People are Highly Susceptible to Suggestion

Your decisions are easily primed by random factors

People are influenced by the strangest things and sometimes we make decisions because of random bias. We should be aware of our bias and how our opinions and actions can be shaped by priming.

Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business, conducted a terrific study where he demonstrates that where people vote affects how they vote. Essentially, people whose voting booth is located in a church are more likely to put more weight into social issues, people voting in fire houses care more about safety, and people voting in a school tend to put more weight on things like education.

Can you believe that where you vote affects how you vote?

People are easily primed by the simplest thing, like their name. University of Buffalo’s Associate Professor and Psychologist Brett Pelham conducted a groundbreaking study that some of the biggest decisions of our life – where we live, what we do, and who we marry – are influenced by our first name. The book The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt explains further:

Men named Lawrence and women named Laurie are more likely to become lawyers. Louis and Louise are more likely to move to Louisiana or St. Louis, and George and Georgina are more likely to move to Georgia.

My guess is that people with the last name of Clinton, Kennedy, and Bush (all relatively common last names) tend to have a more favorable opinion of the Presidents sharing the same last name than the rest of the population.

People can also start acting a certain way because other people expect them too. Berger has other studies which suggest people are more likely to conform to a stereotype of them because that stereotype exists.

In psychology, these actions are known as priming. And we humans are primed often. As advanced decision makers, we need to make sure we are making important decisions for the right reasons and not just because of being primed. Deciding to see a Dustin Hoffman movie just because we have the same last name is no big deal. But if I wanted to switch professions and become an actor because of my name, it might be a good idea to really understand why.

This is another reason why your “gut” isn’t always right. A gut reaction is generally a collection of biases and can be easily primed. While it can be right (the brain can often analyze information implicitly faster than it can explicitly), it can also be dangerously wrong. It would be a really bad idea to hire someone to watch over your child just because you got a “good feeling” about the person.

Your gut might be much better at telling you what not to do than giving you good direction on what to do. If your gut tells you something is wrong with someone, than you probably do not want to entrust your kid with her. But a positive gut-check often does little good (at least for me). When thinking about how this affects hiring, our goal at Rapleaf is to attempt to remove primed biases from hiring decisions. While you’ll never be able to remove all bias, removing just a few of them can give you a dramatically large advantage over a competitor. Malcolm Gladwell has a great anecdote about this in Blink where a metropolitan symphony decides to change its hiring by listening to someone play (person was behind a screen) rather than seeing them play. It turned out that the symphony in question massively increased the number of women they hired when they stopped watching people play and instead just listened to them. And, of course, the quality of the music got much better too.

So the next time you are voting in an elementary school, think twice to yourself if we really need this new school bond.

12 thoughts on “People are Highly Susceptible to Suggestion

  1. Brett Keintz

    Great post; i love the behavioral analysis in regular life and its applications in business.
    Regarding voting in a church, however, there are a couple different cause-effect relationships at play that may lead to an apparent correlation (voting for social causes if you vote in a church) that might not necessarily mean there is causation (instead of your surroundings influencing you to vote in a certain direction, you choose to vote in a place that supports your votes).
    Hard to say, having never seen the study, but it’d be interesting to try to test for correlation with that relationship to see if it is as statistically significant as the test described in your post.
    I think few things are as reinforcing as doing what people expect you to do, btw.
    You should talk to Krista about this post–this is what she studies and practices constantly!

  2. Matt Isler

    Another great article, Auren. As leaders, we can leverage this bias by treating people the way we’d “want them to be.” When we treat people as responsible, trustworthy, and empowered, their behavior mirrors their treatment. Conversely, when people are treated as privileged, incompetent, or entitled, their behavior tends to adapt to that treatment.

  3. Pseu

    Without any mention of the size of these alleged effects, this sounds a little… iffy? bogus? less-than-entirely-credible?

  4. Clay

    The polling place study is nonsensical. The selection of a polling place, i.e. of a public space large and central enough to serve the purpose, will be determined by the type of neighborhood you’re dealing with. For example, a school surrounded by residential properties is clearly in a neighborhood heavy on families with young kids. Of course those voters will prioritize things things like education. A neighborhood with a large, centrally located church is likely to contain large numbers of churchgoers (and/or older voters) who will tend to emphasize social values questions. The study puts the cart before the horse.

  5. Adolphus

    It’s a fascinating study, however I agree with Mr. Keintz, the author seems to have shown correlation, but unless he/she/they take into account polling place process and politics, I am not sure how truly useful it is. Polling places are not randomly selected. In my little corner of Florida it is a mixture of centrality, accessibility, familiarity to the voters, and the polling place’s ability to provide all support services including modems, dedicated phone lines, etc. Also, precincts are very small and the voters in each polling place tend to be more homogenous and the polling places was chosen to be easy to use for that population. In a highly religious community it is vastly more likely that a polling place will be in a church than a firehouse simply because there are so many more churches than firehouses in that area and it is VERY likely that most voters there are members of that church. Also, in many places polling places are set by the local political elites who are also the ones who control political debate, organizations, patronage, ballot design, ballot text, etc. and polling place selection can be influenced by who “they” do and don’t want showing up at the polls.
    My parents have been poll workers in Maryland for decades and there ALL polling places are in schools and the precincts are much larger and diverse and less open to the subtle manipulation of local power brokers.
    My point is, polling place selection is not random and reflects the values and politics (machine?) of a given area. How you vote is not influenced by where you vote. How you and your neighbors are likely to vote is likely to influence WHERE you vote.
    Due to my interest in polling place politics, I am going to follow up on this study. I’ll be interested to see how nuanced the author’s take is on polling place machinations.

  6. Jesse

    Of course Pseu is right. Repeat after me: correlation is not causation.

  7. allbetsareoff

    My voting place is a gallery of not very good art. So I’m more keenly attuned to contemporary American politics?

  8. Fred X

    LOL…this is the dumbest theory since man made global warming. Same story too…the effects are negligible if existent.

  9. Felipe

    Fine study, but I think that it’s excessive on certain points. For instance, I am sure that a first name can influence a person’s life. However, I believe that a name would not have as much influence as to motivate anyone to move to a city because of the similarities between its name and the city name (at least not in our modern world). In fact, Steven Levitt and Stephen Debner depict well this argument in one of the chapter of their famous book Freakonomics.
    The authors wrote about occasions kids were named in ludicrous manners, and analyzed if that truly matter in the kid’s life. For instance, a couple named to their two kids “Winner” and “Loser”. Conversely of what everybody would expect, “Winner” became a big loser, whilst Loser became Head of a Police department (or an equivalent rank), which was a large achievement for him. So, Mr. Loser is a big winner.
    On the other hand, I strongly agree that people get influence on the long run by what surrounds them – starting from family and going through friends, society, city, country, and its government.

  10. George Lenard

    Auren cites serious social science research.
    One should be well-acquainted with the methodologies used in the discipline, other work on similar issues, and the details of the published work before reaching conclusions about whether results are statistically significant and/or appear to indicate causation, not merely correlation.
    As to polling places, in my immediate neighborhood, some people vote at the local public school, while others (including me) vote at a community center only about 1/4-1/2 mile away, located next door to the municipal trash and recycling facility.
    It’s the same basic neighborhood and both precincts appear to me to contain equal numbers of singles, families w/ kids in public school, in private school, no kids, seniors, etc.
    I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if an exit poll on priorities found the school voters ranking education a tad higher and those at my location ranking more money for municipal services a tad higher.
    That’s not to say people will actually vote Dem. instead of Repub.; too many factors affect that, obviously.


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