Thinkers50 Radar 2022: Vanessa Bohns

Vanessa Bohns is a social psychologist, professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, and author of You Have More Influence Than You Think: How we underestimate our power of persuasion, and why it matters, which was included as one of the Financial Times’ top business titles of the month.

In this Thinkers50 Radar 2022 LinkedIn Live series in partnership with Deloitte, Stuart Crainer discusses the topic of influence with Vanessa Bohns.

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In this McKinsey & Company Author Talk, Vanessa explains key concepts from her book and her research on influence.


Vanessa Bohns

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Transcript

Stuart Crainer:

Hello, welcome to the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 series brought to you in partnership with Deloitte. I’m Stuart Crainer and I’m co-founder of Thinkers50, the world’s most reliable resource for identifying ranking and sharing the leading management ideas of our age. Ideas that can make a real difference in the world. In this weekly series of 45-minute webinars, we want to showcase some of those ideas to bring you the most exciting new voices of management thinking.

Our guest today is Vanessa Bohns. Vanessa is a social psychologist and award-winning researcher and teacher, and a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. She has a PhD in psychology from Columbia University and a degree in psychology from Brown University. She’s been a Visiting Scholar at the NYU Stern School of Business and has taught at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Her first book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, was published in 2021 by Norton. The book offers science-based strategies for observing the effect we have on others, reconsidering our fear of rejection, and even sometimes pulling back to use our influence less. It is a call to stop searching for ways to gain influence you don’t have, and to start recognizing the influence you don’t realize you already have. Vanessa, welcome.

Vanessa Bohns:

Thank you so much for having me. Hello everybody.

Stuart Crainer:

And as always, anybody watching, please send in, let us know where you’re watching from and send in the questions along the way. So Vanessa, how did you get here? What were the origins of the book?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. I had studied this basic phenomenon where people are more likely to say yes to the things that we ask than we realize for a long, long time. So as early as my first year in graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, I was working with a professor, Frank Flynn there at the time and I was collecting data for a study that we were doing, where I had to go down to Penn Station and ask people to fill out questionnaires.

Vanessa Bohns:

And I would go up to people and I would say, “Will you fill out a questionnaire?” And they would say yes or no, and the whole experience was just really torturous and painful for me. And then when I kind of finished the study and Frank and I were looking at the data, we didn’t find what we expected, which was a real bummer to me because that had felt like such a torturous set of days.

And I kind of complained about that and said how awful it was asking people. And Frank looked at this data and all the people who were saying yes to me and said, “Why was it so painful because look, most people were actually agreeing to help you out and do this survey?”

And so that’s kind of how we started on this path of thinking about how our influence and our experience of influence feels in our head to us, where we feel like rejection is really powerful and is on the tip of everybody else’s tongue. And how it is in reality, which is that in many cases people are happy to say yes to things.

And so since then I have been running studies where I make other people ask people for things and guess whether people will say yes, and kind of talk about how they feel before and after the request. And I found that this is a consistent phenomenon where people underestimate how likely people are to do things for them. And since then, I’ve kind of observed in other people’s research, a similar pattern.

So Erica Boothby is a researcher at Wharton and she’s shown that people pay more attention to us than we think, that they like us more than we think they do after an interaction. And she and I have done a study where we’ve had people give compliments to people and we find that those compliments feel better to people than we think that they will.

And so kind of observing all of these different examples of a similar phenomenon where we seem to underestimate the impact we have made me want to write this book and in particular, because there’s so many books out there on how to gain influence, but all I was seeing in all these studies was that we have so much influence, we just don’t see it. And so I kind of want to explain why that is.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Influence is a very attractive word, isn’t it? Because we all want it. And we go back to the Dale Carnegie book about how to make friends and influence people, and influence always sounds nicer than persuasion or selling something to somebody. So the word in itself is attractive.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And I think that when people think about influence and persuasion, they kind of use them interchangeably and think of these formal kind of influence attempts where you’re standing in front of the room trying to change someone’s mind or standing in front of someone trying to completely flip their opinion on something. And the way I think about influence is quite different.

And I’d say it’s more nuanced. It’s more informal. It’s more about these everyday interactions we have with people. And we’re not actively necessarily trying to change someone’s mind or trying to convince them of something, but situations where just have an impact on people. Where we might say something that someone remembers long after, and we don’t know that whatever we said is still resonating in their head a week later or two weeks later.

Stuart Crainer:

It strikes me that your book is a kind of positive and optimistic book at a time when positivity and optimism are in generally short supply.

Vanessa Bohns:

I think so, but I will offer a caveat. I’d say the first half of the book is very positive and optimistic. And for sure the main takeaway that we have more influence than we think is empowering. And I’d say reassuring, it’s always been reassuring to me, but I do have the second half of the book where I focus on what happens when you underestimate your influence and you use it unintentionally in negative ways.

When you put people in awkward positions, by asking for things that they feel uncomfortable doing, but they feel even more uncomfortable saying no to. When people misuse their power because they’re unaware of the fact that when you’re in a powerful position, your whisper sounds like a shout to people who you have power over.

And so in that way, I think it’s optimistic, empowering, reassuring. But I also think there’s a little bit of the sobering aspect, that with the Spider-Manny type quote, “With great power comes great responsibility” and so true with influence.

Stuart Crainer:

The shouting and whisperings, interesting. So people tend to shout unnecessarily.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. So there’s some research showing basically that when we want to convince someone to do something, right. The researchers use the example of someone who really needs to make a health change, and you could imagine in your own life if there’s someone who you really just want to start exercising or eating better or stop smoking or whatever it is that you just want someone to do.

I mean, get vaccinated, wear a mask, all these kinds of things. And we tend to think that people aren’t listening to us when we’re telling them what we think they should be doing, right? And so we tend to raise our voices, we tend to shout.

We tend to be overly assertive and aggressive when trying to get our message across because we assume that we’re not getting through. Right? And part of that is because we aren’t in someone else’s head. We don’t know how much, once we say something, no matter how softly we say it, they might be thinking about it later.

And so these researchers showed that people choose when they have to ask someone to, or kind of convince someone to do something health related, they choose to use overly assertive messages, thinking those will be most effective, but those are the exact messages that are least effective. And people respond a lot better, not surprisingly when you don’t yell at them.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. You could apply this to parenting really, couldn’t you?

Vanessa Bohns:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And I think about parenting a lot in this context and I get asked about it a lot. And I think what happens is so often, I mean, I remember now I’m a parent, but I remember as a child, like so often my parents would say something and there was no way I was going to let them know that I was really listening or that really resonated, but it would stay in my head.

And there are things that they said years ago that I can still remember. And I think there has to be a certain amount of trust that once we say something it’s been heard and we don’t have to necessarily raise our voices or kind of beat it into someone’s head that actually they may be listening, but they just don’t want to let on. And so there’s this invisible influence that’s happening that we just kind of have to trust is there.

Stuart Crainer:

And how did the pandemic inform your research? I mean, you probably finished writing the book during the pandemic, but did it change any aspects of it?

Vanessa Bohns:

It got me thinking about aspects of the book. So I was thinking about the extent to which people do things without realizing how they impact other people, that they tend to do things at the height of the pandemic, there are all these stories of people going on spring break, lining up at bars on St. Patrick’s Day.

And this was very early on before vaccines, before we had a lot of the information we have now, and people thought everyone these people were sort of being selfish and they didn’t care about how this could impact other people.

But the way I was thinking about it with the book at the time, I was really focused on this idea that people were really egocentric, meaning they aren’t really thinking about how their behaviors then get passed on to somebody else. How, if they brought coronavirus home in one of those situations, that that could pass to somebody else and into somebody else and to somebody else and that they could be spreading this disease.

And we don’t tend to think that, we just don’t think that far ahead. We don’t realize the way our behaviors spread and things like disease can spread. I’d say the other way that my research itself kind of changed in the pandemic is we’ve done a lot of research with face to face interactions.

So a lot of making requests face to face, giving compliments face-to-face. And so we’ve had to switch and kind of figure out what’s the most effective way to ask for things when you can’t do it face to face? Does it matter, for example, when you give compliments through mediated communication as opposed to face to face?

And so we were able to sort of look at different mediated means of communication and look at whether email, Zoom or the phone is more effective for influence. And conclusion is that email is terrible in general. Email is not a very effective way to get people to do things you want, but the phone and Zoom can make up for a lot of that. And so using richer media is a much more effective way to try to influence people.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Now I find myself using email in an attempt to influence people quite a lot rather than avoiding human interaction.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Lazy way, isn’t it? I mean, your book makes clear that the power of face to face interaction trumps everything.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And it’s fascinating because when we ask people, so we have a study where we had people make a request either over email or face to face, face to face was 34 times more effective than over email. But before they made this request, we had our participants guess how effective these requests would be.

And they actually saw no difference between face to face and email. They really felt like if someone’s going to agree to do this, they’re just going to agree to do it. Right? They’ll do it because they want to or they don’t, because they like me or they don’t, because they want to help or they don’t.

And they didn’t think about the actual context that when you ask, it’s a different sort of scenario if you’re face to face in front of someone and they can look you in the eye and it’s hard to say no, and they have that trust and that social connection. It just changes things completely.

Stuart Crainer:

So we shouldn’t be afraid to ask? We’re-

Vanessa Bohns:

Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

But presumably there are reasons why we don’t want to ask because we don’t want to be rejected.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. So we don’t want to ask because we’re afraid of rejection. Another thing is we think we’ll be judged more harshly than we actually are. So when we ask for help, we think that we’re revealing some vulnerability or that people are going to judge us for not being able to figure something out on our own.

When in fact, people don’t judge us for those things. When we ask for advice, we think that people again will judge us for needing advice on something. When in fact, research shows that people appreciate when you ask them for advice because it makes them feel really smart.

And so they think you must be really smart to come to them for advice. And so in all those ways that we might hold back from asking for something we should like help, advice, things that aren’t harmful in any way. Right. Then we should kind of get over some of those hums and just ask.

Stuart Crainer:

Well, what’s interesting really is its kind of human nature and behavior 101, isn’t it, that we still need reminding that actually having the confidence to ask people for perfectly reasonable things face to face is the best thing to do. But it’s important to be reminded though.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And I think that, even for me, there’s the question of ease, as you said, it’s just so much more convenient to write out an email sometimes that we convince ourselves that’s just as good as asking someone face to face or picking up the phone. But also, asking is fraught. It comes with all these anxieties.

So even, I tell a story in the book about my husband and I where we got a screw in our tire and the nearest garage in the small town had already closed, at least an hour before. But we drove over there and the mechanic was still there in the garage. And when my husband unrolled the window, he said, “Are you closed?”

And the mechanic said, “Yup.” And he rolled the window back up. And I was like, “No, ask him if he’d be willing to just take this screw out.” It was not a big deal. We just needed to unplug the screw and put that gooey stuff they put in the tire. And so he unrolled the window again and said, “We just wondered, we have a screw in our tire.” And the guy was completely happy to agree.

He actually seemed to feel really good about being able to help us out. But even though my husband knows my work, for me, it still felt awkward to ask. We just needed that reminder of like, no, this is reasonable. The person probably won’t feel that bad doing this tiny little thing. In fact, they might feel good. So just ask.

Stuart Crainer:

Perhaps your husband have been watching too many movies where that is the scenario and it goes badly.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah, maybe.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. But it’s that willingness to ask. I wonder, what’s the reaction of senior leaders in organizations when they talk to you? Because obviously, they probably think they have influence.

Vanessa Bohns:

Well-

Stuart Crainer:

They do have influence, but does the same thing apply to them?

Vanessa Bohns:

That’s the thing, they do have influence. Right? If you’re in a hierarchical position of power, if you have the authority, you by definition have more influence. And so you would think that those people are incredibly aware of the influence they have. But in fact, there’s a lot of research on what it means to sort of psychologically to be in a position of power and how that can impact our ability to recognize the impact we have on other people.

So there’s research that shows that when you are in this position of power, when you’re in an authority position, you’re actually less like to take the perspectives of the people around you. Mostly because you don’t need to, right. You don’t need to kind of figure out what’s going on in their heads to get access to resources, you already have access to the resources.

You’re already the person in power. And so you might just throw out something in a meeting and then not obsess about it afterwards and wonder what everyone thought of the way the rest of us would. Right? And so for that reason, you may actually underestimate the impact that you have.

You may make comments without a second thought and people may take those comments really seriously and implement them even if they’re not the greatest idea. They may not feel comfortable pushing back against you. But all those things, when you’re in a position of power, we tend to be oblivious to. So in some ways, when you’re in a position of power, you can underestimate your influence even more.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. It’s amazing what we’re oblivious to, isn’t it?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah, exactly.

Stuart Crainer:

Let’s get some questions from the audience. Rajneesh Sharma is watching in New Delhi in India. “Do you think our politicians use principles as discovered in your research?” It’s good to get the political question out the way, isn’t it?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. That’s a great question. I actually talk a little bit about this phenomenon known as audience tuning in my book and how this can happen with politicians. So audience tuning is basically the tendency to talk to a given audience in a way that we think they’re going to be most receptive. And an interpersonal sort of the most basic way, it could be, I can tell you’re from out of town.

And so I’m going to give you more elaborate directions than someone I could tell is from in town, right? If you’re asking for directions. So that’s like a really simple version of audience tuning. But of course, if you’re a politician and you’re talking to one group of people, for example, your hardcore base, right?

As opposed to a more general audience, you also tune your message to try to talk to those two groups of people. Right? You try to talk to the groups in ways that you think they’ll be most receptive to. What’s so interesting about this concept of audience tuning is that while we do that, when we say these things to an audience, we tend to actually believe the things we say a little bit more.

It’s something called the saying is believing effect. So if I’m talking to my hardcore base and I make a comment and they erupt with cheers, I start to believe what I just said a little bit more. Even if I was just kind of trying to appease my base at first, now I’m like, “Oh, maybe that was a really good idea because they really liked that.” Right?

And so in that way, being in the audience can actually shape what politicians believe and the kinds of positions that they take. Right? Because as they try to sort of appease us and speak to us and we react, they can take our reaction as sort of further reinforcement that what they said is really a good idea. So yes, I’d say it applies in with politicians as well.

Stuart Crainer:

The context is everything and that willingness to tune into your audience. And there’s the Japanese idea of reading the air, and I think it’s in the book called The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. And I think that ability to tune into context and question and be open to it is really powerful and not many people have it.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And I think we tend, this is a big sort of takeaway I like from the book too, is that we tend to think of the person with all the power when it comes to influence as that person in front of the stage. Right? As the person at the podium, talking to everybody in the audience.

But I’d say people who are actually on stage, people who are behind the podium, people holding the mic, are actually super attuned to the audience. They are really paying attention. I know. So I teach a lecture of 200 students and I look around the audience the whole time and I see all these faces and if those faces are nodding off and bored, I change what I’m talking about.

I might change my demeanor to try to wake them up a little bit. I might use a funny example. I might move on a little quicker to something I think that they’ll like more. If everyone’s nodding and smiling, I’ll do a deeper dive into something that we’re talking about. Right.

So even though I’m the one in the front of the room, in front of the podium looking at this audience, the audience is shaping what they’re being told. They’re shaping what I am saying. And so the power dynamic is not as distinct as we tend to think. Right. It’s not just that person in front of the room with power, it’s also the audience.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Yeah. So power is more dispersed, but we tend to see it as isolated and concentrated.

Vanessa Bohns:

Exactly. Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. No, it’s really interesting. Alper Utku, comments from Turkey. “There is no wrong intervention, but so often there is a wrong timing.” Thank you Alper. I think that’s quite profound. Isn’t it? Yeah. But I suppose that is when, going back to what you said, about when you ask that question, when you ask that favor, it is a question of timing. Isn’t it, as well? For your side and for the other persons.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And what’s interesting is, so there’s a couple of my fellow colleagues who have books about timing. So for example, Katy Milkman has this book, How To Change, where she talks about times when people are most open or receptive to change, right? If you want to get people to sign up for a certain policy at your organization, she’s got things like the fresh start effect, where you want to kind of create a fresh start that makes people ready to change.

Another person who talks about it is Zoe Chance. She has this book, Influence Is Your Superpower. And she talks about these moments of truth, where all of a sudden people are more receptive. They’re ready to sort of listen to your message. Right. She talks about when an airline would advertise tropical vacations during downpours, right?

It’s during a downpour when everyone’s feeling really just sad and depressed and wants to get away. And so those are the moments where this airline would pull out their message. And it was just when people were ready to hear it, right? So definitely timing can make a difference in these kinds of contexts.

Stuart Crainer:

That’s kind of the algorithms of influence, isn’t it? Yeah. No, Zoe Chance’s work is really good. And Katy Milkman is a Thinker50 award winner. Her work’s really good as well. And yeah, because that’s the beauty of this subject. And what’s nice is you sharing other people’s work in this area. It just seems a really nice, fertile, collaborative area because there’s so many nuances to it.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And I think so many of us are coming at a lot of these questions from similar perspectives because we read this same research, but we each have our own kind of individual take on it. So it definitely feels like a collaborative field.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Anna Nielsen from Minneapolis says, “How do you think we can leverage invisible influence in situations where there is conflict?”

Vanessa Bohns:

Well, that’s a great question. I mean, so one thing I like to talk about is that we tend to over perceive conflict. So one of the ways we underestimate our influence is by assuming, for example, our positions are further apart from somebody else and they actually are. Often, we picture our position over here and the other person’s over here, they’re often a little closer like here.

And so if you can actually talk to them in that space that’s a lot closer to where they are, they’re going to be more receptive. So that’s one way. And then another thing, so there’s some interventions for talking to people who actually do have very different opinions from you. And one of them is motivational interviewing.

So you basically ask them questions to try to understand their perspective and bring them towards you a little bit. And in some way that kind of harnesses this power of being in the audience. It’s not that I’m going to talk at you and convince you to change, right? I’m going to be your audience. I’m going to listen to you explain things. And I’m going to ask hard questions that make you have to explain things in ways that make sense.

And sometimes I’m not going to agree. Right. And so you’re not going to be sure if your answer was quite right, and you might rethink your answer a little bit. So again, you can flip the script and be someone’s audience and try to get them to change that way, by the way they talk to you and the way you react, as opposed to kind of talking at them.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. But it is willingness to put yourself in other people’s shoes, isn’t it? And to think what their agenda is and what their concerns are about.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. That’s a big thing. So Jonah Berger, another influence researcher, talks about kind of finding these higher order values that you both can agree on or that you can basically work with and kind of figure out how their actual position on a certain issue really fits sort of higher order value.

And kind of convince them that actually, if you really believe this higher order value, maybe your position isn’t really meeting that. Right. And one thing, so a lot of books on influence, like Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People, talk about getting into other people’s heads and taking perspective.

And he uses that term taking perspective, which basically means you’re trying to get into somebody else’s head. But the whole time, you’re kind of guessing what they might think. Right? I’m going to try to figure out what you think.

But as I do that, I kind of never leave my own head. I’m still searching my own head, relying on my own experiences. If I want to know how you took something I said, I’m motivated to think you took it in a certain way. And so I may guess wrong when I’m trying to get into your head.

And so some researchers have shown that there’s actually a much more effective way to get into other people’s heads, and they call it getting perspective. Which isn’t trying to guess what someone else might think or how they might react to something, it’s actually asking them. Right?

So coming out and saying like, “What do you think about this? What is your opinion on this? How did you take this thing I said?” And in fact, other research shows people are more willing to open up when you ask them questions, then we tend to think. Right? And then we actually are way more accurate because then we get out of our own heads and we figure out what someone’s really thinking about something.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. And the response, I’m shaking my head. Yes, the false binary. I feel like. Thank you. And has a follow up question, looking for the shared values is easy once you practice, it sounds like we both value recognition. It’s how that looks that causes the conflict.

Vanessa Bohns:

Exactly. Exactly.

Stuart Crainer:

So yeah, that’s nicely put, I think.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

Catherine Twidle has got a question, “What to suggest for those who say they will help you, but don’t do anything.” Why don’t they just say no? People find it very difficult to say no, don’t they? Especially in some cultures.

Vanessa Bohns:

Exactly. So actually, we find this a fascinating question because one of the reasons we find that people agree to do things for us more than we expect is that it’s harder to say no than we tend to realize when we’re the ones doing the asking.

So lots of times, and if you imagine yourself on the other side, right, and someone asks you to do something, it’s hard to find the words to say no, it feels socially risky. Am I damaging the relationship or what you think of me? Or am I suggesting that I don’t like you, or you’re asking for something inappropriate?

There are all these things that go through our heads that make saying no socially risky and really just aversive, right? Just really uncomfortable to do. And so in many situations, especially if you’re being asked face to face, you’re put on the spot, you may say yes. Right? And then not follow up.

And so we have looked at this in some of our research and it turns out the more that you do put someone on the spot, the more likely they are to do that. Right. So if you ask something over a video call, for example, instead of over email, they’re more likely to say, “Yeah. I’ll do that,” but then just not follow through.

And so depending on sort of what your goal is, do you want someone to just commit right there or do you want to make sure that they are agreeing and they’re really committed to it and they’re going to follow through. Right? You might change how you ask for something.

So if you want someone to give it a lot of thought and have time to say no, if they really don’t want to do it, then you would want to ask over email. You would want to give them the space and the time to come up with the words to say no, if that’s what they want to do. And then you’re less likely to have them drop out down the road. And so it’s about calibrating, I’d say, what your goal is.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Interesting. Erica Lucas from the UK has got a point, which relates to the pandemic. And she says that, “Entry level employee like graduates may never have had the opportunity to interact with their managers, colleagues face to face, because their main experience has been during the pandemic.

Should organizations be providing specific support on this? I mean, are we sitting on a kind of influence time bomb in that these people have been deprived of face to face interaction, therefore don’t really know how it works?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. I do think it’s an issue that needs to be, at least, managed. It’s not one of those things that’s like, the end of the world, but I think that it needs to be accounted for or managed. I think, especially if there’s a hybrid environment, that’s where it gets particularly tricky.

If there’s a set of employees who are in-person and are having those kind of informal run-ins and talking about things, not in formal meetings, and just getting to know each other better in these informal ways. Right?

They become kind of a more bonded that understands how each other works, and they can wind up having more influence than people who only show up on the screen from time to time. Right. And so as much as possible, we should try to get people who are working remotely to have more of those informal kind of interactions. And I know these virtual happy hours are hard.

They’re not the same, virtual coffees and things like that. I actually suggest doing phone calls, like informal phone calls, instead of Zoom calls or video calls for things like this, because it’s easier to focus on someone else’s voice when you don’t have the visual aspect as well. We all are suffering from Zoom fatigue.

And actually, there’s some research showing that there’s more empathy created in a phone call than a video. Interestingly, maybe because we focus more on someone’s specific voice as opposed to seeing ourselves and the other person on screen. But using things like phone calls, I think you do want to create more of that in form of we just had a chat, we just talked about our lives a little bit.

We talked about our goals in the organization or even what you thought of the last meeting or some of these decisions that are happening. Because I know here at my organization we have these meetings, we make a decision and then often we all walk into the hallway and have a debriefing on that decision where we really understand where everyone was coming from so much better.

And if you’re not getting that because you’re remote, I think you miss a lot of how that decision got made in that meeting. And it can feel like this black box of what just happened. And so I think definitely finding ways to create those points of contact is really important.

Stuart Crainer:

What about the cultural differences? Because it seems to me that asking somebody, well, certain cultures, as I said, are more aloof to say no. And we are all working global organizations. So asking people is a very different thing when you’re asking somebody in say Japan or China, if you’re asking them to do something, it works very differently.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. You know what’s interesting, we’ve run our studies in several different countries. So we’ve run the same studies where we have people guess how likely someone would be to say yes and then go and ask people for this particular thing. And one of the cases it was just questionnaires, like were you fill out a questionnaire. So we did that study and we did it in New York and Amsterdam and Beijing all at the same time.

We’ve also done it in Toronto. So we’ve done it in different cultures, mostly urban areas. But what we found was that we found the effect everywhere. So everywhere, by a fairly large amount, people were underestimating how likely people would be to agree. So that does seem to be somewhat universal, but it’s not surprising that it was smaller in China, right?

In a more collectivistic kind of culture where there’s more the sense of obligation to people if you’re asking them for something. And there’s more awareness of that sense of obligation, right, that yeah, people are going to be obligated if I ask for this. So there’s a few interesting takeaways about the cultural differences and also sort of the things that are universal there.

One is that in more individualistic cultures, right? The onus is often on the person to say no, when we ask for something. And we think we’ll just shoot our shot. We’ll just ask for something, and if they don’t want to do it, they’ll just say no. But that’s not often true, right? There’s still that sense of obligation even in more individualistic cultures. And so that can be a problem.

And then in more collectivistic cultures, there’s more of an understanding that if I’m going to ask for something, there is a sense of obligation. So I need to think, should I really be asking for this? And so there’s a little bit more of that sort of self-monitoring when we ask and we may hold back more in those cases and not ask for things that we maybe should.

Stuart Crainer:

That would be interesting on your book sales, won’t it, if you sell the Mandarin rights? Because I can see that certain countries might really embrace the ideas and other countries and cultures might have difficulty with them.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And we have a Chinese version coming out. I think it’s simplified Chinese coming out. So we will see.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Yeah. That’ll be interesting. A question from somebody else. It’s Kevin Manco, I guess, that asked the question. “How do you encourage people to open up about the work that is close to them without fear that we’re taking taken away from them? Because I think from what you are talking about requires a degree of openness and trust really, doesn’t it? And they’re often in short supply in organizations.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. That’s true. I do think that there has to be sort of a willingness to trust one another. And I think that, for the most part, people are trustworthy. It’s the kind of unique situation where somebody isn’t, and often when we open up and trust somebody else, we get their trust as reciprocation.

Right? So that kind of is the starting point. This is one of the things I talk about in the book in terms of something called the truth default, right. That we in general, when we’re deciding, should I trust this person, should I believe this person or not?

People tend to default to believing and trusting people because at the end of the day, even if we’re not sure, it’s so much worse to give to that sort of paranoia that someone can’t be trusted. Right? And at the end of the day, do you really want to work with people or be in a situation where that is the case? Right. Where you have to think that way. So I do think it probably makes sense to err on the side of trusting.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. No. And that’s what I like about it, the positivity and optimism, and kind of faith in human nature overall is good.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. Although, I did write an article just yesterday, it came out, about Anna Delvey and the Tinder Swindler and how they took advantage of all these things. So it’s not purely naive. And there are people who are aware of these kinds of aspects of human nature that we do default to believing, we do default to trust.

We don’t like to call people out if we feel like they’ve done something wrong, but they are definitely the minority, which is why they’re all over the news and Netflix specials get made about them.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Yeah. You don’t get Netflix specials about nice people.

Vanessa Bohns:

Exactly.

Stuart Crainer:

So wait, how does this fit in with imposter syndrome?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. I get asked about the link a lot, which is interesting. I probably should have included something about imposter syndrome in the book because I definitely think they’re related, right? It’s this tendency to be harder on ourselves than we need to be, to kind of compare our insides to other people’s outsides.

So there’s something called the liking gap I talk about, by Erica Boothby, a researcher at Wharton. And she shows that basically when two people have a conversation and then leave and you ask them, how much did you enjoy talking to that person? How much did you like them? And how much do you think that person enjoyed talking to you?

How much do you think they liked you? Right. Both parties think the other person liked them less than the other person actually liked them. So everybody kind of walks away from this situation feeling like they did everything wrong. They wished that they had been interesting.

They wish that they had asked more questions, whatever it is, doing this postmortem where you kind of are overly harsh on yourselves. When in fact the other person walks away just feeling like, “Oh, that was a nice conversation.” And I’m worried about all the things I did wrong, right? And so in a similar way, I think imposter syndrome, we look at other people, we see what other people are doing.

We think, “Oh wow, that person was so articulate. That person clearly knows what they’re doing in this.” But those people feel like they’re being inarticulate and feel like they’re imposters as well. And one of my favorite sort of aspects of imposter syndrome is that you’re more likely to feel like an imposter, the better that you’re doing.

So the more successful you get, the more you’re in situations where you’re looking around at successful people and seeing them perform really well and then doubting yourself by comparison. Right. And so in fact, the feeling of being an imposter is a signal that you’re actually doing pretty well.

Stuart Crainer:

Well, that’s reassuring, I guess, for the people out there suffering from imposter syndrome. I’ve been writing so many notes, I might have missed this bit, when do you need to use your influence less?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. So we talked about how it could be hard to say no. And so that can lead people to agree to something and then default on it. Right. So sure, I’ll help you move. And then the day comes, and oh, I forgot or I’m busy or whatever. But there are other situations where we might float something or suggest something and someone else may feel like they can’t say no.

And it could be something that could be problematic. Right. So some of the things I talk about in the book are unethical requests. So one of my favorite studies that we ever ran, I mentioned that we’ve had studies where we’ve had people ask other people to do things like do a survey, donate money, all these nice little favors. But we also ran studies where we had people ask strangers to do unethical things.

And one of them was that we took books off of my bookshelf, we put little library codes in the spine and we sent our participants into libraries and had them tell people they were playing a prank on their friend. And this friend knew their handwriting. So would this person just write the word pickle and pen in this library book? So they went to libraries and they asked people to do this. And we asked them, “How many people do you think are actually going to do this?”

And not surprisingly, they thought most people were going to say, “No, like this was a ridiculous thing. Why would anyone do this?” Right? And when they went and they asked people, they said things like, this doesn’t seem right. This is a library book. We shouldn’t be doing this. We’re going to get into trouble. There was protesting. But in the end, most people wound up doing it.

Because in the end, it was harder to say no to that person standing in front of them asking them for something, than it was to just do this thing that they also felt uncomfortable doing. And so that’s an example of situations where we might make a suggestion or just ask someone for something, and assume they’ll say no, if they feel uncomfortable with it.

But in fact, they’re less likely to do so than we think. And they may go along with uncomfortable things more than we realize and more than we would like. And so that has all sorts of applications to the Me Too movement, right. Where we might ask a colleague on a date, right? And feel like they could just say no, if they don’t want to, but they actually feel quite uncomfortable in that situation.

It also has implications for people in positions of power who are even more hard to say no to. And as we talked about, when you’re in a position of power, you’re even less likely to understand that. So you may float things and assume, eh, if they feel uncomfortable with this they’ll just tell me, but they won’t.

Stuart Crainer:

Just to clarify that, you asked them to write the word pickle?

Vanessa Bohns:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Okay. For any particular reason?

Vanessa Bohns:

It’s so funny, when you design an experiment, you have to come up with each little. Right? And this was the thing in this case that we spent the most time working through. We’re like what would make sense to ask them to write? So we had longer things and shorter things. I don’t even remember the other options now, but we were like, “The word pickle just sounds pranky.” Right?

Stuart Crainer:

But designing the experiments, must be great fun. But that’s what makes that makes the book work, doesn’t it? Or the research. There got to be killer questions and killer exercises.

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. And what’s funny is, especially with that one, we were pretty sure it wasn’t going to work. We were like, “This is crazy. No one’s going to do this.” And the best thing is when you design an experiment, that you’re hoping will surprise your participant and you wind up surprising yourself. That’s when you really know this is a fascinating phenomenon, because I would’ve never thought that many people would agree to vandalize a library book.

Stuart Crainer:

And do you ever encounter people in your research who really get what you’re talking about and already put it into practice? Because I mean, I can think of, I can’t think that there can’t be many people who are sensitive and on top of life to put all this into practice, but you must encounter some.

Vanessa Bohns:

I’ve had a few interesting participants in my studies, and usually who are like, they’ve had some life experience that makes them look at what we’re asking them to do through a different lens. So one had done this thing called rejection therapy, which is this game that you can play where you try to get yourself rejected every day by asking people ridiculous things.

And so actually after this participant participated in my study, he wanted to talk to me after. And I was all worried he was going to ask me about the ethicality of the library books and get me in trouble, which they were not a library books. But instead he was like, “This feels like rejection therapy. Is this what you’re doing? Are you doing experiment on it?” And I had never even heard of it.

And so then I learned of this kind of approach that some people have taken to get over rejection. And then interestingly, I’ve had people who have been in sales participate in my studies, and they often have a very different take because they think of the salesy kind of thing, like traditional persuasion.

And I think many people are going to say no, but instead this is more of like an interpersonal interaction. Right. And so we actually get much higher rates of compliance when you’re just asking someone for a favor than when you’re trying to sell them something.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Where does the research go next, Vanessa? I mean, presumably you’re constantly thinking up of research exercises and tests for people, but where does it go overall?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah. I think one thing that I’m really interested in, because people keep asking me about how to say no in a better way, in a way that feels more comfortable. So I think one of the next things I’m planning to explore is trying different scripts for saying no. And what makes everybody feel better so that people are better able to say no.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. Who wrote the book, Getting to Yes, is a famous book. Isn’t it?

Vanessa Bohns:

Yeah.

Stuart Crainer:

But Getting to No is really interesting. But there’s yes, no gets bad press. Doesn’t it?

Vanessa Bohns:

It does. And they actually have another book called Getting Past No, which I think is so funny because I always think of it as people don’t say no as much as we think.

Stuart Crainer:

Vanessa, we’re out of time. Lots of food for thought. Therefore, everyone watching, You Have More Influence Than You Think, what a great title for a book, as a starting point, anyway. If you want to buy the book, and then I noticed somebody watching has already bought the book, it’s published by Norton in all good bookshops and all online stores available now.

Stuart Crainer:

Sweeping the world, heading to China next. More information on Vanessa’s work can be found at vanessabohns.com. Seek out more. And as Vanessa said, there’s a host of really great people. We got Katy Milkman’s work and Zoe Chance’s work in this area. And kind of knitting them together, I think, is really interesting and really practically useful.

Stuart Crainer:

So Vanessa, thank you very much for joining us today and thank you everyone for watching. We’ll be back again next week with someone else from the Thinkers50 Radar for 2022. Thank you very much.

Vanessa Bohns:

Thank you.

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