Optimal Distinctiveness and Social Influence

Jonah Berger’s Invisible Influence is in the tradition of informative marketing books based upon behavioural research, think Dan Ariely, Sheena Iyengar, or Chip Heath. He concentrates on social influence, some of the details people may know from elsewhere but all of which are interesting.

One of the key themes is that we like “Optimal Distinctiveness”.  As he explains: “We want to be similar but we want to be different. We want to do the same thing as others but we also want to be special.” (Berger, 2016, page 179). The value of difference to us follows an inverse u-shape. (You’ll never become poor betting that behavioural effects follow an inverse u-shape). In essence, this means that there is a sweet spot, where we get the benefits of being different and feeling unique while not standing out and feeling odd. Berger talks about how people like to vary on some non-critical dimension. Bankers might have the same expensive car — being similar and showing that they are part of the “banking club” — while varying the colour to seem interesting and sufficiently different. Optimal distinctiveness is just the idea that there is a perfect spot at which balance is maintained. Marketers can use this knowledge, especially when introducing new products. The advice is to make the new product moderately interesting and a little different but not too weird. People generally like to express themselves a little, but few want to be very obviously standing out there on their own.

One interesting point, which inspires the title, is that social influence is hard to perceive when it applies to us, which is why Berger calls it invisible. We see others being influenced but think we are our own independent people, somehow above being influenced by such superficialities as what the people around us are doing. Berger outlines social influence experiments about nudges in energy use that show what others do impacts us. If nothing else an important lesson of the book is that we are all influenced by other people and we all influence others. Hopefully that influence is positive.

Read: Jonah Berger (2016) Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY