facebook friendship was “mere propinquity” — living in the same building, studying the same subject—but people also self-segregated by gender, race, socioeconomic background and place of origin.

When it came to culture, researchers used an algorithm to identify taste “clusters” within the categories of music, movies, and books. They learned that fans of “lite/classic rock”* and “classical/jazz” were significantly more likely than chance would predict to form and maintain friendships, as were devotees of films featuring “dark satire” or “raunchy comedy / gore.” But this was the case for no other music or film genre — and for no books.

What’s more, “jazz/classical” was the only taste to spread from people who possessed it to those who lacked it. The researchers suggest that this is because liking jazz and classical music serves as a class marker, one that college-age people want to acquire. (I’d prefer to believe that they adopt those tastes on aesthetic grounds, but who knows?) “Indie/alt” music, in fact, was the opposite of contagious: People whose friends liked that style music tended to drop that preference themselves, over time.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]