I love teaching, but from the lectern at the front of the room it can be hard to tell if you’re having any impact at all. You pour your heart and soul into a lesson, only to stare out at a sea of unreadable faces, most of whom will disappear out the door the second class is over. Until one day, you get an email from a former student detailing the influence you had on their life, and, like a bolt of lightning, you experience a moment of teary-eyed recognition of the impact your words and actions can have on others.
Most of us, however, don’t regularly get this sort of insight into how we influence others. Whether we affect others in big, life-changing ways (like EMTs or social workers) or in smaller, everyday ways (like good-humored baristas), we typically only gain insight into a very tiny sliver of our true impact. In other words, we may get one email for every hundred students we’ve taught. And because we rarely get insight into our influence over others, we may chronically underestimate it. After all, if hardly anyone tells you how good your compliment made them feel, or that they were smiling all day about that joke you told them, how would you know you had any impact at all?
Curious about this phenomenon, fellow psychologist Erica Boothby and I thought up an experiment: What if we asked people before they engaged in an ordinary interaction with another person what they expected their impact on the other person to be, and then immediately asked the other person how much they were actually impacted? Would people underestimate the influence they have on others in these sorts of commonplace, everyday interactions?
Because we rarely get insight into our influence over others, we may chronically underestimate it.
We recruited people to participate in our study and told them that it essentially consisted of a single task: they were to leave the lab and go outside, approach a random stranger (of the same gender), and compliment them. We even told them what to compliment the stranger on: they were simply to say, “Hey, I like your shirt.”
Before they left the lab, we asked our participants to guess how good this compliment would make the other person feel. Then we gave them an envelope to hand to the other person right after complimenting them. Inside the envelope was a survey asking the other person how good the compliment made them feel and a second envelope for the approached stranger to put their completed survey in and seal so our participants couldn’t see what the other person had said (which could have made strangers less honest in their responses).
What we found in this study has changed the way I interact with strangers: if I have something nice to say to someone, I make the effort to say it. Because I now know my seemingly trivial, awkwardly phrased compliment will make the other person feel significantly happier than I think it will. The strangers participants approached and complimented in our study said they enjoyed the interaction and that the compliment made them feel more “flattered” and “good” than our participants expected it would when they imagined giving it. More than this, when we ran the study again and asked participants how annoyed and bothered people would feel being approached and complimented by a random stranger, participants thought their actions would be perceived as much more annoying and bothersome than the people who were approached reported actually feeling.
And it’s not simply about complimenting someone on their shirt. We found the same pattern of results when we asked participants to find something—anything—they genuinely liked about a random stranger to say to them. Overwhelmingly, the recipients of such praise appreciated it more than the people offering it anticipated.
Despite the fact that everyone is busy observing everyone else, we tend to think we are somehow more invisible than the people around us.
So, people underestimate how good a simple compliment will make others feel, and overestimate how annoying it is to be stopped by a random stranger who wants to express their admiration. This phenomenon also goes beyond superficial praise.
We tend to believe that others are watching us less, listening to us less, and generally paying less attention to us than they actually are. Boothby and her colleagues coined the term the “invisibility cloak illusion” to describe the invisibility we often feel as we go about our daily lives—sitting on the train with our headphones on or walking through the park in our sunglasses, all while observing the people around us yet feeling unobserved ourselves, as if we’re wearing an invisibility cloak.
In one of the early studies demonstrating this phenomenon, Boothby and her coauthors surveyed students who had been dining with others in a busy campus dining hall. The researchers wanted to see whether the students felt more invisible—in other words, less observed—than they in fact were by other people while eating lunch in a public place.
To test this hypothesis, they randomly assigned students exiting the dining hall to different conditions. In one condition, the students were asked how much they found themselves noticing or observing the people around them in the dining hall (i.e., their behavior, mannerisms, and appearance), how curious they had been about the people around them, and the extent to which they had wondered what was going on inside the heads of the people around them. Students assigned to another condition were asked how much they thought the other people in the dining hall were noticing or observing them (their behavior, mannerisms, and appearance), were curious about them, and wondered what was going in their heads. Participants’ ratings of how much they found themselves observing other people were more than 67 percent higher than participants’ ratings of how much they thought other people were observing them. Despite the fact that everyone is busy observing everyone else, we tend to think we are somehow more invisible than the people around us.
Ad executives may need to pull out all the stops in order to grab people’s attention, but you don’t. You already have it. You are a person, not an ad or a tweet, and people are wired to notice other people.
This research dispels the misperception that in order to get someone to pay attention to you, you have to wave your hands around and shout. Ad executives may need to pull out all the stops in order to grab people’s attention, but you don’t. You already have it. You are a person, not an ad or a tweet, and people are wired to notice other people. More than that, they are wired to wonder what other people are thinking, and to adjust their own thoughts and behaviors accordingly. What this means is that you are quietly and subtly influencing the people around you all the time—without even trying, and often without realizing it.
This revelation can be both empowering and sobering. On the one hand, it means that having influence is in many ways easier and less extraordinary than we imagine. While the times you’ve tried and failed to influence someone may loom large, there are undoubtedly far more examples of times you’ve influenced someone without trying at all—and without ever seeing the influence you had. On the other hand, this also means there have likely been times you influenced someone unintentionally, in ways you may even wish you hadn’t.
Ultimately, I hope you recognize the influence you have so that you can use it more mindfully. I want you to feel more emboldened to exercise your influence when it makes sense to do so, while also taking greater responsibility for the influence you may at times wield in ways you don’t intend or may not even be aware. Also, I like your shirt!
Adapted from You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters. Copyright (c) 2021 by Vanessa Bohns. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.