Jonah Berger, marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, studies the social influences that drive ideas and products to go viral. Berger’s latest book, Invisible Influence (which has a really awesome cover) uncovers the social forces that shape our lives, decisions, and even personalities. Heleo’s Angelica Florio spoke with him about the forces acting upon us to shape who we are—without us even knowing it.
Jonah Berger: When we think about virality, and about word-of-mouth, we tend to jump to social media. It’s quite surprising, but a very small percent of what we share is online. It’s nowhere near the 50 or 60 percent that people might guess. Some estimates say it’s 8 percent or 9 percent, among younger folks I’d guess it’s 11 or 12 percent. We think we share a lot online, partly because there’s a written record of it. There’s no written record of our face-to-face communications. We still spend a lot of time talking to one another face-to-face and offline, so offline is just as powerful if not more powerful than online.
People forget, but word-of-mouth wasn’t invented with the internet. The first word-of-mouth was probably one caveman nudging another and saying “Don’t eat that, it’s poisonous.” It’s been going on for thousands of years.
Much more important than the technology is the psychology. Why do people talk and share in the first place? While these channels can change how we express the psychology, the underlying reasons why we share it have stayed pretty much the same. People are still sharing things that make them look good, they’re still sharing things that are top-of-mind.
The internet, though, does change things on the margins. It allows us more time to construct and refine what to say. We can be really clever online, whereas offline we don’t always have the time to say things in the most clever and polished way. 70 percent of Facebook messages, for example, are censored. Not by the government—they’re self-censored. People are censoring themselves, they’re going back and editing them, and making them more clever and more quippy. What we share online is really a signal of who we are, and so we take a lot of time to construct that.
Angelica: What about workplace chat rooms like Slack? Has that substantially impacted our general percentage of online versus offline interactions?
“Much of our research shows that sharing is driven a lot by the self, by the sender and not just a recipient. It’s more about how we’re feeling than the recipient of that information.”
Jonah: These things on the margin are beginning to eat away at face-to-face communication. But Slack is not available in most workplaces. In places that do have Slack, most people aren’t spending the majority of the day talking on Slack, they’re leaning over their cubicle and talking to the person next to them. While online is certainly a chunk of work now, much more important than knowing where people are talking is knowing why people are talking.
We did a study of what makes online content viral, looking at the most emailed lists, for example. We wanted to know why are people sharing an interview. Why this interview versus that interview? What’s going to encourage them to engage with that content? And that’s really a psychological question, a question about behavioral science more than technology. Emotions shape what we share both online and offline. That’s what’s really important.
Angelica: In reading Contagious, it really struck me that almost any situation among humans is kind of a selling and buying interaction. Even when it’s not marketing, we’re being influenced by what we think others want to hear, and that’s what we share with them.
Jonah: One thing that continually surprises me is that sharing content, whether online or offline, is a little bit like gift giving. There’s a sender and there are a receiver—a giver and a recipient. We have this model where we think about what the recipient might like and be interested in, and so we share things with them in mind. What it actually ends up being is more about the sender.
Much of our research shows that sharing is driven a lot by the self, by the sender and not just a recipient. It’s more about how we’re feeling than the recipient of that information. Just like giving a gift, it’s really hard to give someone a gift that we don’t think we would like. We know more about ourselves than we know about others. We think if we find it interesting, they’ll find it interesting.
Angelica: You discuss how part of what makes social media so popular is that we’re really just sharing things about ourselves. It’s actually not social at all. Do you think that social media actually encourages that, and are becoming more vain because of it? Or is that just how it’s always been and that’s human nature?
Jonah: I was talking at one point to Sean Parker, one of the guys who started Napster and was an early investor in Facebook, about the invention of the ‘Like.’ If you think about it, Facebook is all about getting people to post content, whether it’s an article, a status update, or a photo. Now imagine if you posted stuff and no one responded. You probably wouldn’t keep posting, right?
In an offline conversation, we get feedback about what we’re doing. Someone else is going to either stick with the subject or change the subject. Online, sometimes people might not have something to say, but a ‘Like’ gives them a micro action to respond to the posters. The more the posters see some response, the more likely they’re going to be to continue posting. The ‘Likes’ are really important to that ecosystem because even if you don’t have something to say, you can ‘Like’ it and people will keep posting. But if someone is bragging offline as much as we do online, people probably wouldn’t keep talking to them anymore.
Online, all we see are the Likes and the emoticons and the small responses we get back, and it’s really much more self-focused sharing than offline is.
Angelica: Yes, it’s totally self-focused, and also it’s about the highlights of your life. It paints you in the best light—you’re tailoring how you’re portrayed to the world, which is, I think, destructive in a lot of ways.
Jonah: There’s some very nice research that shows that people who spend a lot of time on social media often feel their own lives are worse by comparison. The reason is people don’t post the average stuff on social media, they post the best stuff. “Look at me, I got promoted. Look at me, I got a new car.” But if we always see people’s best stuff, we’re saying, “Well, man, my stuff isn’t that good. Maybe my life isn’t as good as theirs.”
Angelica: There was always the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” but now the Joneses aren’t just the people who are literally next door to you, they’re all over the internet and on your social feed. You can’t really close your door to it. What exactly are the invisible influences now?
“If you ask most people why they made a decision, they tend to think it’s all about them. But if you look at the data, other people often end up making our decisions for us, without us even realizing it.”
Jonah: My book, Invisible Influence, is a little bit different than Contagious. Contagious is about why people share word-of-mouth and how companies can use it to sell their products and ideas. A lot of people wrote to me saying, “I really enjoyed Contagious, it’s a fun read, it’s helped me at work, but what about at home? How does social influence shape my personal life? How can I use social influence in my personal life? Sometimes I notice a neighbor got a new car, I’m more likely to buy a new one, or alternatively I’m out to dinner with my friends, and they order the entrée I’m thinking about, and I’m less likely to order it. When do others motivate us, when do others demotivate us, and how can we use all this to live happier and healthier lives?”
If you ask most people why they made a decision, from something simple like what breakfast cereal they bought to something much more complicated like what career they chose, people tend to think it’s all about them. It’s about their personal preferences, their likes and their dislikes. “I’m going to vote for who I’m going to vote for because that’s my personal political preferences.” But, actually, if you look at the data, we’re pretty wrong. Other people often end up making our decisions for us, without us even realizing it. We’re more likely to pick certain products because others did it, or more likely to avoid things because others did it.
Angelica: Is it tracking how various trends catch on, or is it more of a larger cultural critique?
Jonah: It’s about the psychology of social influence. How what others are doing around us affects our behavior. For example, are we more likely to run faster on a treadmill if we’re running next to someone else? Why, when we have someone else in the car, is more difficult for us to parallel park? How we want to be unique sometimes, and how we go along with the crowd other times.
Angelica: Have you found a certain percent of people who want to be individuals? I feel like there is a threshold of wanting to believe that we have an individual identity that is different from everyone around us, but if it goes past a certain level, then you become weird and can become alienated. Do you know where that line is, or is it different for every person?
Jonah: That’s a really interesting point, and there are a couple responses. First, when we think of social influence, we tend to think of imitation. “Oh, we’re doing the same thing as someone else. That means we’re influenced.” But just as often as we’re influenced to do the same thing, we’re influenced to do an opposite or a different thing. If the Democrats are doing something, the Republicans often don’t want to do it, and vice versa. We don’t think of that as being influence. We think we’re being independent, but actually we’re being influenced, just like a magnet. Magnets not only attract, they also repel. When a magnet pushes another magnet away, it’s not that the first magnet didn’t influence the second magnet, it did, even though they’re not doing the same thing. Influence isn’t just about being the same, it’s also about avoiding things because others are doing them.
Second, you’re right that people like to blend similarity and difference. It’s very important to us not to be exactly the same as everybody else. We often do similar but different things, or what I call optimally distinct things. A friend of mine who’s a D.C. lawyer was complaining to me that all D.C. lawyers are the same. When they get their first big job, they buy a BMW to show that they made it. I pointed out, “Hey, that may be true but actually you bought a BMW.” My friend replied, “Yeah, but mine is a blue one and they all drive gray ones.”
We focus on the ways that we stand out from the pack—in part because it’s a cultural value in America—but if you actually look at it, we’re all pretty similar to folks around us.
There’s a great line from South Park, when one of the guys is thinking about becoming a goth, and he’s hanging around with the goth kids, and one of the goth kids asks him if he wants some coffee. He says no, and the goth kid says, “Oh, you can’t be a nonconformist if you don’t drink coffee.”
Angelica: I went to a liberal arts school and I’m from a weird town in Oregon, so I’ve seen that trend of, “Oh, we’re all nonconformists, but we’re all doing the same things.” Can anyone ever truly be a nonconformist? Is that possible?
Jonah: That is an important question, but I think more important than that question is why do we think influence is so bad? We often rely on online reviews to help us make better choices. Or we walk by a restaurant and if it’s full, we assume it’s good. A lot of times being influenced helps us make better decisions. It helps us avoid a lengthy process of trying to figure out what we’d like ourselves.
Imagine if, to pick a mechanic, you had to go to each garage, ask how it was, get the price and sample it. It’s really difficult. Sometimes influence can lead us astray, but just as often it can help us. Part of what Invisible Influence is about is how can we can we take advantage of its upsides and avoid some of its downsides.
Angelica: Were you looking at the U.S. specifically regarding this? Maybe that’s a narrative that’s deeply embedded in the U.S. because we’re nonconformists.
Jonah: This drive for distinction is a very U.S. thing, yes. East Asian culture, for example, is all about fitting in and being a member of the group. In American culture, we teach our kids to be unique and a special snowflake, that it’s all about finding yourself and distinguishing yourself from the group. Part of that is the product of the way America was born, by individuals who were differentiating themselves from the church and classic ways of doing things. It’s definitely in our DNA to have that desire for difference. Though it’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a way of being.
Angelica: The whole special snowflakes thing is something I’ve heard a lot recently, especially in regard to millennials. Do you think that that baby boomers as parents have instilled that ideology more than others before them? Or is that something that has always been with us?
Jonah: There’s a little bit of data to suggest that the drive for uniqueness has increased over time. Look at baby names, for example. The concentration among popular names is smaller than it was before. People use that to say that people are looking to be different. I think it’s just easier to see more people being unique. Whereas before, you only saw a few people in your neighborhood or your high school, now you’re exposed to all of the people on the internet every day. To be the same amount of different requires more than it used to; it’s much harder now to find someone who’s not like you.
Angelica: Do you think that certain individuals are more susceptible to being influenced by social forces?
Jonah: There is a little bit of data to suggest that certain people are more influenced than others, but we’re all influenced. We just don’t always realize it. We look around and say, “Oh, my neighbors want to look the same as other people in our neighborhood,” but it actually happens to all of us.
Angelica: Switching gears a little, are there any tech innovations or new trends that have surprised you, things that unexpectedly became viral or popular?
Jonah: One thing that’s been interesting is companies’ desire to control this space, and the hope that, “Okay, if we just go out there and create a viral video. We’ll be successful.” While views are valuable, companies are now starting to realize, “Wow, views don’t necessarily translate into sales. Just because somebody clicks on our content doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to read it, let alone share with it.”
I think we’re challenged, particularly with mobile now, because people don’t spend as much time engaging with content. You pick up your phone, you’ve got four or five minutes while you’re on the subway. You flip through some things but you don’t really read anything. It’s something to keep you from getting bored, but you’re not really engaging with what you’re reading. How do we create a business model where people aren’t just casually clicking, but they’re actually engaging with stuff that allows them to move toward the outcome we care about?
Angelica: And in a way, it’s how much should media and companies conform to that desire. Do you see social media and condensed and shortened content as another trend that might pass later?
Jonah: There’s always trends that people try to capture—what’s really important is what metrics we measure. If we focus on views, people are going to optimize for that. They’re going to focus on what’ll get us clicks, what’ll get us views. If people aren’t actually engaging with the content, if we’re a little more savvy, we might say, “Well, what actually gets people to share the content? What gets people to engage with the content? What gets to people to write and comment?” Focusing on those metrics is much more likely to get us to a point where we feature content that people actually care about.
Angelica: I’m also curious about how you are personally influenced by your own research. Does being aware of those influential forces inoculate you against them? Is there any way to consciously defend your unconscious and influence?
Jonah: It’s impossible to go shopping with me, let’s just put it that way. I don’t buy things very often. I ask myself, “Well what does it mean to buy this, what will it say about me? What will it communicate about me to others, what does it mean? Who else is doing it?” Once you screen these things, you become more aware of them.
One reason I wrote Invisible Influence, and primarily why I wrote Contagious, was because I want to help people realize these things are out there. Influence is a powerful tool. If we understand how to use it, we can make ourselves better off. But we have to see it first. I’m hoping I’ll help give people a chance to spot influence, and once they’ve spotted it, figure out how to use it to their own advantage.
If we’re trying to lose weight or trying to work harder at the office, for example, we can use peers as an important motivating force. If we’re trying to make better decisions, we can structure our environment to take advantage of the benefits others can provide and avoid the downside that others provide. If we understand influence and how it works, we can influence others, we can be more influential ourselves, and we can make better decisions. At the core, all of that comes down to recognizing influence is out there and beginning to understand how it works.
This interview has been edited and condensed.