Social Influence: How to Easily Build Good Habits

Human beings are herd animals. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived together in tribes.

The group provided safety, access to resources, and mating opportunities. Getting excluded from the tribe, on the other hand, was a death sentence.

We have survived and thrived through collaboration with other people. Because of that, one of the core human drives is to belong.

We have a deep need to fit in, to bond with others, and to feel accepted by the people around us. And those ancient preferences still influence us in a big way.

The Power of Social Influence

From an early age, we conform to the attitudes, feelings, and actions of those around us. Our family and friends, our school, our local community, and society all shape the person we become.

Each of these groups provide the standards and expectations that we live by. These social norms are kind of like invisible rules that form our identity, guide our behavior, and affect our outcomes.

Imagine, for example, that you’re a student struggling with poor grades. The intuitive solution to that problem is to study harder.

But research suggests that a better strategy is to simply pick a smart roommate. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, researcher Shawn Achor writes1:

One study of Dartmouth College students by economist Bruce Sacerdote illustrates how powerful this influence is. He found that when students with low grade-point averages simply began rooming with higher-scoring students, their grade-point averages increased. These students, according to the researchers, “appeared to infect each other with good and bad study habits—such that a roommate with a high grade-point average would drag upward the G.P.A. of his lower-scoring roommate.”

Behavior is Contagious

And study habits are of course just one area where our social circles influences us. Other fascinating research shows that:

  • If your neighbour gets a new car, you’re significantly more likely to buy a new car2.
  • If your colleagues are often late for work, you’ll be much more inclined to come in late, too3.
  • If you’re a woman and your coworker recently had a child, you’re more likely to get pregnant4.
  • If your friends, siblings, or coworkers get a divorce, you’re more likely to get divorced as well5.
  • If you have a friend who becomes obese, your risk of also becoming obese increases by 57 percent—even if your friend lives hundreds of miles away6!

I could go on and on with examples, but I’m sure you get the point: The people around you deeply influence the person you become.

Over time, the way they do things become the way you do things.

Leverage Social Influence

Whenever you set out to create a new habit, make sure to establish positive social influence around it.

Let’s say, for instance, that you want to exercise regularly. You’ll be much more likely to make that happen if you team up with a workout partner, hire a personal trainer or get a group training membership.

Surround yourself with the right people, and your behavior will naturally adapt to theirs.

Footnotes

  1. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor
  2. The Effects of Lottery Prizes on Winners and their Neighbors: Evidence from the Dutch Postcode Lottery
  3. Employee Lateness Behavior: The Role of Lateness Climate and Individual Lateness Attitude
  4. Businesses, Buddies and Babies: Social Ties and Fertility at Work
  5. Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too: Social Network Effects on Divorce in a Longitudinal Sample
  6. The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years