The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others by Tali Sharot – review

The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change OthersThe Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others by Tali Sharot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got an advance reader’s edition of this from the publisher Henry Holt & CO through LibraryThing. I’d read Ms. Sharot’s The Optimism Bias five years ago when I had just started a year-long management program and liked what she wrote, so requested the opportunity to read this. Even though this is an advance copy, and I quote from it below, I don’t think there will be substantial changes from the final publication.

“You and I share a role.” – That’s the opening line of the Prologue (in the copy I got), and Ms. Sharot nearly derailed herself with me almost immediately because the first line in the second paragraph was “This duty we all share is to affect others.” I was puzzled as to how a “role” became a “duty”. I also had a hard time with a small point in her Prologue where she related how a campaign candidate (an expert in fear-mongering) “was affecting [her] thoughts.” Affecting is not influencing. But…it is captious of me to take issue with semantics in just the opener…

The eight major divisions in her book treat different ways in which our minds are influenced and how they resist influence. (I thought her subtitles describe more of the story. In “Does Evidence Change Belief (Priors) The Power of Confirmation and the Weakness of Data“, she discusses the challenge of overcoming confirmation bias – the prior condition. Humans tend to look for agreement with established views, taking interest when in agreement and ignoring when in disagreement. Nothing new there, but when Sharot called Twitter the “Amygdala of the Internet” – “tweeting is one of the most emotionally arousing activities you likely engage in on most days” – I had to temper my own disagreement bias. Once I stopped chuckling. She makes her case that with respect to similarities in observed responses “a large proportion of our behavior can be explained by commonalities, not differences” – 80 percent predicted by average response and 20 percent by individual differences. That agrees with my position that psychological assessments are statistical in nature, but also is at odds with my position that no one can predict with certainty anything about one person. 80 percent is higher than random, for sure.

On “Should You Scare People into Action? (Incentives) Moving with Pleasure and Freezing with Fear“, the data seem to indicate that the carrot is better than the stick in influencing others. I wasn’t keen on one of her illustrations in which a woman wanted to persuade her husband to visit a gym and the mentioning of a paunch didn’t work but a compliment (following a single visit) on his defined muscles motivated him? “As long as she made her increasing physical attraction to him clear, he kept going back,[…]” Are so many that shallow that that works? Anyway, we seem to like instant reward over future pain. Obvious statement, that, but goes to counter our illusion of rationale.

“How You Obtain Power by Letting Go (Agency) The Joy of Agency and the Fear of Losing Control” – even an illusion of choice invokes a perception of control, which can be influenced. Sharot talks about “the IKEA effect” – tendency to think a shelf one puts together is better than an identical one put together by someone else. (I had a side thought on that: my wife likes to say that fruit salad made by someone else tastes better than made by herself…a wee at odds with that IKEA thing!) “The message, perhaps ironically, is that to influence actions, you need to give people a sense of control. Eliminate the sense of agency and you get anger, frustration, and resistance. Expand people’s sense of influence over their word and you increase their motivation and compliance.”

People are naturally curious and often make the mistake of thinking that other people are equally curious about the same things. In “What Do People Really Want to Know? (Curiosity) The Value of Information and the Burden of Knowledge“, Sharot points out that our instinct being that if we have something (we think is) important to convey, other people would want to know, is wrong. This chapter has some valuable tools for engagement – at least being aware that we might need to reframe our message. Well, of course! Important lesson in reaching others is critically examining one’s own perspective in order to frame the message to the target audience. And perhaps not surprisingly, people tend to prefer to remain ignorant, even at terrible costs. To influence, we need to re-evaluate the value of the information we wish to communicate in terms of that audience – and make the message positive, or at least not negative.

It may seem obvious, but mental state has a huge effect on susceptibility to influence…particularly when the state is feeling threatened. In “What Happens to Minds Under Threat? (State) The Influence of Stress and the Ability to Overcome“, Sharot explains that being stressed or intimidated changes the way people process information and make decisions, often resulting in “playing it safe” when even a mild risk is the better approach.

The last two chapters involved the influence of what “Others” are thinking on us. The subtitle of “Why Do Babies Love iPhones?” is “The Strength of Social Learning and the Pursuit of Uniqueness“. Humans (and higher primates and other animal) initially learn from others by observation and “while we like to see ourselves as different [the paradox is that], we are also quick to adopt the views and preferences of those around us; …music…, …technology we use…, …names we give our children…” The lesson is to be mindful and carfeul when following others’ choices. And the second half of “Others” is “Is ‘Unanimous’ as Reassuring as It Sounds? How to Find Answers in an Unwise Crowd“. Sharot discusses James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, cautioning that crowd sourcing works only under specific conditions. And one must be extra careful to look at how a proposition is posed…how it is framed can affect the outcome (more my observation than in her writing.)

Ms. Sharot states something in her conclusion I’ve been saying for years, though with a little more academic oomph: “Evolution is slower than technology, and the principle organization of the brain has not experienced significant change since written language first appeared.”

Extensively sourced, Ms. Sharot packages only the proverbial tip of the influence iceberg, but she does it well in a conversational, easy read.

(I started this book in June, 2017 but set it aside to finish a couple of other ARCs. And I also set aside the early nits as unnecessarily picked!)

View all my reviews


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