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When it Comes to Exerting Influence, Ethics = Efficacy
on February 11, 2013
So this book is pretty useful. Pragmatic information, much of it common sense and some of it already in the cultural zeitgeist, but it's a great synthesis of some good research available on social connecting, persuasion, and how the mind works. It is a quick read (I listened to it on Audible and it only takes 3 1/2 hours) so it won't use up that much of your time. Adams summarizes succinctly, translates information that would normally be arduous to wade through, and offers you the resources to go look up more in-depth information on your own if you're interested. It's a really great model for how to be a third-space translator between the research and the people who need the research but have difficulty accessing it or lack the expertise to understand it.*
That said, I gave it a three because it falls short of drawing out some obvious implications that this same body of research points out:
1. The book could have done more to help businesses orient toward more innovative and effective marketing strategies that are also more socially ethical and that would help make our world a better place. Adams does include some of this information--he stresses positivity, openly sharing information, cutting down on the noise of advertising ("interruption marketing is a race to the bottom" amen), and not deleting negative Facebook comments from your page because they give you more credibility and because "we should seek to rectify and not hide negative feedback" (Applebee's should have taken note)--but if he would have included more of this kind of information by demonstrating how a more ethical approach to the world is also the more efficacious approach, this book would be much more important to read than I currently rank it. If you're going to teach people how to exert influence, you better also teach ethics along with it, and he could have done even more of this.
2. Along the same lines as #1, the research he synthesizes indicates the importance of cultural diversity yet fails to emphasize this point. That is, Adams points out how our human instinct toward homophily (surrounding ourselves with others like us) actively prohibits more widespread sharing of information. But he doesn't take the next step to take the reader toward the conclusion that you can therefore exert more influence if you actively work *against* the instinct of homophily and instead build friendships and work-based networks by surrounding yourself with people who are different from you. An "actionable" strategy for businesses looking to increase their influence would be to hire a more diverse range of employees, consciously recruiting across separations of race, socioeconomic class, education, age, geography, sexual orientation, and across different approaches to building networks.
3. Adams seems to accept at face value that most people don't have crossover between friendship groups and that this is simply the way things are. That is, he explains how we often keep groups of friends in separate spheres and we are the "unique" connector. At one point he explains that this can lead to awkward moments at weddings or other get togethers where our worlds collide. Yet our lives don't have to work like that (and I even question the extent to which they do). The author doesn't even go into the possibility that we can individually exert more influence by cultivating more overlap amongst our social groups and nor does he point out the obvious idea that therefore events that bring together one or two people's various and often disconnected social networks would be especially useful places for idea spreading.
4. There was a tendency to focus way too much on the online world and either ignore or underestimate the influence of our offline networks and in-person interactions (even though he points out that we use our online networks to strengthen already existing ties). For example, even though I bought and listened to this book online, I discovered it offline while in an independent bookstore (yeah, I know, "see it here, buy it here, keep us here," but I did buy other books there, and this book in particular is one of those kind that are more useful for me to listen to while walking my dogs). Businesses who want their ideas to spread faster would be advised to help us cultivate and seek out more culturally diverse neighborhoods and in-person living/playing spaces. Even though there is attention paid to more efficient marketing targeting, in some ways this book overlooks the in-person world. Perhaps this was a methodological obstacle, or maybe it's because he has a different book about that (Social Circles, which I haven't yet read), but Adams emphasizes environmental cues so much that I'm surprised how little he talks about our physical world as an influencer of our online world.
5. I grew weary of the categorizing and in some cases either/or information that we are supposed to simply accept at face value. Instead, we could have been encouraged to think about developing more intentional approaches to the way we use our networks. The book becomes rather repetitive and in some places Adams appears to have only read the abstract of the research in question and failed to actually check out the methods. For example, in the Berger/Milkman research about which NYT articles get shared the most, he didn't appear to read too closely into how the researchers coded their articles according to emotion, but just accepted their conclusions and that the peer review process works. I'm not saying that the peer review process does not work, and I'm not necessarily critiquing these researchers' methods, but simply a sentence or two's worth of attention to reflecting on why/how he picked certain research to highlight might have helped me to trust his ability to negotiate and accurately summarize the research.
6. His vocabulary about how he talks about the brain could use some precision. For example, even though he debunks a myth or two about how our brains are "hard-wired," at times he uses the word "hard-wired" or "naturally" when I would prefer that he use the word "instinctual" in order to indicate that we don't have to accept some of our evolutionarily-inherited behaviors and emotionally-reactive beliefs as just the way things are. We can change them. We can evolve, and this is the point of his book, I think, and in some ways he is instructing us on how to evolve. I guess I just worry about teaching people how to adapt without considering and pointing out as many of the accompanying ethical implications as possible.
I love how the book begins by insulting the academics who aren't his target audience, but who might read the book because it contains summaries of their research (or because they are in a different yet related field, or because they, too, are busy creating products and building companies). To me, this is a fun strategy, like getting someone to buy you oysters by saying you think they're overrated, and it also serves to ward off some pedantic critique by people who might otherwise miss the value of what he's trying to do here.
Pages vii and viii read:
"The academic reader may at times feel that I have oversimplified, overgeneralized, and talked about causality when we may be dealing with correlation. But this simplification is necessary to make research actionable to business. In this case, I believe that perfect is the enemy of good. People who are busy creating products and building companies don't have time to read full research papers, never mind try to synthesize them to find the larger patterns."
I like how Adams emphasizes the power of our emotions and desires to influence our beliefs. If you want to get someone to be more receptive to influence, target them when they are already happy or make them happy, he advocates. He also points out some of the problems with our entrenched Platonic (analytical and generic) ways of thinking. The book repeatedly urges us to abandon the "law of the few" who exert a lot of influence over the many. Although I like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers book, it appears that Adams is trying to argue against some of Gladwell's ideas and I also like the counterpoints offered here.
Quick nugget: Don't try to persuade people that their current choices are wrong, because it might only serve to more deeply entrench them in their previous beliefs. Adams's summary of how we seek to resolve cognitive dissonance explains this dilemma well. Instead, he urges us, seek to alter behavioral patterns.