Behavioral Book Breakdown: “Invisible Influence”

Carrying these posts over from my personal site, as I believe that behavioral science can have a great impact on the public sector, especially given the relative lack of funding. Behavioral science can generate low-cost solutions to entrenched problems, and so I’ll occasionally describe books I’ve read on the subject.

Year: 2016

Author: Jonah Berger

Whereas “The Power of Habit” was the first behavioral book I sunk my teeth into (or, fitting for the subject, sunk its teeth into me), “Invisible Influence” is one of the more recent I’ve come across, looking around for a book to chew over on my commutes to and from work and finding it pleasant, if a bit short. It’s 232 pages, but a lot of those pages are cut in half by titles and such. It’s written by a marketing professor, and many (most) of the examples used are from real-life business decisions and other such accessible subjects. I complained about it being slight, but on the other hand, accessible though it may be, something like “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (which I’ll get to in this series, eventually) is nearly 500 pages of dense (though engaging) writing, and you and I both know that most people don’t bother with that sort of thing. And even if they do bother, they skim, or give up.

So there is a place and a purpose for a slimmer tome.

Berger’s argument is essentially that we must not deny the fact that our behavior is rarely something we fully choose for ourselves, much as we headstrong Americans like to think we’re independent. Of course, one of the principles of behavioral science is the fact that we tend to deny or ignore facts that don’t fit our worldview, so, paradoxically, the people who most need to hear this sort of thing would have the hardest time accepting it.

Some of the fun examples here include the fact that many successful athletes have older siblings (that they wanted to keep up with and then, eventually, defeated), why expensive products have barely visible logos, why running with people slightly faster than you can improve your own speed, and, sadly but importantly, why many black students have their academic achievement impacted by the spectre of “acting white.”

It’s essentially a series of vignettes – there’s a lot of Gladwell in it – but plenty of the real data to back it up. And, hilariously, it uses examples from my own eating club in college, Terrace, and how people can tell we belonged to the club by what we wore.

It’s not the “I’m trying to make this dense subject palatable” hard-hitting work of a “Power of Habit” or a “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” It’s more like tying together narratives that appear disparate but aren’t. And I think one thing that fascinates me about this topics is that it can be both a science that needs to be made accessible AND a bridge that brings groups of stories together.

Berger also usefully concludes each section with ways that the various stories and studies he has just mentioned can be used. This is a key, and it’s one thing that’s similar to “The Power of Habit.” None of this stuff is valuable if we can’t take it and use it.

And that’s my goal here, to encourage you to go out, learn more, and use it. It’s interesting and fun and all, but ultimately, if it’s not practicable, it’s pointless.