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The Influence You Have: Why We Fail To See Our Power Over Others

Psychologists say we often have a hard time recognizing how much pressure we put on other people when we ask them for something.
Psychologists say we often have a hard time recognizing how much pressure we put on other people when we ask them for something.

Think about the last time you asked someone for something. Maybe you were nervous or worried about what the person would think of you. Chances are that you didn't stop to think about the pressure you exerted on that person.

Psychologists say we are often consumed with our own perspective, and fail to see the signs that others are uncomfortable, anxious or afraid. Vanessa Bohns, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, says researchers refer to this phenomenon as an "egocentric bias." This bias may reveal itself when we put others on the spot, like when we ask a co-worker out on a date or solicit a stranger for money. It causes us to vastly underestimate the pressures we place on those around us, and it can have all sorts of serious consequences.

In multiple studies, Bohns found that it was easier than people thought to convince others to do something immoral, like vandalizing a library book.

"People would say things like, 'this is wrong,'" she says. And yet, "as much as it was uncomfortable for them to do this unethical thing ... it was way more uncomfortable for them to say no."

This week: the power we exert over others, and the perils of living too much inside our own heads.

Additional Resources:

"Behavioral Study of Obedience," by Stanley Milgram in Journal of Abnormal Psychology,1963

"On 'Obedience to Authority,'" by Philip Zimbardo in American Psychologist, 1974

"If You Need Help, Just Ask: Underestimating Compliance with Direct Requests for Help," by Francis J. Flynn and Vanessa K. Bohns in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,2008

"Testing for Altruism and Social Pressure in Charitable Giving," by Stefano DellaVigna, John A. List and Ulrike Malmendier in Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2012

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