These invisible influences dictate your life


Jonah Berger’s wife just had a baby.

Besides the obvious changes a newborn brought into his his family, Berger noticed some not-so-subtle ones too.

“Having less time makes us rely more on simple heuristics,” he said. “If people I know have chosen something it must be good.”

Interesting observation, huh?

But he didn’t come to it while rocking his baby back to sleep in the wee hours of the night. It’s just his training kicking in.

Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent over 15 years studying how social influence works and how it drives products and ideas to catch on.  He also penned two books on the subject:  Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior.

Knowing that other people’s choices dictate his and, by extension, his baby’s, doesn’t bother Berger that much. Roughly 99.9% of all decisions we make are shaped by others, Berger said.

Even when it comes to choosing a partner.

“We think we pick someone because they match our preferences. They’re funny, kind, or have other attributes we value. But without realizing it, other factors often actually drive our decision. The more times we’ve seen someone, for example, the more we like them and the more attractive we find them,” Berger explained.

So that’s it? Are we truly at the mercy of what he calls invisible influences?

Not quite.

Spotting them is the first step to get more control over them. Once we understand how they work, Berger explained, we can take advantage of their power.

Take the power of peers, for instance, which can help you achieve your fitness goals.

Social comparisons are a powerful motivating force, Berger said. “Pick someone who is just a little ahead of you and you’ll work harder and perform better.”


Running with a buddy or swimming in a lane next to someone else makes us work harder.

On the other hand, friends can shape each other in unwanted ways. Here’s Berger advice to avoid falling into the trap of “group thinking:”

“First, have people vote in private before they vote publicly. It will help them stick to their guns.  Second, have a designated dissenter. Someone whose job it is to disagree with the rest of the group. So you’ll make sure opposing viewpoints get heard but also free everyone else up to share their unique opinion.”

Watch Berger’s “Contagious” talk at Google where he explains the six key steps that make products or ideas contagious. The so-called “STEPPS”: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories.


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