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This One Simple Scientific Principle Explains Why You Shouldn’t Waste Too Much Time Trying To Convince People

2022 October 2

Experts have a lot of ideas about persuasion. Some suggest leveraging social proof, to show that people have adopted the idea and had a positive experience. Others emphasize the importance of building trust and using emotional rather than analytical arguments. Still others insist on creating a unified value proposition.

These are, for the most part, constructive ideas. Yet they are more a taxonomy than a toolbox. Human nature can be baffling and our behavior is rarely consistent. Sometimes we’ll dig in our heels on a relatively minor point and others we’ll give in on a major issue relatively easily, often without any constable rhyme or reason.

Yet consider this one simple science-based principle that explains a lot: The best indicator of what we think and what we do is what the people around us think and do. Once you internalize that, you can begin to understand a lot of otherwise bizarre behavior and work to spread the ideas you care about. Often it’s not opinions we need to shape, but networks.

Majorities Don’t Just Rule, They Also Influence 

Consider a famous set of conformity studies performed by the psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s. The design was simple, but ingenuous. He merely showed people pairs of cards, asking them to match the length of a single line on one card with one of three on an adjacent card. The correct answer was meant to be obvious.

However, as the experimenter went around the room, one person after another gave the same wrong answer. When it reached the final person in the group (in truth, the only real subject, the rest were confederates), the vast majority of the time that person conformed to the majority opinion, even if it was obviously wrong!

The idea that people have a tendency toward conformity is nothing new, but that they would give obviously wrong answers to simple and unambiguous questions was indeed shocking. Now think about how hard it is for a more complex idea to take hold across a broad spectrum of people, each with their own biases and opinions.

The truth is that majorities don’t just rule, they also influence, even local majorities. So if you want people to adopt an idea or partake in an action, you need to take into account the communities they are already a part of—at home, at work, in their neighborhood and in other aspects of their social circles. That’s where their greatest influences lie.

The 3 Degrees Of Influence Rule

In 1948, Congress authorized funding for the Framingham Heart Study, which would track the lifestyle and health habits, such as diet, exercise, tobacco use and alcohol intake, of 5209 healthy men and women. It was originally intended to last 20 years, but the results were so incredibly useful, it lasted for decades and even included the children of early cohorts.

More than a half century after the study began two researchers, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, began to suspect that the Framingham Heart Study could be used for a very different, but important purpose. What they noticed was that the data included not only information about people’s habits, but their social networks as well.

So they set out to see if they could identify causal links between people’s health and their social connections. Using 32 years of data, they were able to establish a strong effect in areas as diverse as happiness, smoking and even obesity. As it turns out, the people around us not only help to shape our opinions, but our health as well.

The really astounding discovery, however, was that the effect extended to three degrees of influence. So not only our friends’ friends, influence us deeply, but their friends too—people that we don’t even know. Wherever we go, we bring that long, complex web of influence with us and we, in turn, help to shape others’ webs of influence too.

So when set out to shape someone else’s opinion, we need to account for social networks. We may, for example, be able to play on a target’s emotions, give them all the facts and evidence and demonstrate strong social proof, but their communities—extending out to three degrees of influence—will always factor in. While we’re working to persuade, those invisible webs of influence may be working against us.

Thanksgiving Dinners And Earnings Guidance 

There is no greater American tradition than the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. No matter what your political persuasion, you are bound to have some relative who holds very different opinions than the rest of the family and who feels no compunction about making clear to everyone at the table exactly where they stand.

As should be clear by now, the reason our crazy uncles are so impervious to persuasion is that we aren’t actually arguing with them at all, but the totality of their social networks. Their friends at work, buddies at the bar, people in their neighborhood and everybody else who they interact with on a regular basis, all get a say at our holiday table.

In much the same way, there isn’t any real reason for CEOs to provide earnings guidance for investors. Steve Jobs refused do it and Apple’s  stock during his tenure. Same thing with Unilever under Paul Polman. In 2018, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and uber-investor Warren Buffett wrote a strong Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal urging CEOs to end the practice.

During the pandemic many companies stopped giving earnings guidance to investors but, as soon as things began to stabilize, they started up again. It seems incredible, because all of the experts, even McKinsey, have advised against it. Still the vast majority of CEOs are unconvinced, despite all the contrary evidence. Could their networks be playing a role?

Don’t Try To Shape Opinions, Shape Networks

We like to think we can shape the ideas of others. It can sometimes seem like a puzzle. How can we conjure up the right combination of value proposition, analysis, emotive argument and social proof, to persuade our target?. There is, in fact, an enormous communication industry dedicated to exactly that proposition.

Decades of scientific research suggests that it’s not so easy. Our thoughts aren’t just the product of neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters reacting to different stimuli, but also our social networks. The best indicator of what people think and do is what the people around them think and do. While we’re trying to score debate points, those complex webs of influence are pushing back in often subtle, but extremely powerful ways.

We need to be far more humble about our persuasive powers. Anybody who has ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it is to convince even a single person of something. If you expect to shift the opinions of dozens or hundreds—much less thousands or millions—with pure sophistry, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Instead of trying to shape opinions, we’re often better off shaping networks. That’s why we advise our clients pursuing transformational change efforts to start with a majority, even if that majority is only three people in a room of five. You can always expand a majority out, but once you’re in the minority you’re going to get immediate pushback.

Rather than wordsmithing slogans, our time and efforts will be much better spent working to craft cultures, weaving the complex webs of influence that lead to genuinely shared values and shared purpose.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash


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