Whether you talk to someone in the street, read the newspaper, or scroll through Instagram, you are constantly being influenced. These influences affect our opinions and behaviour even when we are blissfully unaware. So why are we so easily influenced? And how can we guard against it? Bob Fennis, Professor of Consumer Behaviour in the Faculty of Economics and Business, has been pondering these questions for years.
Text: Nienke Oostra, UG Communication Office; photos: Henk Veenstra
Fennis works in the Faculty of Economics and Business as a social psychologist and communication scientist, which may seem a strange combination. He maintains the opposite: ‘In both psychology and communication science, I was interested in the effects of advertising and other forms of persuasive communication. This turned into a fascination for human influencing, in the broadest sense of the word.’ My interest in this subject manifests itself in consumer behaviour, which is an important part of marketing.
‘I want to understand what is going on around me,’ Fennis continues ‘How on earth can…? There are countless present-day examples of influencing: take COVID-19, Trump, and disinformation in the media. But there are also examples from history, such as Nazi Germany, when people’s systematic ability to think was disabled en masse.’
Fennis claims that a lot of influencing takes place under the radar. ‘We see or hear the stimulus, but we don’t see how it affects our subsequent behaviour.’ Fennis cites the example of a study which found a link between the threat of illness and buying nostalgic products. ‘Feeling vulnerable to illness makes us feel uncertain and insecure. This unpleasant feeling generates a need for security. As a result, we buy products that remind us of our soothing past.’ There are endless examples like this, in which experimental research establishes a causal link between a stimulus and subsequent behaviour.
There are two sides to Fennis’ research. He wants to make people more resilient to influence, but he is also aware that this knowledge can help the influencers. An article about leading principles in impulsive consumer behaviour could be used by one organization to combat excessive consumption, while another organization uses it to uphold and encourage this behaviour. ‘Open publication means that I can’t control where the information ends up. But I know where my sympathies lie.’
Fennis cites two ways of approaching influencing. ‘We tend to view influence as a bad thing, something to be condemned. But we could also see it as something that makes us human, which is a more neutral way of looking at it. Humans are a social species; the fact that we are receptive to social influence helps us to survive.’ And yet some people are more impressionable than others. According to Fennis, this is due to individual character traits. Research has shown that people who score highly on openness to new experiences and low on personal need for cognitive closure are more receptive to external influence. These people have their eyes wide open, which can be a good quality, enabling you to form well-rounded opinions. But it also makes you more susceptible to ideas like conspiracy theories, for example.
Although findings from various fields largely support each other, they can also be contradictory, Fennis continues. ‘Marketing communication assumes that consumers are aware of everything, understand what’s going on, and have the tools to resist influence. In the field of psychology, people’s behaviour is more often regarded as irrational and intuitive, with decisions being based on rules of thumb and emotions. To my mind, psychology still has the advantage.’
Despite everything we know about the whys and wherefores of influence, it is still a tough opponent. ‘Bearing in mind that people are irrational, it’s extremely difficult to regulate your behaviour and protect yourself from influence. Making a decision, such as whether or not to buy a certain product, is like a tug-of-war. You have to weigh up the pros and cons. If the pros outweigh the cons, you’re on board.’ This is also true of Fennis: ‘Even I’m not immune. Despite all the research I do in this field, I still have plenty of products that I don’t need, stored away.’ The fact that this isn’t just false modesty is borne out by the parcel delivery person, who interrupts our online interview twice.
Your surroundings also play an important role in the decisions you make. Fennis explains that the urge to buy is a habit. ‘When we buy something we like, we form an association between the trigger, the shop, and the satisfied feeling generated by making that purchase. The trigger used to be the high street, but these days triggers are everywhere. Online stores are available 24/7, via you laptop or telephone.’ And people are more receptive to reward when they’re tired. So you should be particularly careful when you flop down on the sofa with your phone after a long, hard day.
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