This reading group guide for Invisible Influence includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jonah Berger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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In Invisible Influence
, the New York Times
bestselling author of Contagious
explores the subtle influences that affect the decisions we make—from what we buy, to the careers we choose, to what we eat—in a fascinating and groundbreaking book.
Without our realizing it, other people’s behavior has a huge influence on everything we choose at every moment of our lives, from the mundane, such as which brand of soda we buy, to the momentous, such as which partner we marry. Because our society values uniqueness and individual preferences, it can be difficult sometimes to see the impact of social influence in our lives, but by understanding how social influence works we can decide when to resist and when to embrace it—and how to use this knowledge to make better-informed decisions and exercise more control over our own behavior.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Think about your last major purchase, perhaps a car, an appliance, or even a house. How did you decide on the brand or other important aspects? Do you know anyone else who has made a similar purchase? After reading Invisible Influence,
do you think social influence had an impact on your purchasing decision?
2. Consider the title of the book. Why are the effects of social influence so hard to see? Why do you think it’s particularly difficult to see social influences acting on ourselves?
3. Discuss and analyze a real-world example in which peer pressure has influenced conformity or differentiation. Has a group setting ever influenced your order at a restaurant or your response in a team meeting? Did the actions of others provide any new information in the situation? Did the actions of others influence your own decision?
4. How does emotional mimicry play a role in negotiation? Have you ever experienced it firsthand—for example, when negotiating a salary or the price of a new car? If so, what resulted?
5. How would you use social influence and emotional mimicry to get kids to eat their vegetables?
6. Consider this passage from the book: “Sibling rivalries are more than just who is better at soccer or who gets the last scoop of ice cream. They’re about who gets to be a certain type of person and who has to be someone else.” Have you witnessed the effects of social influence, assimilation, and differentiation on siblings’ personalities in relation to one another?
7. Berger says that “different” isn't necessarily good or bad, and that “similar” isn't necessarily good or bad, either. What do you think? Why do those two ideas carry the connotations they do? How are they experienced by people of other cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds?
8. Are you more like the firefighters or the MBAs? Would you like it if a friend bought the same car as you, or would you be annoyed? When do you prefer to be similar? When do you prefer to be different?
9. How do companies use shorthand signals in their marketing and advertising to communicate a particular lifestyle or choice preference? How have you seen this in recent examples? Does it work?
10. Consider the example of the college students in the Cottage Club and Terrace eating clubs at Princeton. How are assimilation and differentiation at work simultaneously in this situation? Berger says that we want to be similar but also different. How do you explain the coexistence of these seemingly opposite ideas?
11. As in the case of the San Marcos energy consumption experiment, how can social facilitation be applied to other issues beyond energy consumption? How would you use social influence and peer pressure to positively affect the outcome of other issues facing the world today?
12. How is a person’s identity communicated through an amalgamation of personal choices and preferences? What are your favorite brands, colors, and other preferences signaling about your personality today?
13. After reading the book, do you find you can apply the principles to your own life? How can you use these ideas to make smarter hiring decisions, get into better shape, or motivate your children to do their schoolwork?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Keep a purchase journal of items you bought over the course of a week. How did you first hear about each product (or brand)? What made you decide to purchase it? Do you know anyone else who has the same product?
2. If you haven’t already done so, read Jonah Berger’s first book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On
. Analyze the intersection of what makes something catch on and social influence. How do the ideas work together?
3. Conduct a social influence experiment with your circle of friends and family: together with your book club choose a phrase, a brand, or a product. Use your influence with your peers to make it stick, and then report the results to your book club.A Conversation with Jonah BergerWhat first interested you in the idea of social influence?
We love to see ourselves as autonomous beings, each making our own choices based on our own unique thoughts and preferences. Yet show up to kindergarten and five kids have the same name. Or pull into a parking lot at a tech company and there are three to four Teslas lined up next to one another. I found it fascinating that we think we make our own choices, yet we’re wrong. Why don’t we notice social influence? How does it affect us and why? These are questions that are fun to answer.How has the experience of writing this book differed from writing Contagious?
Writing Invisible Influence
was easier in some ways than writing Contagious
, and more difficult in others. Contagious
was my first book, so it took me a while to learn to write in a less academic, more popular style. That flowed more easily this time, so the writing itself was easier in some ways. It was also more difficult though, in that it’s always tough to top a first book, particularly one that does well. Are people going to like it as much? Should it be more applied? Or should it try to have broader appeal? There’s no answer to these questions, but they do make it tough to write!Examples in the book cover the full pop culture and popular science spectrum, from vervet monkeys to Britney Spears. How did you recognize patterns of social influence in the real world and apply social science principles?
The great thing about being a professor is that you come across so many great examples. You teach a concept in class, and that evening, five people send you examples of how they see the ideas applied in their own life. Not all of the examples showcase the underlying principle, but some do, so I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to pass on of these examples in Invisible Influence
.The many pages of endnotes speak to the awesome amount of research that went into this book. Were there interesting discoveries in your research that didn't make it into the final book?
One interesting piece of research that got cut was about how situational factors can affect our desire for distinction. Turns out that being hungry encourages people to prefer unique products and services. Hungry people avoid options chosen by others and instead pick things that help them stand out. Pretty surprising stuff!You also cite many original case studies and experiments that you’ve conducted yourself or with colleagues. How do you decide what requires original research on a topic?
Tough question. A whole book could probably be written on this topic alone. Everyone is different, but for me personally, research ideas tend to come from the world around me. From wondering why I had such difficulty making a decision or from noticing people doing something that seems unusual. These often serve as the germs of interesting research ideas.You did research on how Hurricane Katrina affected the popularity of “K” baby names. What first interested you in that phenomenon? Why is it such a good example of social influences and trends?
My colleagues and I got interested in baby names because we wanted to understand cultural evolution. We needed to pick a domain that gave good data over time, on a number of cultural items, and that varied in similarity to one another. And baby names proved to be the perfect domain. Names are also a great example of social influence because, unlike products or movies, names all cost the same, and there is no one advocating for one name to become popular over another. So it’s a great sandbox in which to study the social dynamics that drive popularity.How has being an expert on social influence changed how you go about your daily life?
Understanding social influence definitely makes it harder to make choices! You can’t look at a shirt or car without thinking “what will that signal about me to others?” From the way that you mix real world examples (Snooki and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino) with science-backed case studies (performing tests on grad students in exchange for pizza), it seems like you have a lot of fun doing this. What do you love about this field of study? How has it held your attention for so long?
People are just interesting to study. It’s not like chemistry, where you can perfectly control exactly what goes into a reaction, but you can still try to carefully isolate drivers of behavior and figure out how to study them. And the world is always changing. So there are new questions to ask about how we interact with technology and how it shapes our livesWhat influenced your decision about something you bought recently?
Just bought a dress shirt from Zara. Bought it because I loved the color, and the way their shirts are cut tends to fit me well. Or at least that’s why I think I bought it. Why I actually bought it? That may be a different story . . .