Just who is in control of you?

The disturbing power of “others”


I’m not a particularly influential person. I’d like to be, but the reality is I’m not. Oh, I have some influence. In my role as a financial adviser I routinely help my clients in relation to their financial decisions, but occasionally I lose an existing (and otherwise happy client) to someone else who is no more competent than I but has greater persuasiveness – you know, the kind of person who can “sell ice to Eskimos”. I’ve also given up on the number of times I’ve encouraged clients to see a solicitor or an accountant, and they simply haven’t. And when I talk to my colleagues, they seem routinely to make such recommendations, and hey presto! the client follows their suggestion.

So why am I telling you this? I’m the sort of person who never gives up on trying to improve. So I thought I’d read a book recommended to me, simply called “Influence”, by Robert Cialdini. It was apparently a best seller many years ago, and because the book speaks about human nature rather than whizz bang sales techniques, if it was true 20 years ago, it’s probably still pretty relevant today.

I have to say its contents unnerve me a little, because it’s all about taking advantage of the largely unconscious human behaviours that we all seem to have just below the surface, and how to “trigger” them to our advantage. I have no appetite to control others. Influence, as far as I’m concerned, is not about control, but guidance that people take seriously. So, it hasn’t been an enjoyable read. But I do have to say it’s been a fascinating one.

Amongst many other interesting (and disturbing) character traits, the author speaks about a phenomenon called “social proof”. Now social proof is something most of us are surely already aware of – that our decisions are impacted significantly by the opinions and behaviours of those in our peer group, or in our racial group, or in our nation etc. No surprises there. But what is surprising is the extent by which our actions are shaped.

One particularly fascinating aspect of this is a phenomenon that goes by the wordy title of “Group inhibition of bystander intervention”. To put it simply, there is a tendency that the larger the group of people that witness an event (say a mugging, or a person in need) the less likely it is that anyone will do anything to help.

An example is given of a murder that occurred in the streets of New York in 1964, over a period of half an hour where a woman, Kitty Genovese, was attacked, managed to free herself and run away only to be attacked again and eventually die. What made this tragedy all the more mystifying was that 38 people in the street reportedly either heard or saw part of the altercation and did nothing. These figures have since been seriously disputed, and in fact one or two people did try to do something, but it doesn’t take away from the observations of human behaviour that arose from it.

At first, the outcry from this event was that city life had hardened the hearts of city people and led them to do nothing (one neighbour had openly stated they didn’t want to get involved). But when it was thoroughly investigated, a very different picture emerged. People actually weren’t sure why they had done nothing, and were mystified themselves. Researchers discovered, from this event and from other events (and clinical experiments), a pattern of human behaviour emerging. When we as individuals are confronted by an emergency, we often don’t know what to do. We look for clues in the behaviour of others – how are they responding to this? The very people we are looking to are themselves most likely feeling the same way, and look to us to see how we are responding. The result is that no-one does anything – because no-one else is! On top of this, if no-one else is responding, we don’t want to be the odd man out. We don’t want to be the drama queen that makes a big deal out of the situation.

So, with the murder in the street, people didn’t respond because they thought maybe it wasn’t that bad and because no-one else (to their knowledge) had responded either. Maybe it was a quarrel between lovers, and if someone intervened they would just get shouted down, or if the police were called, they would get annoyed because their time was being wasted. It wasn’t because the onlookers were hard hearted. As a matter of fact, research into this phenomenon has shown that when onlookers are in no doubt of the problem or danger, they are much more likely to take action.

I find this aspect of human nature both fascinating and disturbing, that we as human beings could be so dictated by our social context. How many times have you or I walked down the street, noticed someone in apparent trouble, and felt awkward or unsure about doing anything because others were also just passing them by? I unfortunately can confess to this. The same research that documented this phenomenon also showed that a single individual, noting the plight of someone else, is much more likely to respond if they are on their own, than if there are others present.

There are very good reasons why we are social animals and why the opinions of others count. I think it would be foolish to assume that peer pressure is always bad. It just “is”. But it concerned me to realise just how controlled we are by it. This kind of influence is so powerful that it would be hard to resist. But surely, once we are aware, we must choose how we will act. After all, who do you want to be in control of your life, yourself or the madding crowd?

The book “Influence” is actually a fascinating read if you want to be amazed at the unconscious predictability of human behaviour, as it unpacks many other surprisingly strong traits of human behaviour. If you can stomach its cringeworthy application to sales, I do recommend it.