The powerful impact of invisible influences

The powerful impact of invisible influences

Invisible influences may be the reason that smart, thinking people make dumb (or bad) decisions and take the wrong actions.

Just being aware they exist will help you, and your interactions with others.

Campbell Such, Bidvest

Trees talk to each other.

If you’re thinking that’s about as easy to believe as hackers having all turned into good guys, and the Internet not being full of spam, you wouldn’t be alone. But it’s true. Really? Well if that’s the case, how do they communicate? The short answer is they do it through their roots. But it gets even stranger…and it involves fungus.

Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology and teacher at the University of British Columbia, used radio isotopes to track the movement of food (sugars) from a tree. They discovered the isotopes turned up in the sugars in nearby trees. And after testing with many trees, found it did not just turn up in one nearby tree or two, but up to 47 other trees. What they’d stumbled onto is that a forest is like a huge interconnected community. And they then found that it wasn’t a direct connection from tree root to tree root… instead there was a special microscopic tubular fungus that supported the transport of the sugars between the roots of different trees.

Trees have evolved a mutually beneficial relationship with fungus to exchange food and send chemical messages. The fungus extracts the minerals from the rocks and soil and supply them to trees so they can grow and flourish.

In return, the trees provide the fungus with the sugars it needs to grow, that it can’t make by itself. The fungus acts like a cross between a telephone line and a pipeline. The researchers had discovered a hidden network of communications and food sharing across a forest. They’ve even given it a name…don’t laugh…the Wood Wide Web.

And like the invisible impact on the forest, of the trees’ concealed root systems and their secret relationship with fungus, things we can't see, touch or feel have a significant influence on our lives. Let’s dig below the surface…

First let’s define invisible influences

Invisible influences are the things that happen below the level of our conscious awareness to shape our wishes, needs, desires and decisions. Because we’re not aware of them, we all tend to struggle to accept or believe they even exist. Yet they are there, nudging us, virtually all the time.

A hot drink handed to a potential customer in a first meeting will influence them to think of you as a warm person.

We think we make all our decisions rationally, logically, consciously

However, that’s not how we work in reality. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow found we use two ways of thinking and making decisions – the fast, automatic, unconscious System 1 thinking and the slow deliberate, conscious System 2 thinking. Almost all the time we’re in System 1 thinking.

The vast majority of our decisions are made with no conscious thought. We believe we make conscious rational decisions. Yet many of those decisions may well have been nudged by something we’re unaware of. And disconcertingly, those that understand how, can use knowledge of these invisible influences to manipulate us.

Here are examples of how we’re influenced, but would never suspect

1. A hot drink (coffee, tea etc.) handed to a potential customer in a first meeting will influence them to think of you as a warm person. So don’t be giving them a cold drink – even in summer

2. Seeing a video of someone walking slowly can affect how fast you walk after seeing it– you’ll tend to walk more slowly than normal.

3. Adding a high priced premium option to a list of products or services, makes it far less likely you’ll buy the cheapest option, than if the premium option didn’t exist. (Note that the vendor may never even sell any of the premium priced option but it raises the average sale value.) Keep an eye out for this when buying.

4. In an experiment, participants had to unscramble a list of random words and then hand in the results to the examiner. The words weren’t random – half the lists contained mostly positive words and the other half contained mostly negative words.

As part of the setup, the examiner was always “busy in a conversation” with someone else. If the unscrambled words were mostly negative, it significantly reduced the time the student was prepared to wait before interrupting the examiner to hand in their paper, compared to the people that unscrambled happy, uplifting and positive words. We are primed subconsciously by the people, words and emotions around us – you can use this to help yourself and others if you chose yours carefully.

5. In an experiment in the US, the server in a restaurant gave some customers two mints. For other customers, the server gave a single mint with the bill and then started to walk away. Just before leaving they turned back (as if having a sudden change of mind) and offered another mint. Both sets of customers got two mints but in the second approach the average tip increased by a massive 50 per cent over the first. A powerful ploy that works because it makes you feel special.

6. Counterintuitively, fewer choices make it easier for you to make a decision to buy. In an experiment, at a supermarket sampling, some customers were offered six jam varieties to sample. Others were offered 24 varieties. The result was 10 times more sales by those that sampled at the six variety counter. Who says more choice is better?

7. After unsuspecting eye witnesses observed a low speed collision (it was a setup) between two cars, a researcher asked them what speed the cars collided. Her question was different for each eye witness. The question was: “What speed were the cars going when they bumped (or hit, or smashed) into each other?” The option she used to ask the question influenced the speed they witnesses reported. The more emotive the term (eg smashed versus bumped) the faster the estimate. So it is easy to influence an eyewitness’ answers with the way a question is asked – ouch. How does emotive copy affect our perception of all sorts of other things?

8. Vendors often find their customers have trouble deciding between two equal cost alternatives. Let’s call them Option1 and Option 2. It turns out that adding a third option (that’s an inferior but lower cost version of Option 1) will make it much more likely you’ll choose Option 1. If you notice this, remove the inferior option and see if that makes a difference to your decision – of course the inferior option may have already influenced your and removing it may be too late to make a difference

9.The price people would pay for a box of Belgian chocolates grew after they had been asked to write down a pair of high (compared to low) numbers from their Social Security number. It’s called anchoring, which is used widely to set a negotiation starting point by vendors to influence the price you will pay for something.

10. After drawing a set of either long, or short, lines on a piece of paper, a researcher asked high school students to estimate the length of the Mississippi River. Those who had drawn long lines estimated the length as much longer than those who had drawn short lines. Who would have picked there’d be an influence between two so apparently unrelated things?

Counterintuitively, fewer choices make it easier for you to make a decision to buy

Expectations may be the most powerful influence of all

If you take nothing else out of this, please read this one carefully and try to absorb the astonishing power of expectation. Let’s define expectation. Or perhaps what it is not. It’s not a belief, e.g. I believe I can win the race, make a million dollars, or learn Spanish. The meaning of expectation here is absolute certainty – e.g. that’s a chair, that’s a fridge, that’s the sun. It’s not that I believe it’s a chair….it is a chair. There is no belief – it is truth. That object is just completely and unquestionably a chair. And this also refers to any unquestioned expectation people have of others: eg they are talented or hopeless; intelligent or stupid; will be a doctor or has no chance of success in life

So here’s how that plays out in real life with real people.

A specially managed trial was undertaken with experienced soldiers who had been individually picked for elite military leadership training camp. The camp commander told the trainers (falsely) that a special psych assessment of each soldier had taken place. This assessment rated the soldiers as high leadership potential (H), average potential (A) or unknown (U).

The special psych assessment was a sham. What actually happened was that after they interviewed the trainee soldiers, the assessors randomly put either an H, A or U on each soldier’s file before giving it to the team trainers. The team trainers had no idea the letters on the soldiers’ files were randomly assigned.

These team trainers were highly experienced long serving elite trainers. The result after the three-month training program was that the soldiers who had been randomly assigned “high” leadership potential, massively outperformed the others. Not just academically and technically, but also across the full range of physical skills such as target shooting. The expectation of the team trainers (who had no idea of the experiment) was the only variable that made the difference.

That is a stunning result and has massive implications in our modern society. What does that mean for parents and their expectations of their kids, for teachers and their students all through school, for bosses and their employees? Could it be a factor in the overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups in jail? How might expectations influence the success, or otherwise, of your direct reports and their teams?

Read more: The CIO's secret to great conversations

Ask yourself, 'why did I make that decision?', 'why did I just buy that?', 'why am I doing what I’m doing?'

Struggling to believe? You’re not alone

We like to feel we have control over things. You may be thinking, “Invisible influences may affect others, but not me.” That’s perfectly normal. The mistake we tend to make is to think we’re not affected. But we are affected. We’re all affected. Many times a day, blissfully unaware of when it’s happening. Invisible influences may be the reason that smart, thinking people make dumb (or bad) decisions and take the wrong actions.

Russell Granger in his book 7 Triggers to Yes says: “For all the people most of the time and most of the people all the time we are in automatic mode.”

We’ve evolved to be like that. We have a three-part brain where there’s been a billion years of the reptilian (survival) brain development, 500 million years of limbic (emotional) brain development and only 10 million years of your Neocortex (conscious) development. Your conscious brain is still such a baby. It’s like expecting you to know more than your grandfather when you’re only three months old. No wonder it’s so hard to fight.

It’s tough to even recognise when it’s happening, let alone fight it

The best defence is awareness. Awareness is the flashlight to help you see more clearly through the thick fog of invisible influences, to minimise their impacts and possibly even get them working for you.

Just being aware they exist will help you, and your interactions with others. In your teams, the broader business and in your personal life.

To summarise

  • Invisible influence is all around us.
  • Expectations may be the most powerful influence – positive or negative.
  • They’re difficult to perceive and resist but awareness is the best way to shine a light through its fog.
  • Awareness can help reduce the chances we’re influenced by others wielding it.

Like tree roots and fungus working their hidden communication magic beneath the forest floor, we can’t easily see the powerful impact of invisible influence unless we dig beneath the surface. We need to stay alert and open to potential invisible influences in our lives. If we do this, we have a much higher chance of making better decisions. And we have a much better chance of winkling out the shysters that would manipulate us to buy, do, sell, feel and react when it’s not in our best interest.

So, stay alert for the signs and situations of invisible influence. Start to ask yourself, “why did I make that decision?”, “why did I just buy that?”, “why am I doing what I’m doing”, “why am I feeling like I feel?” … and you might surprise yourself with how often you spot a sneaky influence. As B J Millar M.D. says, “Don’t believe everything you think."


Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidfood, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at and through his blog.

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