How much of our decision making is truly born out of our own deeply held beliefs and values rather than a product of messaging from brands and media or the social influence of our family, friends, and peers? Tyler Meuwissen, Xenium’s Compensation & HR Analyst, joins Brandon Laws in a discussion of Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior by Jonah Berger, in which they delve into several subjects including how we buy products to how we participate in meetings at work.
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Brandon: Welcome back for another episode of the HR for Small Business Podcast, this is your host, Brandon Laws. Today I’ve got Tyler Meuwissen with me. Tyler has been part of the book club at Xenium for – how many years, Tyler?
Tyler: Four, five years.
Brandon: Four or five years! Basically as long as you’ve been at our company?
Tyler: Yeah, as long as I’ve been here!
Brandon: I’ve always appreciated that about you as we talk a lot about books. That’s why I bring you on the podcast. If you’re a first time listener, go back and listen to some books that Tyler and I have discussed. We talked about Grit, How to Say Anything to Anyone, what else?
Brandon: A lot of great books we’ve read as a company and Tyler and I always make a point to share what we’ve learned in the podcast and give the author a little bit of exposure. It’s a lot of fun to be able to talk with you about these books, like what I got from it, what you got from it, and to just share ideas.
So this month in the book club we read a book called Invisible Influence. It’s actually one of the newer books out in psychology—would you say it’s a psychology book?
Tyler: Yeah, I would.
Brandon: So for you HR people out there, I think this book fits in nicely with what you probably like to read.
Invisible Influence is written by Jonah Berger. He wrote the book Contagious which is also a great book. It’s actually more marketing-focused, I think. This book actually has a little bit of a marketing element to it.
Tyler, in your own words, what’s this book about?
Tyler: What I got from it is how subtle influences can affect your day-to-day life, whether it’s personal, professional or whatnot. You may not be aware of them in the moment, but they’re there. They’re invisible.
Brandon: When you mean influence, you’re talking about social influences, right?
Tyler: Sure, yeah!
Brandon: The things that are around your environment, people that you’re around.
Tyler: The things you see or the things that people do that may influence your behaviors to some extent.
Brandon: When I started reading this book, I was like wow, I really underestimated how much my surroundings influence my decision-making. Did you feel like that, too?
Tyler: Oh, yeah. I was thinking about how when I go on iTunes and download music they always have the charts tab so you can see what’s hot right now, what’s the top music. You always find yourself listening to the top songs regardless of whether you know the band or know the artist. Like Oh, that’s good. That’s good. I’m going to download that one.
Brandon: Isn’t it interesting? In part of this book – I don’t think Jonah Berger did the study himself – but professors started doing a study where they would basically start with a music library, probably unknown artists is my guess. They did a test with one group and then another, and with one group, whoever started first and was able to rate the music first, people who came later and saw that some pop songs versus the rap songs were more popular – and it was probably identified using the little rating bars that iTunes, Amazon Music, services like those use to show the popularity. And so people who came later after those decisions were already made and the ratings were already made, they would come and just go right to the popular ones and just start there.
Brandon: So they showed that social influence is everything.
Tyler: It is, it is. Exactly, yeah. You see what other people are doing, joining, and downloading and you’re like, ok, that must be good then because they’re all downloading it.
Brandon: They retested this to make sure that they didn’t just draw conclusions based on one example. They did it again and in one case, pop music may have been popular where rap wasn’t, and they have the exact same library. Then somebody who went first chose rap and then rap became the most popular in the second study.
So that goes to show that people take shortcuts based on the popularity of that specific group and then they just kind of follow.
Tyler: What’s convenient? What’s easy? I mean for someone listening to music, I can go through the whole top 100 and listen to every song or I can just see whether people are downloading and figure that that must be the best song to get. So I’m just going to cut all that time and save me some time and energy and just listen to the top choices.
Brandon: I find it fascinating because on one side, it’s a filter. You’re cutting through time where you would spend like sifting through the best songs or in some cases political candidates or certain decisions you’ve got to make in business and these social influences, although subtle, help you filter through and make a decision faster, what to buy or whatever. But on the other side, there’s not a lot of critical thinking that’s happening.
Brandon: Do you see any downsides or positives to any of this?
Tyler: Well, sure. I mean you might be succumbing to the groupthink ideology where I’m just going to believe what everybody else is believing. I keep seeing this a lot with news outlets and everything where people aren’t doing their due diligence and, for themselves, understanding what they like or what they believe or what they value. You become too associated with other people’s views no matter what they are, whether you really truly value those views or whatnot. You could succumb to that groupthink mentality. So there’s a downside, a slippery slope to that.
Brandon: I think I told this story in the book club discussion, and this isn’t in the book, but it just reminded me of it. When you’re on Facebook and just kind of searching through stuff, you see a picture, a meme, a video and you just kind of get sucked in.
Well, one of these nights, I got sucked in and I watched this particular video I’ll describe. It’s a study of some sort where these people were in a doctor’s office and there was one person who was apparently the focal point of the study. So there were a bunch of people who were in on it, in the study. They knew and were aware. And one person was coming to the doctor’s office wasn’t aware of what was happening. She just thought she was going there, waiting for a doctor’s appointment.
Every five minutes, this ding would happen and then the whole group of people would just stand up. Not say anything, they would just stand up every time a ding would happen. This woman who wasn’t aware, she was looking around like, What’s going on?
After a couple of dings, and people standing up, she started doing it too! So she became part of that group. She had no idea why she was doing it, she didn’t ask the question, but she was doing it because the group was.
Sooner or later, these people started filtering back into the doctor’s office. She eventually became the last person there. Empty office, just her. The ding happened and she does it again by herself! Then another person who, like her, wasn’t aware of what was going on comes in and then hears the ding. She stands up and this guy is like looking at her like What are you doing? But they weren’t even talking. This silent decision-making was unfolding and then a couple of dings later, he stands up too and that was kind of end of the video segment. But it was just funny because a group may make decisions, somebody becomes part of that group, and maybe the group has kind of moved on and she has kept up with the norms without even asking why we do it this way. That’s groupthink right there.
Brandon: It can be dangerous, but there’s this easiness of, the group has always done it this way, so it’s easy for somebody to come into a group and develop the norms of the group.
Tyler: It’s a big proponent of company culture, you know. The company has been operating in a certain way, that may be outdated or antiquated. The employees are conditioned to this one way of life, not having any of that devil’s advocate of Why are we doing this? Should we be doing something different? It’s very interesting to see the conditioning response, very Pavlovian.
Brandon: With groupthink, are there ways to play the devil’s advocate? Are there intentional things that you can do to make sure that you’re always thinking of the other side even if you know it’s not the right decision? Is there a way to do that?
Tyler: I think what we discussed in the book club too, which I thought was kind of an interesting point, was to say outwardly, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. It may be too forthright but it’s good to say, Ok, well, let’s think the opposite side. What’s the opposite of what we’re discussing? What are the downsides of this? It’s always good to have both things covered. What are the positives to we’re thinking about? What are the downsides to we’re thinking about?
Brandon: Since we’re on the topic of meetings, I always found it fascinating, this was discussed in the book and I’ve actually noticed it in my own thought process. When you get an opportunity to speak your opinion and you go first, that usually becomes the benchmark and starting point of the conversation. You almost get to mold and shape the way the discussion is going to go because very rarely will people come after you and have a completely different opinion. It won’t veer too far off of whoever went first and I thought that was a really nice observation in the book. I’ve noticed it personally, probably just anecdotally. I don’t think I intentionally think like, I’m going to go first because I want to get my opinion out there first. I think it’s just that the anxiety of going last is frustrating. So I like to just get it out of the way. What do you think about that?
Tyler: I think that is very true. A lot of times people who usually set the tone for meetings are the senior ranking members and so oftentimes when they set the tone, who wants to be dissenting opinion or have a dissenting view point against the leader of the meeting?
So I think it puts people in a position where they don’t want to speak out, they don’t want to be that differing voice, even if they may believe that’s true or not. So it’s good and beneficial and useful to have someone there that says, Ok, you know what? I’m going to go against the grain here, and say what I truly view, and then we can have discussion about that.
Brandon: I think, and this book really talks about it in depth, that when there’s some decision making or times when we just go along with the crowd. Politics was brought up quite a bit in this particular book and a lot of times people just kind of go with their group.
But in other cases, like when you’re talking about brands, if a brand is so focused on the particular audience that they know they’re going after, if somebody who’s not in their group – I think the example was a reality star who didn’t associate really well with a brand, with the way they envisioned it, somebody who they didn’t really want representing their brand had a Coach purse. So I think they paid them to not have the Coach purse. Isn’t that funny? It could be a turnoff for fans of the brand if somebody who you don’t want to associate with is associated with a certain brand, it can actually turn you off. You have this whole new group of people taking over. That is threatening to the group.
Tyler: That really comes about when you have, in that case, a celebrity who’s kind of synonymous with the following that’s so counter to what the brand or the product is. I think you have to have two large followings, brand people or businesses, to really conflict and then you can kind of create some tension. You can create some conflict there and some subversive tactics for your branding. It’s interesting how being associated with a brand can be a good thing and can influence people in a positive way, but can also influence people in a negative way as well.
Brandon: They were talking about music again and they said how when somebody becomes so popular, they become mainstream, if you ask a true fan, they’ll say, Oh, I like the earlier stuff. Because too many people that are mainstream, just different types of people, all of a sudden now started liking their music. I was the first adopter and I just like their earlier stuff because I’m a true fan. I mean that’s so true, right?
Tyler: It is so true, yeah. It can get a little bit, I’ll call it a little bit pretentious. I mean you have this feeling that ok, well, I’m so unique that I don’t want to follow the mainstream. Everybody likes it, they’re popular now, but I was there before they were popular.
Brandon: It would be like me giving up podcasting because I feel like I was there first and now I need to go do something else. I wasn’t there first, but we started in this in 2012 and over the last couple of years, podcasting has become so popular. So I could easily say, Oh man, I’m going to go on to do something else because everybody is doing podcasting now and it’s not cool anymore. That’s the same thing we’re talking about. It’s crazy. But people do act that way. It is funny.
Later on, they were talking about how certain things are so subtly put in your brain. They brought up baby names and that how they are chosen and there’s a coincidence with names that sounded very similar. Talk about that whole chapter on it.
Tyler: They talked about Hurricane Katrina and how it has affected baby names. Katrina was a devastating hurricane and then people didn’t want to name their kids Katrina or they stayed away from similar sounding names because they were so synonymous with this horrific natural disaster. So it’s like ok, these subtle things push you and influence the way you name your child, even. It’s very interesting to see how people react and subtle circumstances. You may love that name, Katrina, but it’s forever tainted now.
Brandon: They didn’t want to name their kids Katrina, but I think then they were saying – there was a crazy amount of K names. So even though there was a negative connotation with Katrina, people generally didn’t choose that name, even though it was a popular name in the 90s, 80s. People stopped naming their kids Katrina but they started naming them something with K or something that sounded very similar. Even though there’s a negative connotation with Hurricane Katrina, it still had some influence, both positive and negative.
And that’s just one example. You think about all the subtle things that hit us on a regular basis from advertising to people in our office, to our family and our friends. These things are said all the time. They have to have an influence on us.
Tyler: I always think of the Inception type of thing where they’re always ingrained in the back of your mind. Like, I saw a negative advertisement associated with this brand that I don’t like, this name, so I’m not going to name my kid that or call someone that. It’s very subtle and can be ingrained so easily, too.
Brandon: In my world of marketing, I see this a lot. Since I’m looking for content, new trends in HR to talk about either on the podcast or to write about or whatever, and if I see all these news outlets or all these HR consultants or firms putting out content that’s HR-related and they’re talking about marijuana in the workplace. You see that enough and you start to say, Wow, that’s like the biggest issue ever! But it may not be a big issue at all. Maybe it is, but I’m just making the point that you see it enough and you start to focus intently on that. You’re avoiding other things but social influence is such a weird thing.
Tyler: It kind of goes into the business environment too with the mass overflow of a certain advertisement or a kind of marketing ploy you want to incorporate. If you put that out enough and keep throwing it at people, pretty soon they’re just like, Ok, well I need to get that product because everybody is talking about it or, like you said, it’s the biggest issue people are talking about right now.
Brandon: Well, no different than a company culture. If you talk about something long enough, you start to believe that it’s the most important thing. I think that’s how you can shape and mold a company culture is you talk about certain things enough or you put enough focus on things and you start to influence the way people talk, the jargon people use. It just becomes part of the vocabulary where you’re always talking about it in meetings. It’s repetition and it starts to influence people’s decision making and behavior. It’s very interesting.
I thought kind of the last chapter was an interesting one because I resonated with this well. It was talking about the social facilitation of performance. Meaning, in a competitive environment perhaps where you’re in the presence of other people or you want to perform better or you just naturally perform better versus when working on your own. What was your take on that whole section?
Tyler: I thought it was fascinating. I think he mentions in the book, too, about how people perform better in groups when they were performing simple or easier tasks
Brandon: That’s the key phrase.
Tyler: That’s the key point there. They performed exceptionally well in the simple, easier tasks. But when it comes to more difficult tasks, in groups they actually performed considerably worse. So it’s interesting to see how social facilitation can influence how people perform and conduct their daily tasks or their work environment tasks.
Brandon: I don’t know if it necessarily said this in the book, but when it comes to the pressure of being in the spotlight, I think if you’re performing basic tasks, to you point, everybody might perform great. If you need to be an expert or an advanced whatever, whether at sports or onstage or whatever you’re doing, I think you need to be an expert or a master at whatever you’re doing in order to perform really well in terms of competition or in front of other people, because otherwise you will perform worse.
Tyler: No one wants to be called out on something that they don’t know well enough. So sure, if something has been ingrained in you for a long time, certain tasks that you’ve done so much in repetition, you can perform those easily and in front of a group and you can show people and demonstrate and teach. But those larger tasks or those more difficult tasks that you don’t really know too much about, that you haven’t really had the time to work through, you don’t want to be doing those in front of people. Otherwise, you’re just going to be making it worse.
Brandon: When you finished this book, what was a couple of takeaways? If there’s one takeaway, what was the thing that you can apply to your own life or even in the workplace?
Tyler: I just think it’s more taking a step back and kind of thinking on your own a little bit and trying to ask, why do I like this certain thing? Why am I doing this certain thing? What is the benefit of this business process? I’m not going to go along with what everybody is saying, I can have a dissenting opinion and still be of value. I think it’s just being aware of what you truly view and value.
Brandon: That’s a key point, and I would mirror that because what you value and what somebody else may value could be drastically different. The social influence thing, to the point in the book, could filter and make decision making a lot faster, especially for things that you don’t value a whole lot. Music buying is absolutely one of those things, like if I’m going to listen to music, I’m going to go right to the top reviews. Or if I’m going to buy a product and there’s a thousand different products that look exactly like it, on Amazon I’m going to look at the five-star reviews and the number of them and I will probably just make that choice.
In fact, I did that the other day. I wanted to buy a skillet and there’s a thousand different options with a thousand different brands. Which one do I buy? Well, I buy the one that has the Amazon choice badge on it with a five-star rating. And it’s a great product. So I think the filtering, the decision-making, the social influence is such a positive because it cuts down on time for things that are not high value. Like, I’m willing to take a $40 risk. If it’s a piece of crap, it’s a piece of crap, and that’s my own bad.
But in other cases where I’m going to go along with the herd from a political standpoint, I’m just going to go along with the candidate just to go along. If I value that and I care about politics, then that’s not the right move. The right move would be to read and understand why people think a certain way. Or even in the workplace, to ask Why do we make this decision? If I care about the outcome, I should ask the questions and not just go along with the groupthink, right?
Tyler: Exactly. I think far too many people don’t ask those questions. Either they’re too scared to raise an opinion or say their viewpoint out loud in a meeting to everybody. That’s the importance of driving a company culture that’s inclusive to everybody’s opinions no matter what they may view.
Brandon: I think another fascinating thing is that some people are just really good at certain things or value it more, they’re really passionate. So naturally if I am not a master in that subject and I’m not going to become a master in that or I’m just not going to like go the extra mile to learn it, if I know somebody that I work with who’s super passionate, they’re smart, they’re capable, and I trust them, I’m going to go along with them.
That’s the other thing in this that I took away, if you know the people around you and if you don’t value it as much or you just don’t have as much of an opinion – I think sometimes going along with the crowd is perfectly ok. I think you just need to weigh those options and be cognizant of it. I think what this book does is it brings things to the surface, it makes you aware, and that way you’re not always just going along with the herd because that can be very scary at times, if you’re not making any decisions for yourself.
Brandon: Cool. What’s your rating for the book?
Tyler: I will give it four stars, four out of five. It was good, I liked it.
Brandon: I will give it a three out of five. I thought it was good, but I felt like it could have been a blog post.
Tyler: It definitely could be condensed, I would definitely agree with you on that. It’s a really well-written book.
Brandon: Yeah, he’s a very smart guy.
Tyler: Very smart guy, it’s easy to read. That’s what I appreciate about it. You’re talking about these subjects of psychology and whatnot. But it didn’t seem like you were reading a textbook. You’re reading someone’s opinions and observations and they’re adding some scientific anecdotes to that too as well. So it was good, I enjoyed it.
Brandon: Awesome. Yeah. So the book was Invisible Influence by Jonah Berger. Go out and get it, it’s good. It’s a very good book. Easy read, 240 pages.
Tyler, thanks for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it as always. We’ll have you back for the next book on maybe another topic that we have coming up.
If you like what you heard today, go back and listen to the other podcasts if you have not listened to them. There are tons of book podcasts that we’ve done with Tyler. And we’re almost at 100 episodes! This is like 94, so we have lots of content out there. There’s a couple that are timely but otherwise, these are topics that you should hear about all the time. So go back and listen to those.
If you’re on iTunes, please give us a review. We would love it, it helps people like you find the podcast by giving us a review and it would really help us out. Whether it’s positive or negative, we just love the feedback, so please do that when you get a chance. Otherwise, you’re welcome to reach out to me on LinkedIn, connect with me. I always love hearing from listeners.
So again, thanks for listening. Tyler, take care buddy.
Tyler: Thank you!