Social Influence Determines Most Decisions People Make

Believe it or not, social influence has more impact on your decision-making than your conscious mind does. We all like to think we are in control of all of our decisions. We have even become quite good at coming up with reasons (after the fact) to justify the decisions we make and prove (to ourselves and others) that we were not under any other influences. Or as Benjamin Franklin said, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

The truth is most decisions we make start outside of our conscious awareness. We are wired to look to others for behavior clues on how we are expected to behave in unfamiliar situations. Imagine you grew up poor and are invited to a fancy dinner at the local country club. It’s highly unlikely you are going to walk into that dinner and start belching and telling offensive jokes. More likely you would be nervous about making a fool of yourself and you would take in as many cues as you can from others’ behavior to guide your own. When you see two different forks at your place setting you would likely be confused and look to see which one the others are using before digging into your salad.

That was a conscious example of how we look to others before making decisions. Now I am going to illustrate a couple of situations where people were not consciously aware that their behavior was dependent on the circumstances around them.

Recent reports indicate that three quarters of college students have consumed alcohol and nearly 50% binge drink. This has become a big problem as over 1,800 U.S college students die from alcohol related events each year and over 600,000 suffer injuries while under the influence of alcohol. Students see almost half of their peers binge drinking and think it’s okay or even normal, but the reality is most students (including a high percentage of those who do the binge drinking) are not comfortable with the drinking habits of their peers. So while on the surface most students seem fine with binge drinking, in reality they are just succumbing to social pressure.

Another example comes from the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center building on September 11th 2001. Nearly everyone on the 87th floor died because in the aftermath of the crash they all looked to each other to see how they reacted and a majority remained calm. Seeing everyone else going about their business made everybody think there was no reason to panic, even the ones who were initially panicky. Meanwhile on the 88th floor, just one floor above them, a man named J.J. Aguiar raced through the floor telling everyone to evacuate immediately. They all got out alive.

If you are in a classroom setting, you can ask a relatively simple question like whether or not two lines of equal length are the same length. Then all you have to do is set it up so the first several people you call on answer “NO” and then ask if there is anyone who thinks they are the same length. It is highly unlikely anyone will speak up and give the actual correct answer. If you ask first year law students what kind of law they want to study, you will get a wide range of answers. At the start of their second year if you ask the same group the same question you will likely only get two or three different answers. It’s not just a coincidence that people tend to take on the traits of those they spend the most time with. This is the power of social influence.

This is why culture is so important. It’s the social culture that determines people’s behavior, not laws. The social outrage aimed at the dentist who killed Cecil the lion will likely keep more people from killing big game animals, than any laws we have on the books. Perhaps we would be much better off as a country if we resisted the knee jerk reaction to create new laws whenever faced with something we don’t like and instead focus on social influence to effect positive change.


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc



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