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Why do we often misunderstand our influence over others

Why do we often misunderstand our influence over others

Social psychologist Vanessa Bohns’ work takes a closer look into the psychology of influence, and the many ways we underestimate our own.

“How well do we understand the influence we have over others? Can we tell when another person feels uncomfortable with our request, but feels she can’t say ‘no’? Do we know how much more effective our persuasive appeal is likely to be face-to-face rather than over email? Do we realise when our playful suggestion emboldened someone to engage in a behaviour we didn’t mean to condone?”

These are some of the questions that inform social psychologist, award-winning researcher and teacher, and professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell University, Vanessa Bohns’ body of work. Over the past decade and a half, she has conducted and published numerous surveys and research projects studying influence. In fact, as of 7 September 2021, her first book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, goes on sale.

A 2016 study that she collaborated on with Professor M Mahdi Roghanizad, titled, Ask in Person: You’re Less Persuasive Than You Think Over Email, sought to work the difference in the likelihood of compliance between face-to-face requests and email requests. “Requester” participants in the study, which included a total of 975 students on a university campus, were also asked to predict factors such as how many people they thought would comply with their requests in both face-to-face and email communication instances.

The task at hand was to get strangers to fill in a questionnaire. “To ensure the face-to-face and email conditions were comparable in all respects aside from communication medium, the scripts participants used when making their requests were written to be as similar as possible, while also conveying the same information in the email that would be implicitly conveyed in a face-to-face interaction on campus — namely, that the requester was a student asking a fellow student,” the researchers write.

The study found that respondents were 34 times more likely to comply with face-to-face requests than email requests. Additionally, they found that the requesters had significantly underestimated compliance in face-to-face interaction in their predictions, while also significantly overestimating compliance in email correspondence. “These findings appear to result from requesters’ failure to appreciate the implicit trust conveyed in face-to-face interactions and lost over email, which activates targets’ empathy towards requesters,” the professors write.

Why is that?

While this was a standalone study, it does draw on previous research conducted by Bohns and various collaborators. 

In a paper titled, (Mis)Understanding Our Influence over Others: A Review of the Underestimation-of-Compliance Effect, and authored by Bohns, she writes: “Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have asked participants in our studies to make a variety of requests of more than 14,000 strangers: Can I borrow your phone? Would you sponsor me for a race? Will you lie for me?  In each case, before they made these requests, we asked participants their expectations of compliance.  We then compared participants’ predictions of compliance to actual compliance.  

“Our findings reveal that people are overly pessimistic about their ability to get others to comply with their requests… Potential requesters stress about imposing on others, feeling self-conscious about revealing their shortcomings and fear the worst — rejection. However, research by my colleagues and me suggests this latter concern is often unfounded.”

Throughout numerous studies, Bohns and her colleagues have found that requesters fail to appreciate how awkward it is for their targets to say “no” to a request, particularly a face-to-face request. 

“A target’s refusal would constitute a ‘face-threatening act,’ potentially calling into question the requester’s trustworthiness or the appropriateness of the request: refusing to turn over one’s cellphone could imply one does not trust the requester to give it back; refusing to engage in an act that seems ethically questionable could be seen as an attack on the requester’s morality. In essence, by refusing a request one risks offending one’s interaction partner—a violation of intrinsic social norms that would ultimately embarrass both parties. As a result, many people agree to things — even things they would prefer not to do — simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no’.”

Bohns’ research also points out that people significantly underestimated how much the motivation to avoid embarrassment drives social behaviour. Simply put, when we are the ones making the request, we tend to think that it is easy for the target of our request to say no, and we underestimate our influence on them at that moment, as well as their desire to avoid embarrassment and awkwardness. This relates to a concept she also describes as “egocentric bias”, whereby we underestimate the pressure we place on those around us, tending to be more focused on the pressure placed on us by people or situations

In one study, requesters asked strangers to vandalise what they were told was a library book by writing the word “pickle” on one of the pages. On average, the requesters, 23 in total, predicted they could get about 28% of the targets, 108 strangers in total, to comply. 

“A number of individuals approached by our participants voiced their discomfort, expressing concern with getting into trouble, referring to the request as vandalism, and conveying a general reluctance to participate. Nevertheless, more than 64% agreed to vandalise the book — a far cry from requesters’ prediction of 28%,” Bohns writes.

The dark side of underestimating our influence

In 2018, Bohns collaborated with another colleague, Professor Lauren A DeVincent, on a study titled, Rejecting Unwanted Romantic Advances Is More Difficult Than Suitors Realize, primarily focused on romantic advances within a student and professional context: “In the current research, we identify an egocentric bias with potential implications for better understanding these dynamics. Specifically, we find that initiators of romantic advances underestimate how difficult and uncomfortable it is or the targets of their advances to say ‘no.’”

Further, they state that while in an ideal world, it might seem simple enough to simply say “no” and reject advances, “there are many reasons targets of romantic or sexual advances do not explicitly reject these advances: concerns with repercussions, both professional and reputational; worries that one’s own behavior will be misconstrued; doubts surrounding one’s experience or interpretation of the event. In addition to the above considerations, there is a fundamental aspect of rejecting another person that is extremely powerful, yet often dismissed as trivial: It is awkward and uncomfortable.”

Yet, being egocentrically focused on their own fears of imposition and rejection, requesters seem oblivious to the concerns of their targets, the researchers write, adding: “In sum, we hypothesise that initiators of romantic advances will fail to appreciate the difficult position they put targets in. Specifically, suitors will underestimate the discomfort targets experience when rejecting an advance.”

The researchers also found that suitors failed to realise how much behavioural change their advances caused in their targets. Some of the participants in the study reported avoidance and coping behaviours such as: trying to avoid the suitor, turning down projects with the suitor, energy spent thinking about the advance, trouble focusing at work, avoiding lab or school.

Then there are the power dynamics that are often at the core of incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace, of which the researchers write: “The egocentric bias we have identified may be exacerbated when a suitor is in a position of power over a romantic target. Previous research has found that individuals in powerful positions who engage in sexual harassment are often “not aware that their actions are inappropriate or a misuse of their power,” a tendency that has been attributed to automatic processes linking power and sexual desire. However, this tendency may also be the result of a perspective-taking failure that makes people in powerful positions particularly oblivious to the uncomfortable position they put their targets in.”

The lighter side of underestimating our influence

In one recent study conducted by Bohns and colleague, Erica J Boothby, titled, Why a Simple Act of Kindness Is Not as Simple as It Seems: Underestimating the Positive Impact of Our Compliments on Others, the authors write: “In the time it takes to tie your shoes, you could compliment a passerby on their style, you could approach someone at a conference and tell them you loved their talk, or you could tell the security guard in your building that you are terribly fond of his choice of socks. Any of these compliments could make that person’s day. And you would likely walk away feeling good having done so.

“It is difficult to contend with the proposition that the world would be a better, kinder place if people took the time to say nice things to one another more often. And yet, for an act so simple and easy that would increase the well-being of everyone involved, why do people refrain from doing it? Why don’t people give more compliments, particularly to those whom they do not know well?”

In search of the answer, they conducted a series of surveys that make up the complete study. In two of these surveys, participants were asked to give the exact same compliment to strangers, specifically complimenting them on their shirt; in another, they could choose what to compliment them on. Across the different surveys, and as with previous research, participants were asked to predict the impact they thought their compliments have. After the compliments were given, the strangers, previously unaware that they were part of an experiment were asked to fill in a form to gauge their reactions to the compliments.

The researchers found that “people in our studies systematically underestimated the value of their compliment to its recipient, and this reduced their likelihood of giving compliments. 

“Not only did people underestimate how positive their compliment would make someone feel, they also overestimated how bothered and annoyed the person would feel as a result of being approached. Even after giving their compliment, people failed to adequately update their beliefs about the effect they had on the person they complimented. Compliment givers’ forecasts were inaccurate in part because they felt anxious and concerned about their ability to compliment a stranger competently.”

Noting numerous reasons why people might be anxious about giving compliments to strangers, such as social norms that “often dictate that strangers in public places give one another privacy, perhaps acknowledging one another but rarely engaging in full-blown interaction,” or “fear social judgment, a fear which is often overblown because people overestimate how harshly others judge them during social interactions,” they go on to propose that ultimately, the reason people generally don’t go around complimenting strangers more often is that “people misforecast how their compliments make recipients feel.”

They write: “In people’s own minds, they are stammering and nervous and searching for the right words, but in the eyes of the recipient of their compliment, they are simply nice, friendly folks… Although it is clear from the outside that a compliment will make someone feel good, this fact is lost on potential compliment givers, who are blinded by their own feelings of anxiety and incompetence.” DM/ML


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