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The Invisible Puppet Masters: How social influence and self-serving bias rule us all

Published 18 days ago • 8 min read

No matter how much of a free thinker you believe yourself to be, the people around you heavily influence you—even if you aren't aware of this influence. Humans don't exist in a vacuum. Unless you live "off the grid," in which case you wouldn't even be reading this, this also applies to you.

Social influence is a powerful, often invisible force that shapes our behaviors, decisions, and perceptions in countless ways, even though we tend to underestimate its impact on ourselves. Each member of that community influences the other members of that community.

People often see susceptibility to group influence in a negative light and as something to avoid, but this isn’t always the case.

Influence, by itself, is amoral. Negative influences get all the hype, but people often become better when surrounded by people pursuing constructive goals and living a positive lifestyle.

In the "Moving to Opportunity" (MTO) experiment conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the 1990s, researchers randomly assigned low-income families living in public housing projects in five U.S. cities to one of three groups:

  1. The experimental group. They received housing vouchers that could only be used to move to low-poverty neighborhoods.
  2. The Section 8 group. They received traditional housing vouchers without geographical restrictions. For the ghetto uninitiated, Section 8 housing is effectively the same thing as public housing (a.k.a. “The Projects). There are slight differences, but they’re beyond the point of this post. I just wanted to throw this in there so no one tried to revoke my street cred.
  3. The control group. They did not receive any vouchers.

The researchers followed the families to assess the impact of moving to a better neighborhood on various outcomes, including children's educational attainment.

The results showed that children who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods before the age of 13 experienced significant improvements in their academic performance and long-term outcomes compared to those who remained in high-poverty neighborhoods. Specifically:

  • They were more likely to attend college and attend better colleges.
  • They had higher earnings and lower rates of single parenthood as adults.
  • They were less likely to experience poverty and receive public assistance as adults.

If you put children in a better environment, they tend to do better. On the flip side, a former inmate once told me that "prison is like a finishing school for criminals." As a Twitter user Stephanos said of prison:

“American prison is a punishment system, not a reforming one. You come out worse and less prepared with a wrap sheet, the wrong type of connections, and a distaste for the system.

A criminal is a better criminal now.”

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In these cases, the influence feels obvious and is indisputable. No one doubts that the younger you are when your environment changes, the more significant the change that environment will have on you. Also, most people are aware that prisons are primarily punitive. Almost no reformation occurs, mainly because of the behaviors needed to survive in prison—but also because if you put criminals around other criminals and treat them like criminals, you'll just end up with more criminals.

However, adults are subject to the power of influence in this way and often aren’t even aware of it.

Self-Serving Bias: You’re like everyone else—especially when you believe you’re different

In the introduction of Jonah Berger’s Invisible Influence, he tells the story of a research study he and his colleague Emily Pronin conducted on over a hundred parked BMW owners in Palo Alto, California. The surveys asked BMW owners about the practical and social factors that influenced their car purchase decision, such as price, gas mileage, friends' opinions, and whether they associated the car with high-status individuals.

Notably, respondents completed the survey twice - once for their car purchase decision and once for a friend or acquaintance who also owned a BMW.

When the results came in, there was a clear asymmetry: BMW owners readily acknowledged that social factors like the opinions of friends and the car's associations with high status affected other people's decisions to purchase a BMW. However, regarding their purchase decision, they believed they were unaffected by social influence.

Not only do we not believe our environment influences our decisions, but we also think everyone else is influenced by their surroundings. Of course, we believe ourselves to be the exception.

Self-serving bias, the tendency to see ourselves as immune to the same influences and attitudes of our peers, occurs when someone distorts or misinterprets reality to preserve their image. While this reality distortion is not always negative—as it can help people "fake it till they make it" and push through initial challenges when taking on new tasks—it can also lead to problematic behavior. Leaders, for example, may find self-serving bias helpful in projecting confidence during difficult times. Still, this same bias can blind individuals to the insidious influences that shape their actions without their awareness.

Everyone thinks they're good. At the very least, few people will admit to harboring dark and twisted thoughts. Most of the same people who believe they are good also think that everyone else is bad. Several studies, surveys, and experiments have demonstrated that this perception is an error and the resulting harm from this lack of self-awareness.

The person who tells everyone they’re brave is most likely a coward

One such study, conducted by Bocchiaro, Zimbardo, and Van Lange in 2012, illustrates the dangerous blind spots that self-serving bias can create. In this study, researchers asked participants about their likelihood of conforming to authority or obeying unethical orders compared to others. Most believed they were less likely than the average person to comply with such directives.

However, when an authority figure instructed these same participants to perform unethical actions (in this case, a type of sensory deprivation), they conformed and obeyed.

The study title is "To defy or not to defy: An experimental study of the dynamics of disobedience and whistle-blowing." When surveyed before the experiment, only 4% of participants believed they would comply with an unethical request that would cause harm. However, when the researchers made the unethical request, 77% of the participants obeyed.

Of the remaining 23%, 14% refused, and only 9% chose to report anonymously. These rates were strikingly similar to those observed in the notorious Milgram obedience experiments.

In Milgram obedience experiments, a high proportion of people were willing to administer what they thought were dangerous electric shocks to another person when ordered to do so by someone in a position of authority.

Spend enough time around crackheads, and eventually you'll smoke crack

The Bocchiaro and Milgram studies demonstrate how self-serving bias can lead individuals to overestimate their moral fortitude and underestimate their susceptibility to negative social influence. When people believe they are inherently good and resistant to external pressures, they become less vigilant in guarding against negative influences. A lowered guard leads to them failing to recognize when others subtly influence or manipulate them to engage in questionable behavior.

Furthermore, self-serving bias may cause people to be less discerning about the social environments and influences they expose themselves to. Suppose you believe you are immune to the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of those around you.

You'll be less cautious about the media you consume, the people you associate with, or the situations you place yourself in. However, social psychology research consistently shows that we are all highly susceptible to "catching" the outlooks and actions of our social surroundings, often without even realizing it.

Self-serving bias can also lead individuals to more readily conform to unethical practices in group or organizational contexts. As they consider themselves good and moral, they may assume it must be acceptable if they are going along with something. Instead of questioning the ethicality of their actions, they mistakenly trust their moral compass, failing to realize that their circumstances have miscalibrated it. This misplaced trust is then supported and amplified by the actions of those around them who are doing the same thing.

Groupthink drives mob mentality

Groupthink occurs when a group's desire for harmony and conformity leads to dysfunctional decision-making processes. In groupthink situations, individuals may suppress dissenting opinions and prioritize group consensus over critical thinking.

Solomon Asch investigated how social pressure from a majority can influence individuals to conform. Researchers asked participants to match the length of a given line with one of three other lines. In the control group, participants chose the correct answer 99% of the time. However, when placed in a group with confederates who purposefully gave the wrong answer, around 75% of participants conformed to the group's incorrect answer at least once.

Conformity to the prevailing opinion often results in poor decisions and a failure to consider alternative perspectives. Groupthink is related to the Asch conformity experiments, which demonstrate how individuals can be swayed by majority opinion, even when that opinion is incorrect. So far, we've discussed experiments that show people's willingness to commit atrocities, but what does this look like in reality?

Groupthink + Self-serving bias = Atrocity

In Nazi Germany, groupthink led many people to conform to the dominant ideology and social norms, even if they did not fully support the Nazi party. Nazi activists used intimidation to enforce social and cultural norms, infecting many people with mob mentality.

While it is comforting to believe "I would never go along with that," the reality is that in an environment of such extreme fear, propaganda, deprivation, and polarization, the vast majority of people did exactly that.

Self-serving bias causes us to dramatically overestimate our immunity to social influence. We imagine ourselves as rational, self-directed heroes, but we fail to appreciate how malleable we really are. The bystanders and "desk murderers" of the Holocaust were ordinary people, not monsters. We are doomed to repeat past mistakes if we don't acknowledge our human susceptibility to group dynamics.

We see this happening today with the virulent politically driven polarization occurring in the United States and worldwide. Everyone believes they are rational and open-minded and that other people are extremists. I used to think this was lip service to avoid the truth, but based on everything I've discussed here, I now genuinely believe that everyone thinks everyone else is the bad guy.

Zachary Elwood has written a fantastic, easy-to-read book that breaks down polarization in America and offers many ways to solve this problem. Check out “How Contempt Destroys Democracy” if you want to build a saner future.

If you're not part of their group, you're the enemy, and you are wrong. Even if you didn't initially believe the other side was that bad, you eventually take up your side's positions to avoid being labeled as the enemy.

Once you see them as the enemy and your self-serving bias makes you feel morally superior, you're capable of the worst behavior toward them. Dehumanization leads to degradation, leading to a fight in which both sides believe they are right, but logically and morally.

Whether you’re a new or veteran reader here, you made it to the end. I’d love it if you shared.

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