100 Things You Should Know About People: #40 — "You're Easily Influenced, but I'm not"

Woman looking skeptical
Photo by Katie Ricard

I have been doing a lot of public speaking about my book and the ideas of persuasion. Early in my talks I often discuss John Bargh’s research on how much we are influenced by factors that we are not aware of. Bargh had people unscramble sets of words to make sentences, for example, he would ask people to choose 4 out of 5 words and make a sentence out of them:

he florida today lives now in

would become: “He now lives in Florida”.

Some people would get sets of words that had a theme of old: such as Florida, retired, old, elderly. Other people would get sets of words that had a young theme: such as youth, energy, lively.  A third group would get neutral words that were neither old nor young. After unscrambling the words and making sentences he would then have them walk down the hall to find him. Bargh measured how long it took each person to walk down the hall. People who had been using the “old” words, took much longer to walk down the hall. They had been unconsciously affected by the words. But when asked if they thought the words had influenced them they said no, and when I talk about this study I get the impression that most people in the audience believe that others would walk slowly, but that these words wouldn’t have affected them.

“I’m not that influenced” — In another example, I share in my talks about the power of social validation: how ratings and reviews at websites have a huge influence over what people decide to do (it’s because when we are uncertain we look to others to decide what to do). And everyone in the room nods and talks about how this is true, that other people are very influenced by ratings and reviews, but most people I am speaking to think that they themselves are not very affected. I talk about study after study on persuasion and how much we are affected by pictures, images, words, and that we don’t realize we are being influenced. And the reaction is always similar: “Yes, other people are affected by these things, but I am not.”

The third person effect — In fact, this belief that “others are affected but not me”, is so common that there is research on it, and it has its own name: the “third person effect”.  The research shows that most people think other people are influenced by persuasive messages, but that they themselves are not, and that this perception is false. The “third person effect” seems to be especially true if you think you aren’t interested in the topic. For example, if you are not in the market to buy a new TV, then you will tend to think that advertising about new TVs won’t affect you, but the research says that it will.

Why do we deceive ourselves this way? — So why the self-deception? It’s partly because all this influence is happening unconsciously. We literally aren’t aware that we are being influenced. And it’s also partly because we don’t like to think of ourselves as so easily swayed, or so “gullible”. To be gullible is to not be in control, and our old brain, the part of our brain that is concerned with survival, always wants us to be in control.

What do you think? Why do we believe that others are so easily influenced but not ourselves?

For those of you who like to read research:

Bargh, John A., Mark Chen, Lara Burrows. 1996. Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 71(2), 230-244.

Chen, Yi-Fen, Herd behavior in purchasing books online, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, (2008), 1977-1992.

Bryant Paul; Michael B. Salwen; Michel Dupagne, The Third-Person Effect: A Meta-analysis of the perceptual hypothesis. Mass Communication and Society, 1532-7825, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2000, Pages 57 – 85

Perloff  Third-Person Effect Research 1983–1992: A Review and Synthesis.
Int J Public Opin Res.1993; 5: 167-184


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7 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #40 — "You're Easily Influenced, but I'm not"”

  1. Hi Susan —

    Another great article!

    I am sure you have read, Michael Gelb’s “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci”. This article reminded me of the section where Gelb explains that modern-day mass media does change our behavior. He asks the audience to practice “mass media martial arts” to question their own assumptions.

    I do think it is an innate behavior within all of us to not think we are influenced. It is an ego thing.

    For Da Vinci, the mass media machine of his time was the Church and nobility. In both cases, he seemed to be successful at ignoring them without offending them. I do think Gelb falls short because it goes beyond mass media.

    Our families, friends, neighbors, education, work, and so on influence the choices that we make. The age old question of nature versus nature is wrong. I think it is actually both nature and nurture. I am influenced by the person I am, who I want think I am, who I want to be, and by my environment (family, friends, church, work, off-time, neighbors).

  2. We are all intuitive, even when we have our doubts. When a person practices their intuitive abilities on a conscious level then information becomes available that is difficult to see from an analytical process.

    We all get asked by friends to offer advice about their problems and to tell them what we think they should do (haven’t we all been there?) because they are looking for an unbiased opinion.

    Now, if I was completely neutral then maybe my opinion would be useful, but this isn’t likely. What is likely is that I am more neutral about their problems than I am about my own. So, ok, I’m foolish enough to give it a shot.

    BUT, when I have my own issues to understand and want some information I have a more difficult time trying to remain neutral and solve my biggest issues. If it is an important issue for me I’ll ask someone else what they think, but not just anyody else.

    What this says is that we are not neutral unless we have absolutely no investment in the emotional or logical outcome. Needless to say, this is rarely the case because we are so invested in our own lives and it is that investment that colours our choices.

    For most of our issues we can consciously make cleaner choices free of bias because there are psychological tools for getting more neutral about our stuff. But for the really charged items it is good to have someone else as a sounding board that won’t give advice but can offer choices by asking questions.

    Many people think they want or need advice, but advice is just another form of invalidation. The hidden message in advice is “I know what’s best for you, better than you know yourself.”

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