You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters

Professor Vanessa Bohns writes in this 2021 book:

* Whether we affect others in big, life-changing ways (like EMTs or social workers) or in smaller, everyday ways (like good-humored baristas), we typically only gain insight into a very tiny sliver of our true impact. In other words, we may get one email for every hundred students we’ve taught. And because we rarely get insight into our influence over others, we may chronically underestimate it.

* we often refrain from complimenting strangers or expressing gratitude to the important people in our lives because we underestimate the impact our words have on others: how good it would make those people feel to hear the nice things we have to say….
If you’ve ever felt ineffective, invisible, or inarticulate, there’s a good chance you actually weren’t any of those things. Those feelings may instead have been the result of a lack of awareness we all seem to have for how our words, actions, and even our mere existence affect other people: We underestimate the impact of our presence on others because we feel invisible. We refrain from asking for things because we assume others will say “no.” On the other hand, we sometimes make careless, throwaway remarks because we underestimate the impact our words can have, mistakenly assuming other people will simply brush off our insensitive or inappropriate comments. And when we find ourselves in positions of power, we often fail to recognize how our innocent, half-serious suggestions can feel like commands to people with less power.
It makes sense that we would have such a lack of awareness. So much of our impact on others is unobservable or otherwise inaccessible to us. When we interact with someone and then part ways, there’s usually no way for us to know how much the other person is thinking about us later. When we send a letter of gratitude, we don’t tend to be there when the other person reads it. (Even if we are there, the other person doesn’t typically rate for us on a standardized scale how good the letter made them feel.) And unless you feel compelled to stand up on the subway and yell, “How many of you are looking at me right now?!,” you really can’t be sure how many people are watching—and are impacted by—what you are doing.

* My goal in writing this book isn’t to help you gain influence, but to make you more aware of the influence you already do have but don’t realize. Once you are aware of the influence you have, you may indeed decide to go forth and boldly use this newly discovered influence. You may be more willing to say what’s on your mind and ask for what you need. Then again, you may not. Once you realize how hard it is for people to say “no” to you, or how many people are likely to take your haphazard musings seriously, you may find there are times when you’d rather take a step back and use your influence less…

* The thing about Mr. Magoo—and the key comic device of the character—is that he is completely oblivious to the chaos he causes. As he walks through the world impacting people left and right in big getting-launched-into-space kinds of ways, he can’t see past his own nose to comprehend the effect and impact he has on others, and how the behavior and attention of everyone around him has shifted because he’s walked into the room.
What I hope to show throughout this book is that we’ve all got a little Mr. Magoo in us. As we lumber through our everyday lives, not seeing past our own noses, we leave behind our own trail of impact on the various people we encounter throughout our day. And, like Mr. Magoo, we are largely oblivious to that impact.

* people are wired to notice other people. More than that, they are wired to wonder what other people are thinking, and to adjust their own thoughts and behaviors accordingly.

* On September 12, 2017, Ty Cobb, a lawyer who was at the time in charge of coordinating the White House’s response to the Mueller investigation into former president Donald Trump’s alleged entanglements with Russia, sat down for lunch with John Dowd, Trump’s lead outside attorney in that same investigation. They were seated at a popular Washington, D.C., restaurant’s outdoor patio adjacent to a busy sidewalk. Popular restaurant. Outdoors. Busy sidewalk. It doesn’t get much more public than that. Despite this, the two attorneys proceeded to discuss for over forty-five minutes sensitive information about the ongoing investigation, including details about that surreptitious “Trump Tower meeting,” Jared Kushner’s precarious standing in the group, and how aggressive to be about invoking executive privilege—details the world now knows because a New York Times reporter happened to be sitting at the next table. That reporter, Ken Vogel, posted a photo on Twitter of the two attorneys talking with the caption, “Here’s a photo of Ty Cobb & John Dowd casually & loudly discussing details of Russia investigation at @BLTSteakDC while I sat at next table.” 1
This accidental scoop became a news story about internal clashes between Trump’s lawyers on how much to cooperate with the Russia inquiry. But it quickly turned into a media sensation that was less about the substance of the scoop itself, and more about how the scoop came to be. As noted by Washington Post reporter Fred Barbash, “It is every Washington reporter’s dream to sit down at a restaurant, overhear secret stuff, and get a scoop.” 2 Yet how these two individuals—and Cobb, in particular, who was brought in to “professionalize” Trump’s response to the Russia inquiry—could have been so careless as to be overheard talking about such sensitive information proved a captivating mystery. Noting the proximity of the restaurant to the New York Times ’s Washington outpost in an interview with MSNBC, Vogel said, “It’s perhaps doubly astounding that they would have this conversation at this restaurant where a number of power players are known to lunch, but also reporters are known to lunch, and Times reporters in particular.” Or, as put more succinctly by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, “What the hell was Cobb thinking?” 3
Erica Boothby, along with Yale researchers Margaret Clark and John Bargh, may have an answer to the mystery of what Cobb was thinking, an answer that sheds light not only on the mystery of this scoop, but also on the mystery of why we often fail to recognize the impact we have on other people. According to these researchers, Cobb may simply have been exhibiting our tendency to underestimate how much we are observed by others. We tend to believe that others are watching us less, listening to us less, and generally paying less attention to us than they actually are. Boothby and her colleagues coined the term the “invisibility cloak illusion” 4 to describe the invisibility we often feel as we go about our daily lives—sitting on the train with our headphones on or walking through the park in our sunglasses, 5 all while observing the people around us yet feeling unobserved ourselves, as if we’re wearing an invisibility cloak. But, as lawyers Cobb and Dowd discovered much to their chagrin, people do observe us—more than we realize.

* Have you ever caught someone’s eye, felt embarrassed that they caught you looking, and then quickly looked away or pretended to have been looking at something else? I’m guessing the answer is “yes,” because that’s what people do. Vision scientists even have a name for this: “gaze deflection.” 6 When we are looking at someone, we try to hide that fact. But that means the people who are looking at you are trying to hide that fact, too. Because of that, we’re rarely confronted with evidence that we’re being watched.

* Mentalizing is something we do instinctively when we are around other people. We are naturally curious about other people, and we try to figure out what is going on in their heads—how they are thinking about and reacting to something. The thing to keep in mind for the purposes of this book is that other people are doing this to us, too. When we are around other people, they are also busy trying to figure out what’s going on in our heads. And, as we saw earlier in this chapter, they do this to a greater extent than we realize. This means that not only do people notice our presence more than we realize, but they also see what we are doing, and wonder why we are doing it and what we are thinking; this process of trying to understand what we are doing can cause them to think and feel differently in our presence. Not only does this process affect how other people experience the world when we’re around, it can also change their minds.

* Jerry Seinfeld, in the documentary Comedian, says to an audience he is testing new material out on, “Can you believe you’re in charge of deciding whether our brilliant ideas are good or not?” 14
Craving the approval of one’s audience is not specific to comedians or, as we’ll discuss next, politicians. It is human nature. That, in turn, gives audiences an awful lot of power. Simply by listening intently to what someone says—by being an engaged audience—we can have an impact on how a speaker decides to talk about an issue. And, ultimately, that can change what a speaker ends up believing about that issue.

* Audiences don’t just influence the messages to which they are exposed, they also influence the beliefs of the messengers who convey them. You may think that when people engage in audience tuning of this sort, it’s simply pandering—it’s not like they actually believe what they are saying. While it’s true they may not start out believing what they say, it turns out, once they say it, they do kind of start to believe it.
When Trevor Noah, host of the The Daily Show , was a guest on Late Night with Seth Meyers back in 2017, the two comedians joked about the ways in which Donald Trump’s rhetoric started out as a means of indulging his base, but subsequently morphed into some of his die-hard platforms: “ ‘Build the wall’ was just a bit that crushed, and now he realizes he needs to, like, build a wall.” 22 As absurd as that might seem, it is an extreme version of what does happen. A speaker says something to appeal to their audience, the audience reacts enthusiastically, and the speaker walks away having convinced themselves of what they said as much as anyone else.

* This phenomenon of a behavior spreading from one person to another like an infectious disease is known as “behavioral contagion.” It’s a concept that has been written about for centuries, as scholars have observed “outbreaks” of eating habits, styles, and even suicides across various populations and attributed these outbreaks to the human tendency to mimic what we see. While a disease metaphor is useful for illustrative purposes, the way behaviors actually spread from person to person tends to be more complex. 26 Diseases can spread from a single exposure to an infected person you don’t know—a process known as “simple contagion.” However, you’re unlikely to “catch” a potentially risky or expensive behavior, like installing solar panels on your home, from a stranger on the bus. These types of behaviors typically take multiple exposures, especially to people within your close social network. Which is why, although you might be unlikely to catch the desire to install a solar panel from a stranger on the bus, you might actually catch such an urge from your neighbor.
Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell and author of Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work , among other books, has written extensively about the importance of tapping into this form of behavioral contagion to address social problems such as climate change. According to Frank, certain climate-friendly behaviors are “particularly contagious,” and one of his favorite examples of this is the installation of solar panels. As Frank points out, “Each new installation in a neighborhood can, over time, lead to several additional ones.” 27 Aerial imagery even offers a visual demonstration of the contagiousness of solar panels, showing how houses with solar panels tend to be clustered near one another.
What the phenomenon of behavioral contagion means for you and the influence you have is that each action you take—whether you are installing a solar panel or hosting a destination wedding—actually has two effects.

* When you install a solar panel, yes, you shrink your own personal carbon footprint. But more than that, you also increase the likelihood that other people in your neighborhood will follow suit and install their own solar panels. 28 When you host a destination wedding, that one decision is a relatively trivial indulgence in carbon terms. But when you consider that your decision to do so increases the likelihood that others in your social circle will choose to have destination weddings, which in turn increases the likelihood that attendees of those weddings will have destination weddings and so on, that decision begins to seem less trivial. By taking into consideration the potential outbreak of behaviors that our own individual actions have the potential to spark, our seemingly inconsequential individual choices start to feel more consequential, for better and worse.

* We are instinctively attuned to other people—we notice them, remember them, wonder what is going on in their minds, tune our thoughts and messages to them, and copy their behavior. But that means other people are also attuned to us and exhibit the same behaviors toward us. When we think about how much influence we have, the first mistake we make is underestimating how much other people pay attention to us.

* We now know the average person thinks they are more athletic, moral, creative, and a better driver than the average person…

* we think that we are less sociable than the average person because we don’t actually compare ourselves to the average person—we compare ourselves to the prototypical social butterfly.

* Recent research has begun to converge on the idea that we are in fact underconfident when assessing personal qualities such as our social connectedness, and as we will see next, our likeability. Not only does this bias help to maintain a thriving self-improvement industry, it also suggests that we may regularly underestimate our own power of persuasion. Somewhat ironically, as will we see later in this chapter, this can lead us to use overly aggressive tactics in order to gain the influence we don’t realize we already have.

* One consequence of underestimating how much people like us is that we think people are going to be more resistant to hearing what we have to say than they actually are. We brace ourselves for a fight, obsess over exactly what to say, pile on the facts, and shout from the rooftops…

* In this age of constant moral outrage, it’s hard not to feel wary of expressing our opinions. We assume everyone around us is dissecting our every word, ready to pounce and take up arms against whatever it is we have to say. While it’s undeniable that this has been happening with increasing frequency, largely as a result of social media—which, as Yale psychology professor Molly Crockett has pointed out, systematically incentivizes moral outrage 9 —it simply isn’t the case in everyday life. People generally aren’t dissecting your every word, ready to pounce. In fact, research shows that people are inclined to agree—not to disagree—with what you have to say.
The first thing to know is that people simply aren’t listening to or remembering most of what you say. People are, as psychologists like to say, “cognitive misers.” We do the bare minimum to be able to navigate the world effectively, and we only think about things carefully if we absolutely need to or are particularly motivated to. By some researchers’ calculations, people actually only remember about 10% of what you say to them, even in the moments immediately following a conversation, 10 and what they do remember tends to be the gist, or general idea, of what you said, not what you actually said. 11 But rather than taking that as an indication that you need to work harder than you thought to influence someone, in many cases this actually means you can stop worrying so much about saying the exact right thing—while still having influence.

* if you were to make an impromptu impassioned—but rambling, and possibly logically inconsistent—speech about why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the best show ever (which, to be clear, it is), the people who hear this speech will eventually forget the logical inconsistencies and remember only that you offered up a lot of reasons to like Buffy —even though they can’t remember any of them.

* When conversing with another person, the default state is to trust that the other person is telling the truth and that they have evidence for the things they say. As a result, when you, rather than someone’s non-preferred cable news network, express an opinion, it’s much less likely to get contentious than you might think.

* We tend to think people do and believe things based on their merits—that is, by considering the facts and judging and behaving accordingly. But this is a misperception. In truth, facts are less effective at changing people’s behaviors and beliefs than social norms or knowing what other people believe and are doing. It means that simply by stating what you think—by doing your part to shape what others perceive as normative or appropriate—you have a bigger impact on what other people think and do than you realize.

* A quick glance at any social media platform suggests that concern over the well-being of our loved ones is not the only context in which we resort to shouting. When we are sure we are right, or know what’s best for someone, we can be startlingly brash in stating so. However, rather than representing confidence, that brashness is likely in part to be the result of the overwhelming underconfidence we have in our power of persuasion. People shout when they think someone isn’t listening.

* In the domain of persuasion and influence, underconfidence can lead people to remain silent out of overblown fears of being disliked and saying the wrong thing. At other times, people may simultaneously be overconfident in what they believe, but underconfident in their ability to get their message across. As a result, they may be overly assertive when trying to get their message out there, disregarding decades of research on persuasion and social influence suggesting that less is often more.

* However large you think your social network is, round up. Whatever impression you think you make on other people, assume it’s a little bit better. Whatever pushback you’re expecting to get, assume it’s a little bit less. And whatever advice you’re about to give, you could probably make it a little gentler.

* People anticipate more rejection than they actually end up experiencing, and getting people to comply with our requests is easier than we think.

* As a result, we often talk ourselves out of asking for things that would make our lives easier, or better. We feel stupid for asking. We assume we’ll be rejected. In negotiation terms, we concede before the negotiation even begins. Even at eight months pregnant, my first inclination was to stick out my belly and wait in hope that someone would offer me their seat unprompted, rather than simply asking someone for their seat. What keeps me from giving in to these impulses now is what I learned from asking all those people in Penn Station many years ago, and the experience of continuously hearing my participants express the same kind of surprise at people’s willingness to comply with their requests.
When we ask for something, we tend to be overly pessimistic about the likelihood of rejection. Not only can this undue pessimism prevent us from asking for things, but it can also cause us to use unnecessary and self-defeating tactics to get people to agree to things they would have done anyway. We do things like asking for less than what we really want or offering money when we really didn’t need to. Recall that Paul Brest negotiated himself down to half of what he originally intended to ask for the first time he solicited money from a potential donor. And my husband felt the need to offer a mechanic double payment for help he was happy to give for free. We think doing these things will boost our likelihood of getting a “yes”; but in fact, in many cases, people will do more for us than anticipated—and often without the expectation of anything in return. As we’ve seen, this is true for small requests, like asking a stranger on the street to fill out a survey, as well as for large requests, like asking a potential donor for a million-dollar contribution.
After years of studying the topic of asking, I now know that people are much more likely to agree to do things for us—for free—than we think. So, knowing what I know now, do I incessantly ask people for things? No. But explicitly asking for what I want now feels like a tangible option for getting it, so I no longer feel like I’m helplessly waiting for someone to step up and offer me their seat.

* If I go up to you and ask to borrow your cell phone, the subtext of this ask is that I am a trustworthy person and that asking to borrow your cell phone is a reasonable request. If you, in turn, say “no,” you have just challenged me on those assumptions. Saying “no” to someone who is asking to borrow your cell phone might imply that you don’t trust them to give it back. My favorite term for this phenomenon, which Sunita Sah, a professor at Cornell’s business school, came up with, is “insinuation anxiety.” 2 We have a lot of anxiety about insinuating something negative about someone else. So we hem and haw, and assure the person asking for our phone that any other day, really, we would love—no, we would be honored—to hand over our phone, but today we just need to make sure we have enough battery, etc., etc., to make it clear we aren’t insinuating they are untrustworthy by refusing their request. But when it comes down to it, we usually don’t refuse these kinds of requests, because saying “no” would simply be too awkward and embarrassing for everyone involved, and that is something we really hate.
In fact, we hate embarrassing ourselves so much, we do all sorts of things to avoid embarrassment—and at all costs. Approximately 5,000 people die from choking every year 3 in part because they stand up and leave the table 4 —rather than ask their tablemates for help—out of a fear of, you got it, embarrassment.
The late, esteemed psychologist John Sabini and his colleagues have argued that a number of the most iconic findings in social psychology can be attributed to people’s overwhelming fear of embarrassment. 5 For example, take the “bystander effect,” a classic finding demonstrated by the psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané. 6 This is the finding that people are less likely to act in an emergency situation if there are other people around—particularly if there are many people around.

* It’s a lot easier (read: less awkward) to say “no” to someone when you don’t have to do it face-to-face. This is a critical point when considering a choice we all make on a regular basis: How should I go about trying to persuade someone? Should I get them on the phone? Shoot off an email? Walk down the hall to their office? On the face of it, email can often seem like the best option. It’s easy. And if we think we’re likely to be rebuffed anyway, it’s far less awkward to be rejected via email than in person. We may even convince ourselves that email has real persuasive advantages. After all, people can take their time to read our arguments carefully. And many of us are still (wrongly) worried about that whole “getting the wording just right” thing from Chapter 2 , so email lets you meticulously craft your message. But Milgram’s findings should give us pause here. Email gives the person on the receiving end an easy way out. They don’t have to tell you “no” to your face. For this reason, showing up in person may in fact be one of the most effective—and possibly one of the most underutilized—influence tactics we have.

* We think others are braver—less worried about embarrassing themselves in this context—than we are. But of course this isn’t true.

Notably, this tendency to underestimate the extent to which other people are worried about feeling embarrassed is what leads us to underestimate the likelihood that others will comply with our requests—and to be surprised by how many people agree.

* Ultimately, our failure to appreciate the important role of embarrassment in driving others’ behavior causes us to underestimate our ability to get others to do what we want. But more than that, it distorts our ideas regarding the most effective influence tactics. This, in turn, perpetuates our tendency to underestimate our own influence. We ask for things in less effective ways, people say “no” to us because we’re asking in ways that make it easy for them to do so, and then we’re left believing—once again—that we have less influence than we actually do.

* First, women frequently agree to things—dates, even sex—they don’t want to do. And, second, men are often completely oblivious to this fact.

* Just as people seem to struggle to recognize how hard they will find rejecting someone else, they also struggle to recognize how hard others will find rejecting them. In the latter case, however, rather than sparing someone’s feelings we would have hypothetically bruised, this oversight may instead lead us to put someone in a more awkward position than we had intended. By “just going for it” and asking a co-worker out on a date, for example, we may not fully appreciate the uncomfortable position we may have put the other person in.

* What we found was that suitors failed to appreciate the difficult position they put their targets in by acting on their romantic interest. Initiators of romantic advances thought their targets felt freer and more comfortable saying “no” to their unwanted advances than targets reported having felt.
More than that, people who recalled pursuing someone romantically who turned out not to be interested in them also failed to recognize how difficult it was for their targets to focus on work, and to continue to work together with their suitor, after rejecting them.

* If we don’t think anyone is listening, we are likely to cast bad ideas, inappropriate requests, and bullshit out into the world, assuming (incorrectly) that people will reject our bad ideas, dismiss our inappropriate overtures, and call us on our bullshit. By placing the burden on others to tell us they feel uncomfortable or don’t agree with us, we shirk our own responsibility for the things we say and the situations we find ourselves in. This has broad implications for many of our modern ills. To combat misinformation, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, organizational misconduct, and so much more, we each must recognize our own role in perpetuating or condoning these things, and take responsibility for the influence we have.

* the first thing power does is to lead people to ignore other’s perspectives. The second thing power does is reduce what psychologists call “the press of the situation,” the environmental and social forces that shape many of the things we do. This means that people with power feel freer to do what they want, rather than what the situation calls for or what others want them to do. They feel freer to be “mavericks,” readily spurning group opinions and social norms, and are less worried about how they look to others.

* These three goals are for all of us to get better at seeing, feeling, and experiencing our influence over others:
1 The first goal is to start to see the impact of our actions on others. In order to do this, we need to get out of our own heads. When we peer out at the world through our own eyes, we don’t see ourselves or the role we play in creating the situations we are in. We will explore some strategies for getting out of our own heads so that we can see the role we play in shaping the world and people around us.
2 The second goal is to truly feel the impact of our actions. Once we are outside of our own heads, we may be able to see the things we do that impact others, but that doesn’t mean we fully appreciate their impact. To do that, we need to get inside other people’s heads. We must get better at predicting and understanding how others might feel, as a result of the things we do and say.
3 The third and final goal is to actually experience our influence. This aim comes from watching the dramatic transformation participants in my studies have had after being instructed to go out and ask people for things and realizing how much easier it is than they anticipated, and also hearing others’ accounts of having similar transformations. However, as we will see, accurately learning about your own influence through direct experience turns out not to be as simple as it may initially seem.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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