The Annoying Psychology of How Your Friends Influence the Beer You Order

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Photo: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You know that thing where you’re out to drinks with friends, and you’d very much like an IPA — but then the first person to order chooses an IPA, and you feel like you can’t order the same thing, because that would be weird? So you order an amber ale instead. The drinks arrive, and you unhappily sip the second-choice beer you already regret ordering.

You know, that thing. Or maybe you don’t. It’s a semi-regular scene from my own life, anyway, and it’s also a scene from Wharton professor Jonah Berger’s new book, Invisible Influence, which is about the unseen ways the people around you shape your behavior. The beer anecdote is a brief rundown of a study conducted at a brewery by the consumer psychologists Dan Ariely and Jonathan Levav, who argue in their paper that people are highly motivated to signal their uniqueness, even when it comes to something as small and dumb as ordering a beer.

In their experiment, they offered groups of brewery patrons the chance to try a sample of one of four beers: an IPA, a lager, an amber ale, or a wheat beer. They gave some groups little slips of paper, on which they wrote down their selection; other groups ordered aloud. What they found, Berger writes, was that those who’d ordered aloud were less satisfied with their beer choice than those who’d ordered privately; they were also three times more likely to tell the experimenters that they wished they’d chosen a different beer. “Why? Because many had switched their order to be distinct,” Berger writes. “They picked a different option than they would normally to avoid ordering the same beer as someone else.”

Berger’s book is filled with examples like that one about social influence. If, another study found, you know that if Person A has expressed a desire to purchase a gray Mercedes, Person B will want a Mercedes, too. But Person B will want a blue one. The drive for differentiation is something most people feel to some degree, he argues, and the only sure way around it is to be aware of it, and then get ahead of it — say, by ordering first at a brewery. One can only assume it’s true what they say, and that 20 years from now, you’ll regret the beers you didn’t order more than the beers you did.