• The Psychology of Influence

How often do you think your decisions are influenced by people around you?

How often do you make a purchase because someone you know just bought the same thing?

As it turns out, the correct answer is “more often than you think”.

As human beings (and as consumers in a business context) we like to think that we are all unique and independent from one another. We are intelligent creatures who can synthesize information and come to an independent decision at the end. While this is true, recent studies have been revealing interesting facts about peer influence on decision-making.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you could go back and ‘rerun the world’ and see how things would play out in an alternate universe? Would Bill Clinton still get elected as the president? Would Seinfeld still become the TV sensation that it did? What about Michael Jackson? Would he still become the megastar that he was?

We often think that certain people have the “x-factor”. From the day that they were born they were blessed with qualities that help them become the successful people they are.

And rightfully so.

Bill Clinton, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Jackson and many more people. No matter what their respective domain is, there is something about them. Some quality (or qualities) that they possess. You can’t really put your finger on it but you know it is there.

For now we are unable to actually rerun the world due to technical limitations but Matthew Salganik, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, did the next best thing. He created 8 controlled “worlds” with certain constants and variables in them and hit ‘play’ to see how things would evolve.

Here’s how it was set up.

8 different groups of people (8 different worlds) were give the exact same playlist with the same songs in them. In order to avoid previous biases none of the songs were from well-known popular artists. Just pieces that were compiled from unknown local bands that encompassed a fairly wide range of genres from punk rock to rap to make sure there was something to appeal to each taste. And the researchers made sure that in each group there was a good mix of fans for each genre. It all started from 0 downloads and 0 ratings.  So for all intents and purposes the control groups were virtually the same, except for the people in them.

The experiment was quite simple. A website was designed hosting all of the songs. Participants were asked to browse, listen to and download any song they wanted to. They could see the popularity of a song (how many people liked it and downloaded it) as the data started building up. Song order was shuffled for each listener to ensure that each song received equal attention. More than fourteen thousand people participated.

The objective was to compare the popularity of songs in each world once the experiment was completed. If some people were just born with the x-factor and were destined to be famous and successful, then the comparison chart at the end would have looked somewhat similar.

But it was far from it. Song popularity varied widely from one world to the other. So much so that a song that made the top of the chart in one world was at the bottom of the list in another world. There was no identifiable pattern whatsoever.

When the researchers analyzed the results, they found out that if a song was listened to and/or downloaded by others previously, people tended to listed to that one first. So if by any chance, in one of the worlds, first few listeners were punk-rock lovers who downloaded the punk song, the users after them tended to listen to the same song because of the previous data. When you repeat this trend enough times, the numbers start multiplying and snowballing so rapidly that the punk-rock band dominates the charts in that particular world. The same thing happened in different worlds for different songs. Of course, one person liking or disliking a song is not enough on its own to change someone else’s musical preferences, however it is enough to tip the scales.

Today, especially with e-commerce and product reviews, we can see this trend quite clearly. Most of us, when looking to buy a new product, go online to read about the user reviews to see what others say about it. If the first few users left a great review, we are so much more likely to buy the same product, which could potentially add another 5-star review for it.

A couple of points to explain this trend

The inherent human need for social conformity

No matter how sophisticated we are as a species, we still crave social approval and acceptance by our peers. If a group of people gave their approval for a certain product, we want to be a part of it, not go against it. It is also way for us to justify our decision. “If this many people are liking it, there must be something good about it”.


These days we are bombarded by information. There is an abundance of information coming at us from all directions: the Internet, books, videos, wikis, blogs. There is a constant stream of user generated content. In this information overload, our brains want to simplify things by using shortcuts. So we use other people as shortcuts to filter through information. If a book is more popular on Amazon, we are more likely to take a look at it. We may not necessarily buy it or like it but we are a lot more likely to check it out if it received positive opinions by others.

Alternate Scenarios

By no means does this mean that Bill Clinton would not have been elected the president or Seinfeld would not have become a TV hit if we reran the world. It just means that there is an alternate scenario where the first group of people who have seen Seinfeld absolutely hated it and this strong opinion acted as a shortcut for others so that the show was not even in the consideration set for a large mass of people.

We often underestimate the power of peer influence. When we are asked whether we are influenced by other people’s opinions or actions, we often get offended and say “of course not, I have an ability to make my own decisions”. But the influence may go deeper than we think on a subconscious level that we don’t realize.