Sunday read: Why we do the things we do

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Though we like to think we’re all individual little snowflakes — and in some respects, of course, we are — we’re also incredibly tribal and easily led by other sources into groups, whether it’s emulating our neighbor’s tastes or clicking on the Top 10 Facebook trending stories.

In a Longreads interview, Jessica Gross talks with marketing professor Jonah Berger, author of “Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces the Shape Behavior,” about how influence is sometimes so quiet we don’t even realize we’re succumbing to it. At the same time, we have a powerful strain of individualism in the United States, so many people don’t even like to admit they’re marching to the same beat, much less the same drummer.

Berger sets the stage right at the top:

I’m from the D.C. area originally, and have a friend who’s a lawyer there. I was talking to him, and he was complaining that all D.C. lawyers drive BMWs — when they make it, they go out and buy a BMW. He said, “Look at how D.C. lawyers are all conformists.” I pointed out that he had actually himself just bought a BMW. And he said, “No, no, but I bought a blue one. Everyone else buys gray ones.”

That influence can be used for good, Berger notes — but it’s an uphill struggle. We define ourselves as much as what we’re against as what we’re for, and these days, in our angrily divided country, if a member of one party finds out another is for the same idea, suddenly he or she may come up with a reason to be against what was initially their shared interest.

Along similar lines, check out the New Yorker review of Tom Vanderbilt’s new book about choices and taste, “You May Also Like.”

We have so much data that can guide us to agreement these days. Will we let it divide us, too?


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