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.

Waleed, a bit of a hero really

There are some people who seem to be good at just about everything, damn it

Just the other night we had a big national entertainment awards night called “the Logies”. The big prize of the night is the gold Logie, for the most outstanding Personality on Australian Television. It was won this time by a guy called Waleed Ali.


He’s an amazing person. My wife was telling me she watched one of those shows that delve into a celebrity’s background, and it turns out he was good at just about everything. He’s a killer guitarist, and played guitar in a professional band called “Robot Child” (maybe he still does). He was apparently school captain, great at sports, won top academic awards in school, is now actively involved as a member of the Global Terrorism Research Centre, member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, and is a regular on one of Australia’s top media shows called “The Project” (which is what he earned the Gold Logie for).

Okay, pretty amazing guy. And then he gives his thank you speech for the award.

Is there nothing he can do wrong? He spoke glowingly of his wife and how he was glad she wasn’t doing the same work as he was because she would be up here right now instead of him – she was “smarter and wittier” than him along with a host of other qualities, but was too busy saving the world with her humanitarian projects. And he meant every word.

He then turned his speech into a stand for equality and understanding. Being an Egyptian and a Muslim, he is not your typical Australian and not everyone is pleased that he is at the top and receiving recognition. He spoke of someone he knew who changed their name from Mustafa, (a real life example) because they just wouldn’t have got ahead in their industry if they hadn’t, and he regarded his win as validation for people like him with weird names (ie not white angle Saxon and therefore at risk of marginalisation). And apparently his win was in the face of opposition – there were some who had questioned his very nomination for the Gold Logies, and that of another non Anglo Saxon, Lee Lin Chin.

Wow – I wouldn’t have thought discrimination of that magnitude was still so prevalent. But that’s for another time.

Back to Waleed. As I think of him I’m torn between feelings of admiration and awe that such a well balanced gifted human being exists, to feelings of unadulterated envy. How the hell did he get so lucky? Why should someone have SO much talent and a great personality to boot? It reminds me of when I see YouTube video clips of bass guitarists who play so amazingly well that I feel like burning my bass guitar and never playing again (I have it on good authority that I’m not the only musician who feels this way when they see geniuses playing).

Now I know no-one’s perfect, so Waleed must have his flaws. I get the impression he’s a pretty ambitious guy (not a bad thing in itself). I reckon that sometimes when he’s tired he gets irritable and cranky (like all of us). And I have a faint suspicion that he played the ethnicity card in his speech at least partly to make himself look good.

Now, if I’m right in those things (if) what does that mean? It means he’s human – thank goodness.

Waleed has come in for his share of scathing criticism, mostly from people who disagree strongly with the moral stances he takes or who are threatened by his Muslim background. There are people who would roll their eyes at the compliments I’ve just given him, with the phrase “oh come on” forming incredulously on their lips. They would probably take the few flaws that I have alluded to and magnify them one hundredfold in their attempt to discredit him in any way they can. No-one is without enemies, and if they are, they are probably not making a difference in the world.

He is good, dammit, and hopefully any flaws that eventually surface (if they ever do) will not be serious enough to change the good that he can do and has done. His glow is not likely to last forever, but people like him can often just keep quietly working away behind the scenes, just like he did before the spotlight found him.

Not that I expect that to happen any time soon.

Waleed I salute you. Now just for me, please, please, go and do something a little silly or dumb. It would make me feel a whole lot better 🙂