Monday, July 2, 2018

Societal Influence

If one thinks that he is not influenced by his environment - he should think again....


I started studying the science of social influence—the way others affect our behavior—by biking around Palo Alto, California, looking for BMWs. Palo Alto is one of the world’s most expensive places to live. Stock options and IPOs have fattened the pockets of many residents and have also pushed up everything from housing prices to private school tuition. Ferrari and Maserati have dealerships nearby; lunch at one of the high-end restaurants can run close to $200 per
person. There was no surefire way to know where to find BMW's, so I slowly biked up and down different streets, scanning cars for the telltale shape and logo. Then, at each corner, I would stop and try to guess which direction had the best chance of success. Dentist’s office to the left? Dentists tend to drive nice cars, so why not do a quick loop of the parking lot. High-end grocery store to the right? Worth a shot. Every time I found a BMW, I reached into my messenger bag, pulled out a piece of paper, and gingerly tucked it under one of the windshield wipers. These weren’t coupons for body shops or advertisements for auto detailing. We weren’t selling anything at all. Instead, Princeton professor Emily Pronin and I were interested in how different factors influenced car buying. Which factors people thought influenced their own car purchase decision and how much those same factors played a role in someone else’s BMW purchase. In addition to standard factors like price, gas mileage, and reliability, the survey also asked about more social influences. Did their friends’ opinions affect their decision? What about whether the car was associated with cool or high-status people? Each respondent answered the set of questions twice: once for themselves, and once for another person they knew who also drove a BMW. How much was that other person’s BMW purchase influenced by things like price and gas mileage? Whether cool or high-status people drove something similar? After biking around in circles most of the day, I had left surveys on more than a hundred BMWs. Each with a self-addressed envelope for people to mail their responses back. And then, I waited.

The first day the mailman couldn’t come fast enough. But when I opened the mailbox, all that was inside was disappointment. Just a bunch of random coupons and a furniture company catalog. No one had returned the survey. The next day my optimism was tempered with caution. I sauntered by the mailbox and peeked inside. Still nothing. Now I was starting to get worried. Had people ignored the survey? Maybe the envelopes had blown away? By the third day a feeling of dread accompanied the mail. If there were still no responses, I’d have to go out and find new BMWs (or we’d have to come up with a different approach). But finally, way in the back of the mailbox was the answer I’d been waiting for. One of the small, white envelopes that I had placed on a car windshield a couple days before. The next day there were a few more responses. And a bunch more the day after that. We were in business.

We took the responses and compared people’s perceptions of themselves with their perceptions of others. What influenced their BMW purchase versus what influenced someone else’s BMW purchase. Many things were relatively similar. Not surprisingly, people thought factors like price and gas mileage mattered a lot, and they were equally important for both themselves and others. Price had a big impact on their own BMW purchase, and they thought it had a similarly large impact on whether another person had bought a BMW as well. But when it came to assessing the impact of social influence, things changed. It wasn’t that people didn’t think social influence mattered. They did. They were keenly aware that car-buying decisions were affected by what friends thought and whether cool or high-status people drove the car. In fact, they readily acknowledged that social influence had a big impact on what cars people buy. Except when those “people” were themselves. When they considered someone else’s BMW purchase, the effect of social influence was obvious. They could easily recognize that someone’s tastes shifted based on what their friends thought or the pressure to fit in. But when it came to turn that same microscope on their own BMW purchase, poof! Social influence vanished. They saw no evidence of it. When they held up a mirror to their own actions, they didn’t think social influence had any effect.

And it wasn’t just cars. Other situations show the same asymmetry. Whether buying clothes, voting on political issues, or driving courteously, people recognized that social influence had an impact. Except when it came to them. People could see social influence affecting others’ behavior, but not their own. One possible explanation is social desirability. Maybe people don’t think they’re influenced by others because being influenced is a bad thing. Society tells us to be ourselves and live above the influence—to avoid being a lemming and going with the herd. If being influenced is bad, maybe people don’t think they are swayed be- cause they don’t want to see themselves in a negative light. But it isn’t that simple. Even when being influenced was a good thing, people still didn’t think it affected them.
[Invisible Influence pages 9-10] 

Rambam Hilchos Deyos 6/1:

It is natural for a man's character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. Therefore, he should associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds. Conversely, he should keep away from the wicked who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their deeds.

This is [implied by] Solomon's statement (Proverbs 13:20): "He who walks with the wise will become wise, while one who associates with fools will suffer." Similarly, [Psalms 1:1] states: "Happy is the man who has not followed the advice of the wicked."

A person who lives in a place where the norms of behavior are evil and the inhabitants do not follow the straight path should move to a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of the good.

If all the places with which he is familiar and of which he hears reports follow improper paths, as in our times, or if he is unable to move to a place where the patterns of behavior are proper, because of [the presence of] bands of raiding troops, or for health reasons, he should remain alone in seclusion as [Eichah 3:28] states: "Let him sit alone and be silent."

If they are wicked and sinful and do not allow him to reside there unless he mingle with them and follow their evil behavior, he should go out to caves, thickets, and deserts [rather than] follow the paths of sinners as [Jeremiah 9:1] states: "Who will give me a lodging place for wayfarers, in the desert."