Social Influence: Don’t Underestimate its Power

As a social psychologist with a strong interest in behavioral economics, I enjoy learning new ways that people influence one another – so we can use them for good purposes.

Jonah Berger, in Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, identifies several factors that influence people’s decisions based on laboratory and field studies.

Let me share one example. Imagine you’re trying to get people to conserve energy. There are many ways to do so – focusing on their concern for the environment, their desire to save money, an appeal to good citizenship etc.  Studies have tried all these – and in general none have a real impact. However, encouraging people to follow a social norm – showing them on their electric bills that their neighbors are spending less than they are – and giving tem concrete suggestions for how they might also reduce energy consumption has had an impact.

Indeed, Yates and Laskey created a company Opower which sent consumers carefully targeted energy reports. Rather than an appeal, they simply report the difference in consumption patterns of people with their neighbors/ they also note that they can save energy by replacing certain electronics, turning off lights, adjusting light settings, etc.  The program led people to reduce energy consumption about 2%/ That might not seem a lot, but multiplied by the number of people they’ve reached so far it saved 6 trillion watt-hours or enough to take all homes in Alaska and Hawaii off the electric grid for a year. And, it reduced carbon dioxide – the equivalent of taking all cars in Chicago off the road for a year.

There are many other helpful hints in this book. For instance, if your sales (or other) team fell behind their goal, social influence can come to the rescue in certain cases – by unleashing the competitive spirits. If you’re using social influence techniques now, share them with us. If not, after reading the book share which you liked and will be applying!

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