The influence of other people

“In what ways can the presence of other people affect an individual’s cognition and perception?”

When I began this essay, I was determined to try a new approach that didn’t involve reading everything under the sun (remember the 55 pages of notes I ended up with last time? Shudder…). I did achieve that, but, regardless, there was still a TONNE of interesting stuff I couldn’t fit into the measly 1500 word limit. My resulting essay, stripped of much of the carefully crafted narrative I’d developed, felt a little like a shopping list. However, I enjoyed doing the research, and the shopping list still contained some juicy studies I felt excited to mention, albeit briefly. I’d be interested in delving deeper into some of the many ways that the presence of other people can influence us. A future blog post perhaps…?

Essay Summary

(If you fancy jumping straight into the real thing, just keep scrolling…)

  • The presence of other people affects the way we perceive and think about the world around us. This essay focuses on 4 key aspects of perception and cognition that are affected by the presence of others.
  • 1) The presence of other people affects what we look at. In particular, what they’re looking at influences us. I’m sure you’ve experienced the ‘feeling’ of someone’s eyes looking at you, making you instinctively look in their direction. This effect is seemingly automatic. Other effects seem to occur less automatically, to help us meet certain goals. For example, many studies using computerised tasks have shown how people take into account what other people are looking at to a greater or lesser extent depending on their social status, or the task being performed.

    The seemingly automatic capture of your attention towards the face of someone looking at you is one of the so-called ‘watching eyes effects’ (Conty, George, & Hietanen, 2016)
  • 2) Believing that others are sharing our experience can change how we perceive that experience ourselves. For example, sweet chocolate can taste sweeter and bitter chocolate more bitter when we believe other people are also tasting the chocolate. Weird, huh? There are different hypotheses as to how this happens. Some suggest we take the (sometimes imagined) perceptions of others into account automatically, others suggest we do it intentionally to meet social or information-seeking goals.
  • 3) Our judgements and decisions are affected by the presence of others. For example, you may have come across the famous Asch line experiments, in which many people gave incorrect answers to very simple questions about the relative lengths of lines, when they saw others answering incorrectly. The essay outlines why this might occur.
  • 4) We perform differently on tasks when we believe others are present. For example, we tend to perform worse on difficult tasks and better on easy tasks when others are present. This effect occurs even when the other people are wearing blindfolds and earphones(!!), suggesting it might occur automatically.
  • There are many factors which seem to determine how and how much the presence of others affects our perception and cognition. These ‘moderating factors’ include whether the other people are believed to be from the same, or a different, social group to us. Different people are also affected to different extents, for example individuals with low self esteem are more affected by the presence of others when performing a difficult task than those with high self esteem. There are also cultural differences – the Asch line experiments have been carried out across several countries, and different countries report different rates of conformity.
  • Pinpointing exactly how the presence of others affects our perception and cognition is extremely difficult, because traditional behavioural studies haven’t always controlled for the huge number of moderating factors involved in any one situation. A more precise, multi-disciplinary approach is beginning to emerge, which is gradually helping us to understand this complex area in more detail.

The influence of other people on how we think, feel and behave is a large and fascinating area. Other people can influence us in alarming ways! You might be interested in these:

  • Derren Brown’s ‘The Push’ – Derren investigates the power of social compliance, from lying about veggie sausage rolls to pushing someone off a roof… Not only nail-biting watching, but demonstrates how easily, and severely, our judgements can be influenced by other people.
  • A clip of Asch’s experiments on conformity, outlining the various findings. It also has some excellent vintage hairstyles…
  • A clip from the BBC’s Naked Scientists, discussing how other people’s emotions can influence our mood, via the medium of Facebook posts. Research suggests that reading our friend’s posts online can affect us to the same extent as if we were meeting them face-to-face.

If you’re up for the full essay, read on…Read More »


Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work

In this illuminating TED talk, Margaret Heffernan explains why companies should cultivate social capital, rather than individual performers, thereby turning traditional high-performer strategies on their heads. How are the super-chickens handled in your company?

Click here to watch