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Review: Jonah Berger’s Invisible Influence – The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior

invisible influenceThis review first ran in the June 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior

By Jonah Berger

Simon and Schuster

$35.99 CDN

Crime doesn’t pay but it can be good for business.

Counterfeit goods account for nearly 10 per cent of worldwide trade. South of the border, counterfeiting costs businesses more than $200 billion annually. Worldwide, it’s half a trillion dollars.

So where’s the upside?

Counterfeiting gets fashion-conscious consumers spending more money.   When you care what you wear, you pay a premium not to look like everyone else. Your clothes and accessories tell the rest of us know that you’re a trendsetter with impeccable taste.

But counterfeit couture changes everything, including what’s in your closet.

“By making and distributing knockoffs, piracy speeds obsolescence,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor with Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Invisible Influence

“Inferior copies may tarnish the original article, but, by broadening availability, counterfeiters also change what it means to wear a style or brand. If anyone can buy what looks like this season’s Louis Vuitton bag, then the signal sent by carrying the bag erodes. If the signal value of styles never changed, people would never need to buy anything new.”

It’s not just what we wear that sends off signals to other people. There’s what we drive and ride, whether it’s a BMW, LRT or fixed-gear bike. There’s the hometown indie bands we listen to and the hip and hot new restaurants where we post food porn pics to our Instagram feeds. There’s the newest technology in our pockets, on our wrists and in our homes. There’s the critics’ choice Netflix show we binge-watch before anyone else in the office. And there’s the vacations we take off the beaten path and the top floor corner office or the cool co-sharing workplace where we hang our shingle.

We like to believe that the choices we make are our own, driven by our personal tastes and preferences, likes and dislikes. We tell ourselves that other people’s opinions don’t sway our decisions. It’s not monkey see, monkey do. Yet the research shows that’s not true. Others constantly influence us in simple, subtle and surprising ways, says Berger.

“Even though others shape almost everything we do, we are often unaware that this impact occurs,” says Berger, who’s spent 15 years studying the science of social influence.  “We can all point to examples of others falling prey to social influence, but it’s often much harder to recognize that influence on ourselves. Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of all decisions are shaped by others. It’s hard to find a decision or behavior that isn’t affected by other people. In fact, looking across all domains of our lives, there is only one place we don’t seem to see social influence. Ourselves.”

Berger says social influence is like a magnet. There are some people we want to imitate while there are others who influence us in the opposite direction. “Our older sibling is the smart one, so we become the funny one. We avoid blaring our horn in traffic because we don’t want to be one of those people.”  This is why some companies pay low-rent celebrities not to wear or use their high-end products.

There’s also a third way , says Berger. “We don’t want to be exactly the same or completely different. Instead we choose and behave in ways that allow us to be optimally distinct, threading the needle between similarity and difference.“

Berger highlights research that shows how to use social influence to change our behaviors.  Want to get us to stop cranking the air conditioning and leaving on all the lights? Don’t tell us that we’ll save money or the planet by conserving energy. Instead, show us how our energy consumption compares with our neighbours.

Want your sales team to pick up their game? Show how they stack up to their peers.

And if you’re a restaurant owner, you can dissuade most men from ordering the smaller and less expensive steak on your menu by calling it the Ladies’ Cut.

“At our core, we are all social animals,” says Berger. “Whether we realize it or not, other people have a subtle and surprising impact on almost everything we do. When it comes to our own lives, social influence is as silent as it is powerful. Just because we can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

@jayrobb works as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton, Ontario and has been reviewing business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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