Think about the last time you asked someone for something. Maybe you were nervous or worried about what the person would think of you. Chances are that you didn’t stop to think about the pressure you were exerting on that person. This week, we explore a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as “egocentric bias,” and look at how this bias can lead us astray.
You Have More Influence Than You Think; How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters, by Vanessa Bohns, 2021.
“Behavioral Study of Obedience,” by Stanley Milgram in Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1963
“On ‘Obedience to Authority,'” by Philip Zimbardo in American Psychologist, 1974
“If You Need Help, Just Ask: Underestimating Compliance with Direct Requests for Help,” by Francis J. Flynn and Vanessa K. Bohns in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008
“Testing for Altruism and Social Pressure in Charitable Giving,” by Stefano DellaVigna, John A. List and Ulrike Malmendier in Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2012
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST: From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Philip Zimbardo grew up poor.PHILIP ZIMBARDO: I was born in New York City in the South Bronx.VEDANTAM: And as he went to school and played in his neighborhood, he noticed something. There were lots of ways for kids from poor families to get into trouble.ZIMBARDO: One of the things about growing up poor is you're surrounded by evil, meaning people whose job it is to get good kids to do bad things for money. And even as a little kid I was always curious about why some kids got seduced and other kids like me were able to resist.VEDANTAM: Were some kids smarter, tougher? Lots of people might draw such conclusions, but from an early age, Phil found himself interested in another explanation - the context in which a good kid would do something bad, the situation. At school...ZIMBARDO: James Monroe High School also in the Bronx.VEDANTAM: ...Phil got close to a classmate who was interested in the same questions.ZIMBARDO: And it was a little Jewish kid named Stanley Milgram. We were in the same class. We sat side by side. He was the smartest kid in the class. He won all the medals at graduation, so obviously nobody liked him because we were all envious of him. But he was super smart and super serious.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: If you know anything about psychology, you will know that these teenagers went on to become two of the most influential psychologists in history. Phil became famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment where he turned the university's psychology department into a makeshift prison. Stanley Milgram made his mark with a study that examined the power of situations to seduce good people to do bad things. It involved asking a volunteer to administer a memory test to another person. If the answers were wrong, the volunteer was told to deliver a series of electrical shocks as punishment. The study has invited a great deal of admiration and a great deal of criticism over the years.We're going to begin today's show by taking you through this famous experiment. As you listen, pay attention to how you're responding to the scene that unfolds, what you think about the different characters and how you relate to them. Once it's done, we're going to talk with a psychologist who realized that most people overlook something in the experiment.VANESSA BOHNS: We so often sort of simulate if I was in that Milgram shock experiment, what would I do if I was the study participant, right? Would I actually stand up and go against these directives and say no? But we kind of flipped that idea on its head.VEDANTAM: Stopping to notice what she noticed can lead us to a vital insight about the mind. The power we exert over others and the perils of living too much inside our own heads - this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: Stanley Milgram grew up in a world that seemed bent on destroying itself. World War II was raging in Europe and Asia, and by the time he was 8, the U.S. was swept up in the conflict.(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press. The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: 1941 - a date which will live in infamy.ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: By tomorrow morning, the members of Congress will have a full report to be ready for action. In the meantime...VEDANTAM: The fields of battle were far from Stanley's home. But as he grew older, he couldn't stop thinking about the war and its implications. Stanley was consumed by some big questions. Why did so many people willingly kill Jews in the Holocaust? Was everyone who followed Nazi orders inherently evil? Here he is in an educational film.(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)STANLEY MILGRAM: How is it possible, I ask myself, that ordinary people, who are courteous and decent in everyday life, can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience?VEDANTAM: Phil Zimbardo remembers his classmate asking those same questions at James Monroe High School.ZIMBARDO: As a high school student, he was worried that the Holocaust could happen again in America. And everybody said, Stanley, that was Nazi Germany. That was then. We're not that kind of people. And he would say, I'll bet they thought the same thing. And the bottom line, he says, how do you know how you would act unless you're in the situation?VEDANTAM: How do you know how you would act unless you're in the situation? Stanley's theory was that the context that people found themselves in shape their behavior. This went for Nazis, but it went for ordinary people, too. Most of us never get to find out if we will behave like Nazis because most of us never find ourselves in situations where we're asked to behave like Nazis. By the early 1960s, as a psychology professor at Yale, Stanley decided to test this idea.(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)MILGRAM: Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience? These are exactly the questions that I wanted to investigate at Yale University.VEDANTAM: Stanley wanted to put volunteers in a situation where they would be asked to do something that was clearly wrong. Would they do it, follow instructions, obey orders? He came up with a scenario that was simple, ingenious and wildly controversial. An experimenter wearing a lab coat invited volunteers into a room. The volunteers were told they were part of a study about learning and memory. Some would play the role of teacher while others would play a student. What you're going to hear next is a recreation of the study using voice actors. The dialogue is drawn from a 1962 documentary that describes the experiment.Before we begin, we should note that some listeners may find this section upsetting because it involves descriptions of someone inflicting pain on another person. Also, there are two liberties we've taken in this recreation. First, in the real version of this experiment, the student responded to the teacher's questions by silently flipping a switch. We've given voice to those actions. Second, we've imagined the internal monologues of some of the people in the experiment. Those inner voices sound different from the things they say aloud, and you'll hear them both throughout the scene. So that's the setup for the experiment.Remember, there was an experimenter and two volunteers, one playing the role of teacher and the other playing the role of student. The experimenter began by explaining the purpose of the memory test.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) We want to find out just what effect different people have on each other as teachers and learners and also what effect punishment will have on learning in this situation.VEDANTAM: The experimenter told the person playing the role of student to sit in a chair. The experimenter strapped down the student's arms and attached an electrode to his wrist. The electrode, the student was told, was connected to a shock generator. Then the experimenter explained...UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) The teacher will read a list of word pairs to you like these - blue girl, nice day, fat neck and so forth. You are to try to remember each pair. For the next time through, the teacher will read only the first word or the first half of the word pair.VEDANTAM: The student was asked to remember the second half of the word pair. The experimenter made sure to ask...UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Do you have any questions now before we go to the next room?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) No, but I think I should say this - about two years ago, I was at the veterans hospital in West Haven and while there, they detected a heart condition. There's nothing serious, but as long as I'm having these shocks, how strong are they? How dangerous are they?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Well, no. Although they may be painful, they're not dangerous.VEDANTAM: Next, the experimenter ushered the volunteer playing the role of teacher into another room. He gave him a set of instructions.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) You will read each pair of words in this list once to the learner until you've read the entire list. Direct your voice toward the microphone as the rooms are only partly soundproof. Now, if he gives the correct answer, you say correct and go on to the next line. The correct answer...OK, here goes....It is indicated in the right margin.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) I see. All right.Looks easy enough.VEDANTAM: The experiment got underway.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Attention, learner, your teacher is about to begin the test. Try and remember the word pairs. Ready. Begin.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Blue.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Girl.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Right so far.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Nice.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) I think day.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Fat.VEDANTAM: But when the person in the other room made a mistake...UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Fat - was it hat? No - wet.VEDANTAM: ...The volunteer playing the role of teacher would tell the learner that he was wrong. As punishment, he would administer an electric jolt.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Incorrect. You'll now get a shock of 75 volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Oh.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) (Laughter).UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Seems nervous.VEDANTAM: The experimenter in the lab coat, meanwhile, was observing the process.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Please continue.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Cool.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) OK. I'm pretty sure it's day.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Wrong. It's head - 105 volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Ow.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Come on. Get it right. I don't want to shock you.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Teacher, please continue.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) What should I do?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Is he going to keep going?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Boat.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Grass.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) I wonder how far he'll go.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Wrong - 135 volts.VEDANTAM: The student strapped to the chair in the other room kept making mistakes.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Wrong. Incorrect.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Ow.VEDANTAM: Each time, the experimenter urged the volunteer playing the role of teacher to keep going, to administer a stronger jolt of electricity.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Wrong. It's harsh - 150 volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Ow. Experimenter, get me out of here.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) He wants to quit.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Get me out of here.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Looks like maybe we've reached a breaking point.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) My heart is starting to bother me now. Get me out of here please. My heart is starting to bother me.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) He's really getting nervous.Continue, teacher, please. Go on.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) I refuse to go on.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Is he going to listen to me?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) He refused to go on. You want me to keep going?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) The experiment requires you to continue, teacher. Please, continue. The next word is sad.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Hi. Hello. Next word - sad.Get this right so you won't get shocked.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) I don't know. Day?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Wrong. I'm up to 180 volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) That's right, 180. You going to stop?Please, continue.VEDANTAM: As the shocks increased, so did the pain and so did the protests coming from the next room.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) He's got a heart condition in there. I'm going to go.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Your choice.Please, continue.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Now I got to shock - 180 volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Ow. I can't stand the pain. Let me out.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) He can't stand it. I'm not going to kill a man.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) OK. So are you going to keep shocking him?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Poor guy. He's in there screaming.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) I said before, the shocks may be painful, but they're not dangerous.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) But he's in there hollering. I can't stand it. What if something happens to him?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) So stop. You don't have to keep going.VEDANTAM: The volunteer being asked to administer electric shocks is in a difficult position. The experimenter is urging him to continue even as the person in the next room begs to be spared. Should he keep going or stop?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) The experiment requires that you continue, teacher. Whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on until he's learned all the word pairs.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) I refuse to take responsibility of him getting hurt.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) So you don't want the responsibility.It's absolutely essential that you continue, teacher.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) There is too many of them left. I mean...UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Please, go on.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) ...Who is going to take the responsibility if anything happens to the gentleman?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) I am responsible for anything that happens here. Please, continue.VEDANTAM: As the experiment progressed, the memory test became more demanding.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Next one - slow, walk, dance, truck, music - answer, please.Come on. Come on. Get this right. I know it's for science, but I don't want to hurt you.Wrong - 195 volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Ow. Let me out of here. Let me out of here.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Continue, please.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) I don't know.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Well, the experiment requires...UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) I know it does, sir, but, I mean, you do know what he's getting in for. He's up to 195 volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Yeah, 195, that's pretty high.VEDANTAM: After the study reached about 330 volts, the screams from the next room went silent.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) If the learner doesn't answer in a reasonable time, about four or five seconds, consider the answer wrong and follow the same procedures you had been doing for wrong answers. Say wrong, tell them the number of volts, give him the punishment.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Oh, man.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Go on, please, with the experiment. Please, continue.Is he breaking?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Soft, rug, pillow, hair, grass. Answer, please.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Go on, teacher.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Three hundred sixty volts. I think something's happened to that fellow in there. I didn't get no answer.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) He's definitely frustrated.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) He was hollering at less voltage. Can you check to see if he's all right, please?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Not once we've started. Please, continue, teacher.VEDANTAM: In all, Stanley Milgram ran about 20 different iterations of this study over a span of several years. In this version, many of the volunteers playing the role of teacher showed discomfort but continued with the experiment. More than half went all the way to 450 volts even when the screams from the next room went silent and the student was presumably unconscious. Why didn't the volunteer stop? Stanley later debriefed some of the volunteers.(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)MILGRAM: Why didn't you stop any way?UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I did stop, but he kept going keep going.MILGRAM: Well, why didn't you just disregard what he said?UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He says it's got to go on, the experiment.VEDANTAM: If you're familiar with the study, you already know that the student in the other room was an actor and not actually given electric shocks. The screams and cries of protest were carefully timed recordings. The only target of the experiment were the volunteers who played the role of teacher, the people who had to administer the shocks.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: Stanley Milgram's study generated enormous attention and controversy. Admirers draw parallels between the experiment and what happened in Nazi Germany. They said, look, people are sheep. They can be easily misled by demagogues and dictators. Critics of the study said, no, those conclusions are vastly exaggerated. They question whether the volunteers actually behaved the way the experiment suggested. Some critics said that many volunteers simply refused to go along. Beyond the academic debates, the study prompted an entire subgenre of books and movies. Even today, people find the study fascinating, and they find it fascinating for one reason. How, they ask, could people who know that something is wrong go along with it? Are such people typical? Is everyone susceptible to such influence? Am I? As we listen to the details of the study, we can't help but ask, what would I do? Would I follow orders and zap the person screaming in the other room.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Hundred five volts.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Ow.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Come on. Get it right. I don't want to shock you.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Teacher, please continue.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) What should I do?VEDANTAM: But Vanessa Bohns, a psychologist at Cornell University, realized there was something no one was paying attention to. Everyone was asking what was going on in the minds of the volunteers and how difficult the situation was for them.BOHNS: We so often sort of simulate if I was in that Milgram shock experiment, what would I do if I was the study participant, right? Would I actually stand up and go against these directives and say no?VEDANTAM: No one was asking whether it was difficult for the experimenter wearing the lab coat to tell the volunteers to administer electric shocks. To the extent we think of the experimenter at all, we might imagine someone who enjoyed putting people in difficult situations, a sort of mad scientist. Vanessa asked a deceptively simple question.BOHNS: Was he surprised to see these people going along with this crazy request he was making of them?VEDANTAM: Vanessa's insight was radical. What if you looked at the experiment not from the point of view of the student screaming in the next room and not from the point of view of the volunteer administering the shocks but from the point of view of the person giving the instructions?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Ow.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Teacher, please continue.Is he going to keep going?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Boat.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Grass.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) Wrong.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) I wonder how far he'll go.VEDANTAM: What if you treated the experimenter as the object of study?UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) He wants to quit.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) Looks like maybe we've reached a breaking point.Continue, teacher. Please, go on.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As learner) Get me out of here, please.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As teacher) He refused to go on.UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As experimenter) The experiment requires you to continue, teacher. Please, continue. Please, continue. I said before, the shocks may be painful, but they're not dangerous.So are you going to keep shocking him? So stop. So stop. You don't have to keep going. You don't have to keep going.VEDANTAM: Why do so few of us put ourselves in the shoes of the experimenter? Why don't we ask how difficult it was for him to issue those instructions? Why is it when we hear the story, we automatically put ourselves in the shoes of the volunteers, the people receiving the instructions. Vanessa realized that we all naturally gravitate to the point of view of the volunteers and not the point of view of the experimenter because we all instinctively know what it feels like to have other people put us in uncomfortable situations. We think of our bosses, our partners, our co-workers and how they affect our lives and change our moods. We think of the aggressive driver next to us or the other patrons at the restaurant who are so loud and obnoxious that they ruin our meal. We feel buffeted and pushed and pulled by those around us. The one thing we don't ask - what effect do I have on other people?BOHNS: There has been a long history of research on social influence and persuasion, so we do know a lot about how other people influence us, but we don't know so much about how we experience our influence of other people.VEDANTAM: When we are intensely focused on how the world affects us and not how we affect the world, this can have profound consequences for both good and evil.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: When Vanessa Bohns was a graduate student at Columbia University, she worked on a study. Every day, she would leave her apartment in the Morningside Heights neighborhood and get on the subway and take the 1 train from 116th Street to Penn Station.AUTOMATED VOICE: Penn Station.VEDANTAM: Once she was there, she had to do something she found very difficult.BOHNS: Basically, I would just go up to random people in Penn Station, say - hey, will you fill out this questionnaire?VEDANTAM: Vanessa no longer remembers what the questionnaire was about, but she can still recall what it felt like to make such requests of total strangers.BOHNS: Yeah. I mean, I still have flashbacks of going down to Penn Station because it was so distressing. I would walk in. There'd be people kind of walking all over the place, and then there'd be people just sitting down waiting for their trains. So I'd usually go up to the person who was sitting there waiting for their train, you know, doing whatever they do to kind of occupy their time. And I would say, excuse me, will you please fill out this survey?VEDANTAM: It felt incredibly awkward - stepping into someone's space, disturbing them, asking them to stop doing what they were doing and to do something she wanted them to do. As Vanessa asked for help and waited for an answer, her palms began to sweat. Her heart started beating faster.BOHNS: It was a really sort of palpable fear that they were going to reject me or worse, right, say something mean. I don't even know what, but I expected them to say something terrible.VEDANTAM: Looking back on the moment now, it reminds her of another Stanley Milgram study, one that's less famous than the obedience experiment.BOHNS: He had his research assistants go onto New York City subways and ask people for their seats.VEDANTAM: Many of his students couldn't complete the task.BOHNS: His students started coming back to him saying, I can't do this. This is just so upsetting. This is the most, you know, distressing thing you've ever asked me to do. And he was like, you guys are being babies. I don't understand why this is so upsetting.VEDANTAM: And so to prove his students wrong, the famous researcher set out for the subway himself. He would do what his students couldn't - walk up to strangers and ask them for their seats.BOHNS: He found the experience so much more distressing than he expected it to be. And all of a sudden, he understood why they had been complaining so much.VEDANTAM: Why is it so hard to make such requests? Well, one obvious explanation is that we know that people will reject us and that rejection is painful. Vanessa remembers being hugely relieved when she was done giving out questionnaires at Penn Station and could head back to her lab at Columbia University. Once there, she and her professor, Frank Flynn, analyzed the responses to the questionnaire. They noticed something intriguing.BOHNS: Frank was like, I can't believe how many people are actually saying yes to you.VEDANTAM: Total strangers, disrupted from reading their newspaper or eating a sandwich or watching the crowds of people in the busy station...BOHNS: Hi. Can you do me a favor?VEDANTAM: ...They were like, sure...BOHNS: Will you fill out this questionnaire?VEDANTAM: ...I'll respond to your questionnaire.BOHNS: We were really surprised by how many people were agreeing - in New York Penn Station - to do this survey.VEDANTAM: What began as a simple observation turned into something much more important - an insight about our minds. Here's the chain of thought that led to the discovery. The reason Frank and Vanessa were surprised that so many people said yes is because they expected people to say no.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: If lots of people said yes, that meant that Vanessa's fears about rejection were misplaced. Her perception of the influence she actually had on other people was wrong. Like most of us, Vanessa had long felt that others had a big effect on her. As she gazed at the data, she realized that she had a big effect on other people. If she was blind to this power, what consequences could it have on her behavior?(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: As researchers, the first thing that Vanessa and Frank decided to do was test if their personal experience was generalizable.BOHNS: We decided to bring participants into the lab and have them do basically what I had done on those number of days. So we brought them into the lab. We said, hey, we're going to have you go out and ask people to, as our first step, fill out a survey, just like I had done. And how many people do you think are going to say yes to you? We made them estimate how many people they thought would agree, go out and actually ask people. And what we found was that they really underestimated the number of people who would agree to that request.VEDANTAM: So it wasn't just Vanessa and Frank. People, in general, seem to have a poor assessment of their power over others. People thought that others would find it easy to turn down their requests. Vanessa connected the seeming blind spot in our thinking to Stanley Milgram's famous obedience study. She realized this might be why everyone always saw the experiment from the perspective of the volunteers asked to administer shocks - the people being influenced. No one saw the experiment from the point of view of the experimenter - the person exercising influence. We don't ask - was it hard for him to issue those crazy instructions? - because we don't identify with people exercising such influence. We think that kind of person must be very different from us because we don't feel we have such power.BOHNS: Was he surprised to see these people going along with this crazy request he was making of them?VEDANTAM: So it's interesting when people think about the Stanley Milgram study - and I think this is true for myself as well - I always imagined myself being in the role of the volunteer in the experiment, hearing the instructions from, you know, the experimenter saying, you know, you must shock this other person. I never put myself in the shoes of the experimenter.BOHNS: Exactly. So that was something that we started to wonder about. So we so often sort of simulate - if I was in that Milgram shock experiment, what would I do if I was the study participant, right? Would I actually stand up and go against these directives and say no? But we kind of flipped that idea on its head.VEDANTAM: Vanessa went back to her experience at Penn Station. It felt difficult because she had seen the interaction only from the point of view of her own insecurities. She hadn't seen the encounters through the point of view of the people she was asking for help. From their perspective, an anxious young woman was asking for something trivial. They had to weigh whether to put aside what they were doing and help her for a few minutes. If they said no, it could make them look like jerks.BOHNS: It's this really interesting phenomenon where you have these two people interacting with one another, and they're both so focused on their own personal anxieties and insecurities and concerns with embarrassment that they don't realize that the other person is feeling that way, too. So it's this really interesting situation where being so inwardly focused on your own anxieties makes it so difficult for you to recognize what the situation really is for itself.VEDANTAM: People in these encounters experience what psychologists call an egocentric bias. They are so consumed with their own perceptions that they fail to see what the interaction feels like for the other person. It's absolutely true that many of us are influenced by situations, that many of us will do things because the situation prompts it.But there is another problem, too, and it might be a deeper problem. The people who put us in those situations, it's not like they are all-powerful gods. They are humans, just like us. And they may not realize the extent of the power they have over us. In fact, they may be thinking, I'm sure this person is going to turn down my request. They might assume, falsely, that it's easy to refuse instructions. Vanessa realized that this bias could have all sorts of important consequences.BOHNS: So what we started looking at about - over a decade now ago, we started to look at whether we recognize when we're the ones who are influencing someone else, when we recognize that someone else, for example, can't say no to something that we've asked them.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: Vanessa is now a psychologist at Cornell University. In a series of experiments, she has demonstrated how people are often oblivious to the power that they have over others. In one study, she asked volunteers, mostly college students, to make a simple request of others.BOHNS: We brought people into the lab, and we told them, you're going to go out onto campus and ask people to borrow their phones.VEDANTAM: She walked them through how to approach someone and gave them instructions for what to do once people agreed to let them use their phones.BOHNS: They would call us back at the lab and say, I have this person's phone. This is where I'm located. We'd mark it down, and then they'd go on and ask somebody else.VEDANTAM: Before the volunteers went out to begin the study, Vanessa asked them a question - how many people would they have to ask to get three people to say yes?BOHNS: And at this time, participants are kind of freaked out by this whole thought. They are convinced everyone's going to say no, they're not going to be able to do the task. And before they actually go out onto campus to do the task, they often would ask us - well, what if no one agrees? You know, do I come back? What do I do? They have all these concerns about, you know, not being able to complete the task.VEDANTAM: What Vanessa found was similar to her own experience at Penn Station. Many more people said yes than the volunteers expected.BOHNS: They thought they had to ask a little over 10. They actually had to ask more like six. In fact, every other person was agreeing to this request.VEDANTAM: Maybe you think the students had a high success rate because they were requesting something trivial. But Vanessa has also conducted a version of the study where volunteers had to ask for something more consequential - money. For that study, she enlisted the help of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program.BOHNS: What people do when they participate in a fundraising activity for Team in Training is they ask people for donations so that they can participate in some sort of race, like a triathlon or a marathon. They get some training and some travel money to be able to do that, and the rest of the money actually goes to the organization.VEDANTAM: Vanessa asked participants how many people they would have to solicit to meet their fundraising goals, which were typically thousands of dollars. They estimated they would need to ask about 200 people to meet the goal.BOHNS: What we found is that they actually only had to ask about half that. So they only had to ask about a hundred people in order to reach their fundraising goals.VEDANTAM: Just as in Vanessa's phone study, her participants doubled the number of people they thought they had to ask to reach their goal. Their egocentric bias caused them to focus so much on their own anxieties that they ignored the influence they actually had over other people.BOHNS: You're thinking about what you're asking. I'm asking this person for money. Will this person give me money? What you're not doing is thinking about - what if you were sitting there, you know, potentially in your cubicle and a co-worker came up to you and said, hey, I'm participating in a race; would you be willing to sponsor me? If you were sitting there, it'd be really hard to say no to your co-worker. Right? It'd be really hard to let them down. It'd be really awkward. What would you even say? And so people are kind of put on the spot, and they find it really difficult to say no, so they go ahead and agree.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: At the University of Chicago, economist John List has also studied the relationship between social pressure and charitable giving. John ran a study where experimenters knocked on the doors of some 8,000 houses in the Chicago area. They were trying to raise money for a children's hospital. John asked me to imagine the scenario from the point of view of the person receiving the request. Let's say it's a Sunday afternoon.UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As sports commentator) The home team has first...VEDANTAM: I've just made myself something to eat. I'm relaxed.JOHN LIST: You're sitting on the couch watching a football game, and you hear somebody knocking on the door.(SOUND OF DOOR KNOCKING)LIST: And you think, OK. Should I get up, or should I stay watching the football games? Of course, a lot of people get up and answer the door. But once they see that there's a solicitor at the door...UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello there.LIST: They say, oh, my God, I wish I would have stayed on the couch watching the football game.VEDANTAM: Too late.LIST: If they tell the solicitor no, then they have this very negative or disutility from letting someone down. So they're weighing that off versus just giving them $20 and having them go on their way.VEDANTAM: John added a very interesting twist to the study. Some households were told ahead of time that a fundraising volunteer would come and knock on the door. Others were not told ahead of time. They just received an unexpected knock.LIST: What we find is that when we warn them, of course, many people just stay on the couch, or they leave the house. They never answer the door. The people who do answer the door, they do tend to give money, and much of that is because of altruistic reasons. But the people who we do not warn, they end up answering the door more often, and they give more.VEDANTAM: Put another way, people understand how they are going to feel when they are put on the spot. They often will go to great lengths to avoid getting in such situations. What this also means is that some significant portion of the money that charities raise might not come from altruism. In the case of the children's hospital fundraiser, for example...LIST: What you find is that roughly three-quarters of the dollars given are due to social pressure, and a quarter of the dollars given is actually due to altruism. So a very small component of what we observe in our door-to-door fundraising drive is actually driven by altruism.VEDANTAM: John's research reminds Vanessa of a classic study where researchers set up two booths on a college campus. One booth was clearly asking people for something, while the other did not ask for anything. What the researchers found was similar to John's donation study.BOHNS: They measured how far away people walked from the booth as they walked by this path. And if people knew that they were going to be asked for something, their distance from the booth was much further than if they didn't think they were going to be asked for something. We just kind of avoid any chance of having to say no to somebody.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: We've seen how egocentric bias can cause us to act in helpful ways to others. We lend phones to people who need them or donate money to charity. Unfortunately, though, there's another side to the story.ANNA ABARUCE: They grabbed that headset, and they threw it across the room.VEDANTAM: When we come back, the sinister side of our inability to recognize our power over other people.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: When we interact with others, we are often intensely focused on how we feel - our anxieties, our embarrassments, our fears. As a result, we're often blind to the effect we have on others - their anxieties, their embarrassments and their fears. Psychologist Vanessa Bohns has studied how such egocentric bias can keep people from asking for help. But that's not the whole story.BOHNS: There's kind of the happy story, which is that people will help us more than we think. And then there's kind of the darker story - that people will do a lot of other things for us, more so than we think. So we've run some studies where we started out kind of asking people if they could get someone to lie for them. So our original studies involved, you know, just filling something out. We said, what if we just have them ask if they'll, you know, sign their name to say - to something saying that you gave them a pitch that you didn't actually give them - just kind of a white lie. And so once again, we had people guess how many people they would have to ask this or make this request of before a certain number said yes. They went out onto campus. They asked people, you know, I'm supposed to be doing this pitch. I really don't feel like doing it. Will you just sign this saying that I gave you the pitch? And, again, most people wound up signing it, even though our participants thought that most people would say no.VEDANTAM: As Vanessa says, the volunteers were asking people to tell a trivial lie. And perhaps you could say, what's the big deal in signing a note that says someone gave you a pitch that they didn't? There are no real moral consequences. So Vanessa raised the stakes.BOHNS: We kind of upped the ante. And so what we did is we created these fake library books. We took a bunch of books off my bookshelf and just, you know, put some library codes on them. And we gave them to participants, and we said, we're going to have you go into the libraries on campus and ask people to vandalize these library books. And so they were to tell people, I'm playing a prank on my friend, but they know my handwriting. Will you please just write pickle in this library book in pen? And they left it at that and looked at whether or not people agreed.And what we found is that the people they approached - so they kept track of sort of the things that people said when they made this request of them, and people would say things like, this is wrong. You shouldn't be doing this. We could get in trouble. They were clearly uncomfortable with the prospect of vandalizing this purported library book, but they still did it.VEDANTAM: They still did it, and, again, that finding went completely against the intuitions of the volunteers doing the asking. People significantly underestimated how much influence they possessed to get others to do something unethical.BOHNS: So our participants - before they went out and started asking people, they thought about 28% of people would agree to do this, right? So they thought the vast majority of people would say no. But when they actually went out and made this request of people, 64% - a majority of the people they asked - actually agreed to vandalize this library book.VEDANTAM: I mean, that's actually pretty astonishing that 64% of people would say yes. I mean, I would not have predicted it would be as high a number as that.BOHNS: Yeah. I mean, this was a task we designed, and we were like, this is never going to work, right? There's no way people are actually going to agree to do this. And we ourselves were completely surprised that people did agree. As much as it was uncomfortable for them to do this unethical thing and vandalize a library book, it was way more uncomfortable for them to say no to the person who was asking.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: The scenarios in which egocentric bias could play a role in our behavior seem endless. We share the answers to our homework with a friend who asked to see our work. We don't push back when a colleague suggests bending the rules on a timesheet. We agree to keep a friend's infidelity a secret, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Listening to Vanessa made me realize why there is a vast gulf between what we predict we might do and what we actually do when we are confronted with problematic behavior.BOHNS: We look, as outsiders, at the situation and we say, why would you tolerate this? Why wouldn't you just stand up and say, I'm not going to do this, I'm not going to hurt another person, or, you know, I need to be able to do my job, and you're affecting my ability to do my job? But, in fact, the social pressure, the concern about offending another person, the social anxiety in that situation is so palpable to that individual that it feels almost impossible for them to stand up and say something about it and reject the sort of behavior that they're encountering.VEDANTAM: HIDDEN BRAIN listener Anna Abaruce (ph) called in with a story that illustrates how egocentric bias can affect workplace behavior. She was training to be an air-traffic controller and saw examples of bullying and harassing behavior all around her. She says the trainers had a clear message for trainees.ABARUCE: Don't be soft, or, you know, you got to have a thick skin to survive in air traffic. That was a common one, for sure. You have to have thick skin to survive in air traffic. I've heard that over 100 times.VEDANTAM: Anna recalled one painful incident.ABARUCE: There was a trainee that was trying to clear an aircraft for landing, and the trainer in that moment grabbed the headset of the trainee. And this headset is plugged in to the radar. And they grabbed that headset and they threw it across the room, which would fly off of the head of the trainee. They would actually tell them, hey, hurry up and go grab it so that you can plug back in and clear this aircraft for landing.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: Anna says seeing such incidents made her fearful. She didn't feel she could complain since such behaviors appear to be the norm. Who could she complain to? The people who were themselves acting badly?ABARUCE: They would just say things like, what the [expletive] are you doing? Stop [expletive] up. You're a [expletive] idiot. If you do that again, I swear to [expletive] God...VEDANTAM: One time when she was directing aircraft - this was in real life, not a simulation - she found herself sitting next to one of the trainers who she says had acted abusively toward trainees. By this point, Anna was no longer a trainee. She was directing two aircraft; one was a thousand feet above the other.ABARUCE: I got the names of the aircraft mixed up, and I - because I was so nervous, I think. And I descended the wrong aircraft. I descended the one on top instead of the one on the bottom because I got those call signs messed up.VEDANTAM: She told the aircraft that was at a higher altitude to descend, directly into the path of the lower-altitude aircraft.ABARUCE: Luckily, the pilot could see the aircraft, so the pilot was - just said, no, we're not going to descend. And I immediately knew what I had just done. And I thought, today was a clear day. It was clear skies. There was no clouds in the way. There wasn't any storm clouds in the way. But had there been storm clouds or had there been some other kind of visual obstruction, this plane would have descended, and they would have hit that aircraft, and I would have been responsible for hundreds of deaths.And it wasn't because I didn't know how to control the traffic; I did, and I had done this a million times. It was because of the social stress that I was in at that time that didn't make me think clearly.VEDANTAM: I told Vanessa Bohns what Anna described, how the mere presence of the trainer had disrupted her to the point where she made a mistake that could have been catastrophic. Vanessa said, look - it's certainly the case that there are lots of unethical people who know they are unethical and lots of bullies who know they are bullies. Maybe that was the case here. But there is a deeper problem in the workplace that we often forget - the bullies and harassers who don't know that they are bullies and harassers.BOHNS: Often, when we're the person causing someone else distress, we can't see that distress. It's invisible to us. And it's not to let anybody off the hook because, clearly, it's the people creating this toxic culture's responsibility to kind of fix it and to not cause these things to happen, but there's also this cognitive bias there where we may not realize the extent to which we're interfering with somebody else's performance.VEDANTAM: These same dynamics play out in another common occurrence in the workplace - unwanted romantic attention.BOHNS: We ran a couple of studies where we asked people about their experiences being asked out at work or asking someone out at work. And we asked people to imagine situations where they weren't interested in the other person or the other person wasn't interested in them. And what we found is that people who asked somebody out at work and were rejected felt that it was pretty easy for that person to reject them, right? They didn't think that that person experienced a whole lot of distress, and they didn't think that they changed their behavior very much after being asked out. But when people recalled situations where they were asked out by someone at work who they weren't interested in, they described feeling obligated to say yes, feeling much more uncomfortable saying no to the person. And they reported doing all sorts of things to try to avoid that person that the other person didn't realize that they were doing.So, in fact, this little request - you know, we tell people to just go for it and ask this person out - it actually puts a lot more pressure on the other person than we tend to realize when we're the ones doing the asking.VEDANTAM: In some ways, we underestimate the pressure that we exert on other people. I mean, in some ways, that's the moral of the whole story here, isn't it?BOHNS: Absolutely, yeah. We underestimate the influence that we have over other people, and we underestimate the extent to which asking them for something really puts them in an awkward position because now they have to say no, and that's just a really hard thing for people to do.VEDANTAM: Like many psychological biases, the tendency we have to downplay the influence we have on others can have far-reaching consequences. It can keep us from asking for help that would be forthcoming. It can keep us from reaching out and making friends with strangers. And it can also lead us to give in to unethical demands or make improper demands of other people. I asked Vanessa how her research had prompted her to do things differently in her own life.BOHNS: It has made a huge difference in the little things. So, for example, when I was pregnant, if I needed a seat on the subway or on a train, I would kind of stand there and look around and try to look my most pathetic so that someone would give me their seat...VEDANTAM: (Laughter).BOHNS: ...Thinking that someone would step up and do it because they were nice, right? But in fact, everyone's all involved in their own stuff. They're not necessarily looking around and paying attention. And maybe they'd be perfectly happy to give up their seat, but they're not going to think of it unless you actually ask. And so I tried to take that into account. So when I was pregnant, I would go up to people and be like, hey, can I sit down? I'd really love to sit. And then, of course, people are incredibly happy to just pop up and say yes.VEDANTAM: And what's interesting, of course, is when that happens, you're actually giving people an opportunity to do something nice. It's not just that you're imposing on them. Presumably, some of them are actually happy to say, you know, I was just riding to work, and now I actually got to do this nice thing for this other person. I feel this little, warm glow.BOHNS: Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of people wonder about the takeaway. So if people agree to help us out of obligation because they feel like they can't say no, then do you really want to ask them for things? But people are really good at justifying their behaviors in ways that make them feel good about themselves. So they may agree to help because they feel like they can't say no, but pretty quickly after that, they're going to be committing themselves that they helped because they're a really wonderful person. And so everyone's going to walk away feeling good about the interaction. You got the help that you needed, and the other person gets to feel like a good person.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: Psychologists once conducted a lighthearted version of Stanley Milgram's obedience study. In the 1970s, they had research assistants stand on the streets of New York City. Their jobs? To look skyward - at nothing. The question the researchers wanted to know was whether innocent passersby would also stop to look up to see what was going on. They found that when more people were in on the gag, more pedestrians stopped and looked up.I've seen video of that study many times and always found the scene funny - one to 15 people just staring off into the sky. Recently, I rewatched it, and this time I did what Vanessa had done; I flipped the script. Instead of seeing the experiment from the point of view of the passersby and asking myself whether I would be similarly influenced, I looked at the experiment from the point of view of the research assistants. Did they expect so many people to join them in looking at nothing?(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: We've seen throughout this episode how all of us as individuals have great power to shape how others behave. If each of us has this hidden power, then collectively, as groups, as communities, as tribes, we are going to have even more influence. The force we collectively exert can be nearly impossible for any one person to overcome. This can explain good things, like the social norms that hold communities together, but it can also lead to terrible things. When we are part of a mob, the effects can be monstrous.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. We had engineering support from Patrick Boyd. Our team includes Parth Shah, Jenny Schmidt, Cat Schuknecht and Lushik Wahba. Our voice actors for this episode were Jacob Conrad, James Delahoussaye and Jared M. Gair. Our Unsung Hero this week is Wanyu Zhang. Wanyu works for NPR's marketing and branding team. Every week, she comes up with creative ways to promote NPR shows and podcasts like HIDDEN BRAIN. Her careful planning helps us reach a diverse audience, new and old. Thank you, Wanyu.If you enjoyed today's episode, please share it with a friend or neighbor. If they are new to podcasting, please tell them how they can subscribe to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Subscribe to the Hidden Brain Podcast on your favorite podcast player so you never miss an episode.
Go behind the scenes, see what Shankar is reading and find more useful resources and links.