Applying (and Resisting) Peer Influence

Awareness of peer influence helps managers orchestrate the actions of others — and interpret their own behaviors.

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If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too? In many ways, it’s a ridiculous question. People don’t follow one another, lemming-like, off cliffs. Moreover, although teenagers may be notorious for mimicking whatever their peers seem to be saying, doing or wearing, intelligent adults don’t do something simply because others are. Or do they?

Scholars of various kinds have long documented the degree to which people are influenced by similar others,1 and social commentators have recently registered this phenomenon as well. For instance,Time magazine recently bestowed its coveted “Person of the Year” designation on an unsuspecting winner — us! In defense of the selection, theTime editors chronicled the extent to which consumers are abandoning traditional expert sources in favor of the perspectives of their peers. And because of the vast reach of the Internet, the range of “one anothers” now available is unprecedented. As a consequence, bloggers have become fonts of political wisdom; user groups dispense insights on everything from tea to technology; scholarship is entrusted to next-door-neighborWikipedia contributors; book sales are heavily influenced by customers’ reviews; and the dominant restaurant guide in the United States — theZagat Survey — recruits its raters exclusively from the ranks of nonprofessional critics.

Given all that, it’s surprising how little business executives take note of the potency of peer influence at two crucial (and often-encountered) times: when, as tacticians, they seek to influence the actions of others, and when, as observers, they attempt to interpret the causes of their own actions. A close examination of these two failings reveals a number of ways in which they hamper effective managerial decision making.

Influencing the Actions of Others

Savvy managers are aware of how people can be affected by the actions of similar others, but even they can fail to appreciate the full power of peer influence or to anticipate its unintended consequences. Such mistakes can be costly. Consider the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which loses more than a ton of petrified wood each month because of theft. In hopes of preventing the vandalism, the park has instituted a deterrence program in which prominently placed signs make visitors aware of past thievery: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.&



1. R.B. Cialdini, R.R. Reno and C.A. Kallgren, “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: Recycling the Concept of Norms to Reduce Littering in Public Places,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, no. 6 (1990): 1015–1026; L. Festinger, “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes,” Human Relations 7 (1954): 117–140; G. Le Bon, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” (New York: Viking Press, 1960), translation of his “Psychologie des Foules” (Paris, 1895); C. MacKay, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (New York: Harmony Books, 1980), originally “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions” (London, 1841); S. Milgram, L. Bickman and L. Berkowitz, “Note On the Drawing Power of Crowds of Different Size,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 13, no. 2 (1969): 79–82; and M. Sherif, “The Psychology of Social Norms” (New York: Harper, 1936).

2. R.B. Cialdini, “Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12, no. 4 (2003): 105–109.

3. D.M. Kahan, “Social Influence, Social Meaning, and Deterrence,” Virginia Law Review 83, no. 2 (1997): 349–395.

4. Cialdini, “Crafting Normative Messages.”

5. L.T. Cullen, “Take Your Planet to Work,” Time (June 18, 2007): 53–55.

6. N.J. Goldstein and R.B. Cialdini, “Using Social Norms As a Lever of Social Influence,” in “The Science of Social Influence: Advances and Future Progress,” ed. A. Pratkanis (Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2007), 167–192.

7. According to data from the Project Planet Corporation, which manufactures these types of cards, nearly three-quarters of guests who are informed about a hotel’s reuse program comply at least once during their stay.

8. N.J. Goldstein, R.B. Cialdini and V. Griskevicius, “A Room With a Viewpoint: Using Normative Appeals to Motivate Environmental Conservation Behaviors,” manuscript submitted for publication, 2007.

9. D. Dauten, “How to Be a Good Waiter, and Other Innovative Ideas,” Arizona Republic, July 22, 2004, D3.

10. B. Kiviat, “Word on the Street,” Time (April 23, 2007): 164.

11. MacKay, “Popular Delusions.”

12. R.E. Nisbett and T.D. Wilson, “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Report on Mental Processes,” Psychological Review 84, no. 3 (1977): 231–259.

13. J. Nolan, P.W. Schultz, R.B. Cialdini, N.J. Goldstein and V. Griskevicius, “The Underdetected Influence of Normative Feedback,” manuscript submitted for publication, 2007.

14. V. Griskevicius, N.J. Goldstein, C.R. Mortensen, R.B. Cialdini and D.T. Kenrick, “Going Along Versus Going Alone: When Fundamental Motives Facilitate Strategic (Non)Conformity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91, no. 2 (2006): 281–294.

15. G. Farrell, “CEO Posted Anonymous Comments About His Firm,” USA Today, July 12, 2007, sec. B, p. 2.

16. R.B. Cialdini, P.K. Petrova, and N.J. Goldstein, “The Hidden Costs of Organizational Dishonesty,” MIT Sloan Management Review 45, no. 3 (2004): 66–73.

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