Decision-making: how to (avoid) influence (from) others

Yinghui Liang
10 min readNov 20, 2023
Photo by Steve Gale on Unsplash

This is the third story in a series on decision-making, from psychological, economic and organisational perspectives. You may also be interested in my previous story on cognitive process and motivational process on decision-making.

Summary: in this story, I discuss different ways that others pose influences on our thinking and behaviours, particularly from the perspective of the ubiquitous virtual influences. I share my views on the rising influencer occupation and my concerns about unsolicited influences from a world of strangers.

Here is, again, my plan for the whole series on how we make decisions. This third story will cover influence of others in psychological influences on individual decision-making.

Image by Author

Psychological influences come in two directions: internal and external. Internally, we are subject to our own cognitive process and motivational process. Externally, we are often swayed by other individuals, our own groups and other groups.

Overview of Psychological Influences on Individual Decision-making. Image by Author.

Influence of Other Individuals

Have you thought about how many of your decisions are indeed your own? Like the university you went — did you want go or your parents did? Or the bag you carry — do you really admire its design with that price tag or because your friends do?

We are constantly under the influence of other individuals, whether we are aware of it or not. At the same time, we often find ways to exert influences on others towards our will. In general, there are four ways to influence others: we persuade them (persuasion), we request them (compliance), we force them (obedience) and we manipulate them (power).

Ways of influences. Image by Author.

Persuasion is probably the most common tactic to influence others. We do so by presenting arguments and information in order to provoke attitude, belief and behaviour change.

Advertisement and TV commercials are typical ways of persuasion. They do so by presenting a persuasive message, answering the question of : Who, What, Whom and How. This is the message-learning approach. Oftentimes, the better we construct our arguments, the more persuasive our message could be.

Who: the source of the message is a crucial reference point. How credible, popular or famous of the source has direct consequence on attitude change. Not surprise, hun?

"Number 1 dentists recommended brand for sensitive teeth!" Does this sound familiar? The statement that "dentists" recommend this brand has an assuring effect on you (or maybe just me?!). You instantly think this message is more credible than it actually is. In fact, you don't even care who these "dentists" are. Another obvious example is brand spokesperson. Celebrities are often paid to leverage their popularity and fame to promote brands and softly persuade purchases. We all know this and we are willing to fall.

What: the actual argument or information in the message. Nowadays, the argument is much more versatile in forms than it was before. Direct and strong persuasion argument, like "Buy X to make your life easier!" is kind of out of fashion. Our brain will easily filter it out as this kind of argument does not stand out in a world of information overload. Subtle and embedded argument manifested in a lifestyle choice is more of the way to go now.

Think how successful Apple is. The brand is a textbook case study for MBA courses, I would say. The lifestyle it represents, the clean and subtle ads form it presents and the influencers it affiliates with, all align with its core branding image. The consistency it provides and the effect it has on consumers' personal identity is irresistible for many.

Whom: your target audience or the individuals that you are trying to persuade. It goes without saying that knowing your audience is key to your persuasive endeavour.

Be it consumers, bosses or your friends, knowing their attitudes and preferences helps you to persuade them. I know my parents care about health as most senior people do, so whenever I want to change their behaviours, I try to link that to some health-related aspects. :)

How: the way or form you persuade, matters. Engaging videos are often used now to persuade as they are more effective in arousing our senses. Written messages are usually used to persuade serious or difficult matters, e.g., policy changes. However, a combination of various forms is common.

Another approach to persuade focuses on the cognitive response (i.e., emotion). The cognitive response approach states that people's emotion response towards the message matters more than how the message is constructed. The idea is that our emotion may be triggered by the message, but the message itself does not produce behaviour change. We change our behaviour because the way we feel about it. The message-learning approach and cognitive response approach tackle persuasion from two angles — the influencer and the influence-e. Obviously, knowing the potential emotion responses to your message is crucial. You may even wish to tailor the message to evoke positive emotion responses. Oftentimes, cognitive responses predicts very well of attitude change and decision making.

Online reviews are a great way to get to know negative cognitive response about your products. People often make the effort to leave reviews when they are disappointed and want to vent. These public negative reviews will have a bad influence on other consumers' purchase intention. That's why fake positive reviews are available for a price. When we see two-sided messages, we are less likely to change our attitudes. As a consumer, when I want to buy something, I usually have good feeling about it already. Thus, I tend to look for confirming evidence from other users to validate my belief. I really try to resist this now, and I do so by looking through negative comments to disconfirm belief and try to objectively evaluate it. (No more spontaneous purchase!)

Compliance is when we agree to a direct request. We often comply without much thoughts.

"Please donate to XYZ to support your community." — I don't even care what XYZ does but I donated.

"Please do not sit on the grass." — what do we need it for?

"Please do not bring your dogs into the park." — I hate this sign but I couldn't resist to comply!

The reciprocity norm is a common compliance tactic in our societies, especially in our Asian societies (Oh yes). The kind of social etiquette that once someone helps you, you feel like "you own them" and there is an urge to return the favour in the future.

You like free samples? how about free tastings of food and drinks? I know I do and I tend to fall into the trap of marketers. By receiving freebies, my reciprocity norm is activated. The more freebies I get, the more inclined I feel to return the favour by purchasing the product. yikes!

Another way to induce compliance is commitment-and-consistency principle. It is a mouthful but we've all been there. It means that we can get someone to commit to a small request to induce their need for consistency, leading to their similar response in the future.

You never care about green actions but you agree to chair the green committee of your company. All of a sudden you are advocating green actions in the office — don't print unless you need to, support paper cup removal … you develop a new identity as a green person and care about the environment as soon as you agree to join the green committee. What's more, you are now motivated to remain consistent.

We are often easy to comply when we are facing a scarcity situation.

"Limited weekend special prices!" Limited goods, versions or releases always get me. I lose my sanity to the word "limited". One the one hand, it creates a certain urgency to purchase due to short availability; on the other hand, it conveys the idea that the product is of superior quality via limiting its supply. I constantly fall prey to "limited"! Everything looks better with the "limited" tag...

Obedience occurs when someone obeys a direct command. The command is often from persons with authority. Obedience is different from compliance in that the latter responds to a request willingly.

We are more likely to obey when we face an authoritarian figure. Authority can be from some sort of status (e.g., title, position), wearing a uniform (e.g., lab coat), or a setting (e.g., governmental buildings, police station). Our parents are probably our first authoritarian figures. In patriarchal societies, father figures extend beyond families into heads of organisations. That's why we often nod to our CEOs, rarely challenging the new policies even if we did not agree with them; we always trust "experts" in white coat, even if they appear in commercials.

Born and raised in patriarchal Chinese culture, I have always admired people who speak out bravely what they think, no matter who they confront with. I envy their "rebellion". I was not such a figure. I recalled one typical comment in my primary school reports was "聽話". This word literally translates as "obedient" or "well-behaved". My parents were proud. Being obedient is positively reinforced in a patriarchal society.

As I grew up and left home at a young age, I started to meet disobedient models — people who challenge authoritarian figures and don't give a shit about what others think. They showed me that authoritarian figures were often socially and institutionally made. Thus, one should resist voluntary obedience. This revelation has changed how I study and work ever since. In fact, as I observed, a true authority in a field almost always invites challenges from others. They enjoy a good discussion that brings in new ideas or uncovers their blind spots. Authority figures possess huge power in all aspects of our societies.

Power is the ability to influence others.

Influencer is a new occupation that is born out of power to influence and is paid by the extent to which he or she turns influencing into spending.

Coercion — influencing via punishment, is a classic type of power which is basically what I discussed in previous obedience section. Reward is the opposition of coercion. You make people do something by promising them a reward. Sounds pretty good?

Some people can exert power on others simply by being who they are. hun? Royals! They not only influence holiday merchandise but also fashion. Look how many people comment on Kate Middleton's handbag, which sells out right away. Royals are legitimate influencers in some sense.

When I was in primary school, kids fill in doctors, engineers and teachers in "what do you want to be when you grow up?". Nowadays, it is influencer, youtuber and esports player. Pardon me for that I struggle to understand esports…

Influencer is often seen as a referent to a certain lifestyle, a luxury brand or a beauty trend. I guess, the glamorous aspect, the fame, the online presence, the pay (obviously) and the self-expression, make it an appealing profession for younger generation these days. It definitely takes a lot of hard work and talent to be a successful and resilient influencer. I myself follow influencers who I deem responsible and honest, on social medias. I hope the society can have more open discussion on this occupation and aspiring influencers should know how to harness the influential power in their posts and videos.

Experts — real or not, are often afforded power as they are regarded highly knowledgable in a certain field. However, I have become rather suspicious about experts. I doubt there are people who can really be highly knowledgable in a field unless that field never changes or the experts could constantly catch up with every change. The fact is that like authoritarian figures, experts are often socially made. I guess sometimes, we humans need a figure to tell us what to do, so that we feel an endorsed certainty. Be the expert for yourself!

One or two decades ago, influences of other individuals mainly come from the real-life social circles that we are in. Parents know who to blame for if their kids misbehave, thus banning the kids from hanging out with those "bad influences". Nowadays, the virtual circle your kids in is at a global scale. Some high-school chemistry teacher could be teaching meth making on youtube, while random celebrities could "accidentally" release a "private" sex tape. The threat is real. As an adult, I am constantly fighting influences from recommendation systems, i.e., adorable fun puppy videos that I spent way too much time binge-scrolling.

I don’t know how to be a kid these days — the world is more real virtually, isn’t it? You study virtually; you socialise virtually; you play virtually.

If silly adorable fun puppy videos were all your kids watching, you should be happy and reward them with more screen time (please don't!). I guess, the pressing question is:

How do we resist influences from a world of strangers?

It seems to me it's unavoidable. Resistance is useless unless you can detach completely from the internet and live a web-free life. I know some people do this and I envy them. For one, I cannot live without the internet (not because of the adorable fun puppy videos! Though they matter...). While I choose to benefit from the internet, I have to bear with its drawbacks. For this, I think a sensible way to "resist" is to train your mind to tell what is good from what is bad. Lame, right? Isn't this what education systems have been for? Schools and universities will educate our younger generations to think critically, won't they? I am not sure our current education systems could live up for this mission though they should; however, I do think the responsibilities lie on parents to set examples, on our governments to regulate, and mostly, on ourselves — to relentless self-educate.

References:

American Psychological Association PsycLearn: https://digitallearning.apa.org/psyc-learn

--

--

Yinghui Liang

Aspiring management researcher. Previously auction and wine industry veteran. Programming language: Python, R, SQL, C