The Power of Influence

Hyderabad received torrential rains last week. For a couple of hours on a couple of days, the roads were flooded, traffic was jammed and a lot of people spent a lot of time getting to wherever they were going. I was stuck in one such traffic jam one morning on a narrow water-clogged road. There was a line of cars ahead me, and a long one behind. We were all waiting patiently in our lane.

And then something happened!

A car that was in line behind me got out of the lane, got onto the wrong side of the road and started speeding down. As it overtook a number of cars, a few abuses were hurled at the driver by those doing the right thing (waiting in the lane).

And then something else happened!

The car in front of me, whose driver had very animatedly shouted at the speeding driver a moment ago, now got out of the lane as well and sped down. Interestingly, in the next minute I saw 3 more cars follow suit.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen something like this happen. Few other common occurrences where others influence our behaviour*…negatively:

  • Late night at a traffic signal,  people who have stopped because the light is red, decide to break the law because a car or two drove by
  • Students who cheat in the exam because other students are cheating
  • Professionals who choose to use a ‘shortcut’ to get the job done, because “everyone does it!”

We all play both roles – the ‘influencer’ and the ‘influenced’. As influencers, I strongly believe in what Buddha advised, “Whatever words (and actions) we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” 

In our role as the influenced, building on above quote, it is important for us to be able to distinguish between ‘being influenced for good or ill’, so we are able to choose wisely. Just because someone else does it, doesn’t make it right! Interestingly, at times, even when everyone else does it, it doesn’t make it right!!

*Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book ‘Influence: The psychology of persuasion’, talks about various factors (principles) that influence decisions. The one in play here is ‘Social proof’, where we (may) end up doing things that we see others do.


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