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Why You Have More Influence on Others Than You Think

Studies show it's fairly easy to push others in the right or wrong direction.

From an early age, we talk to people about the positive and negative influences of peer pressure. On the negative side, drug education programs address the effect of social groups on whether a particular individual will take drugs. On the positive side, Austin, Texas has a highly successful day of giving in which members of the community urge others to donate to their favorite charities.

But how much influence do you really have on the actions of other people? Are you aware of the effect you have on others?

This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Vanessa Bohns, Mahdi Roghanizad, and Amy Xu in the March, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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The paper focused on peer pressure to do negative things. In one study, the participants were college students tasked with asking other students to commit a white lie—specifically, to sign a sheet acknowledging that the participant had described a new class at the university to them, even though the participant was not going to describe the class because he or she “didn’t really want to do it.”

Before starting the task, participants estimated how many people they would have to ask in order to get three students to sign the forms. They were also asked how comfortable others would be in saying “no” to their request. Then, they went out and solicited white lies.

Participants predicted that they would have to ask an average of 8.5 people in order to get three signatures. In fact, they only had to ask an average of 4.4 in order to get those three signatures. Generally speaking, the participants felt that others would be comfortable saying “no” to them; the more comfortable they thought others would be saying “no,” the more people they thought they would have to approach before getting the required signatures.

A second study replicated this finding, using a situation in which participants asked others to write the word “pickle” in a library book, in pen. The results were the same: Once again, participants believed they would have to ask twice as many people as they actually did need to in order to get three people to commit the small act of vandalism.

Two other studies examined why this effect emerged. These studies used vignettes in which people read about small unethical acts like reading someone’s private Facebook messages if their account was left open, or calling in sick to work in order to go to a baseball game.

Some people read scenarios in which they were going to perform the act themselves. Others read scenarios in which they were watching someone else perform the act and could give them advice to do the unethical thing or the ethical thing. Participants rated how comfortable they would feel doing the ethical thing in each of these scenarios.

Participants who played the role of advisor did not feel their advice would have much impact on others. They felt that other people would be reasonably willing to do the ethical thing whether they advised those people to do the right thing or the unethical thing.

In fact, participants playing the role of the actor were much less comfortable doing the ethical thing when they got advice to do the unethical thing than when they got advice to do the ethical thing. That is, people were actually highly swayed to do the wrong thing by the advice they got.

Other studies by Bohns and her colleagues have demonstrated similar findings about ethical behavior.

Putting all of this work together, it seems that we have a hard time saying “no” to other people because social pressure has a huge influence on our behavior. At some level, that may not seem surprising to us, but we do systematically underestimate the influence that our social pressure has on other people.

One more reason why we should try to help other people to do the right thing.

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