Surprising influence, with Vanessa Bohns

Issue 23: Interviewing Vanessa Bohns about her new book; perils of identity leadership; why people cling to false beliefs; and the research round up

One week left until book launch! As it turns out, we have the same publication date as Professor Vanessa Bohns, whose new book, ‘You Have More Influence Than You Think’, also comes out next Tuesday (September 7).

Instead of viewing her as a competitor, we see Vanessa as part of our in-group of new authors sharing science with the world! As such, we decided to interview Vanessa and feature her exciting new book in our final newsletter before both books launch. We think you will share our excitement about her book once you learn more.

Vanessa is a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. She is an expert on social influence and the psychology of compliance and consent. Her research looks at why people underestimate how powerfully their own actions and requests influence others, hence the title of her book. We were especially interested to learn how these dynamics play out in groups.

Vanessa, you must be as excited as we are that our books are so close to taking flight. What does your book teach us about group dynamics?

When we observe the interactions and social norms of the groups we are in, we tend to underestimate the role we ourselves play in contributing to those group dynamics. For example, we underestimate the extent to which our own presence shapes group discussions—like how group members tune the things they say to match what they know or assume about us.

We underestimate the extent to which our own behaviors contribute to group norms—e.g., how talking about the solar panels we had installed shapes the rest of the group’s ideas about how normative it is to have solar panels. In essence, when we peer out at the world through our own eyes, we don’t see ourselves or the role we play in creating the social situations we are in.

What was the most surprising thing you learned as you were writing the book?

A lot of the book is an account of the many things that have surprised me in my own research over the past decade and a half. My collaborators and I are constantly coming up with new experiments that allow our participants to test out the influence they have. Each time we come up with a new experiment, we say to ourselves, “There is no way this is going to work. People aren’t going to agree to do a favor that big for our participants. People won’t agree to hand their phone over to a stranger, or agree to do something that unethical.”

But time and time again, we have been as surprised as our participants in those studies when they discover all the things they can get people to do simply by asking. Ultimately, the things we’ve seen people do to avoid having to say “no” to our participants are truly astounding.

What is the biggest unanswered question going forward?

I think the biggest unanswered question is how various individual and group differences—like race, gender, age, attractiveness—impact the tendency to underestimate our influence over others. From the data I’ve looked at on this question, it seems like the broader tendency to underestimate our influence is likely to be fairly generalizable. However, I think it is also likely that how we react to this tendency could vary quite a bit based on individual characteristics.

For example, I talk in the book about two people, a man and a woman, who each tried a version of something called “Rejection Therapy.” Basically, they each made a bunch of random requests of strangers with the goal of getting rejected so that they could get more comfortable with rejection—and ultimately with asking for things. Both of them reached the same conclusion from this exercise—that it was harder for other people to say no to them than they had expected, and that they therefore had more influence than they had realized. However, one took that as a reason to ask for things more (since people say yes), while the other took that as a reason to ask for things less (since the reason people say yes is that it’s hard for them to say no).

In those two cases, the former individual identified as male, and the latter as female, but I don’t yet know whether those anecdotes represent true gender differences, or what the impact of other individual and group differences might be.

Do you have any practical advice for people who want to apply these ideas?

Due to a number of psychological biases I describe in the book, we often feel like we have less of an impact in social situations than we actually do. We underestimate how likely people are to agree to do things we ask, how convinced people are by arguments we feel we made poorly, and the ways in which our mere presence can shape group discussions.

Practically speaking, what that means is that having influence ends up being in many ways easier and less extraordinary than we imagine. You don’t have to deliver an argument perfectly, or stand up on a pulpit to have influence. To realize your impact, you simply need to show up to discussions about things you care about; when you have something to contribute, say it—without obsessing about saying it perfectly. And, go ahead and just ask for things—provided they are worth asking for.


Identity leadership can be a double-edged sword

Dom spoke with USA Today about our book and the influence of identity-based leadership on responses to COVID-19. They were particularly interested in a recent incident when former-President Trump was booed and jeered by an otherwise supportive crowd when he endorsed vaccinations at a rally.

“What the booing reveals is that identity-based leadership is a double-edged sword, because people only embrace you as their leader if they think, 'you're one of us.'

Fundamental to being an identity leader is that you are the prototypical member of the group you're a part of. And Trump holds that position very strongly, but (the booing is) suggesting there are limits to it and that if you've defined the identity around, 'vaccines are fundamentally a leftist plot or a Democrat thing,' then even Trump gets pushback when he seems to dilute that boundary.”

The Power of Us available for preorder


Why do people cling to false beliefs?

Lucid, the visual learning app, is creating beautiful visual summaries of lessons from ‘The Power of Us’. This week’s summary addresses the question of why people cling to false beliefs and looks at how cult-like psychology can take hold in groups of all kinds.

Check out a web-based version of this week’s lesson here and revisit last week’s on how shared identities influence helping. You can also download the Lucid app from the Apple Store for access to summaries of our book (fully available on Sept 7) and much more.


Research round up

In a fascinating new paper, Hannah Kramer and colleagues find that when people learn about the characteristics of a novel group, they assume that another group will possess opposite qualities. Despite knowing nothing about the other group, this “dichotomizing heuristic” causes people to assume that their characteristics and even their morality will be fundamentally distinct from the group they know something about.

Societies are trying a wide range of tactics to incentivize vaccinations against COVID-19, including entering everyone who gets the shot into lotteries to win monetary prizes. Intuitively this seems like a great idea—but several studies, including a pre-registered experiment in Philadelphia and comparisons across US states offering different incentives, have found little evidence that financial incentives are effective.

What does seem to increase intentions to get the shot among Republicans (who have substantially lower rates of vaccination in the United States than Democrats) are identity-based signals—namely endorsements of vaccines from leaders of their group, including Trump.


Early reviews

Early reviews of ‘The Power of Us’ are rolling in now—and we are thrilled to hear that people are enjoying it!


The Power of Us available for preorder